'Arab Spring' push for democracy stalls as regimes dig in

McClatchy NewspapersJune 11, 2011 

CAIRO — As the Arab Spring melts into a bloody summer, the popular rebellions that erupted across the Middle East are still forcing modest concessions from autocratic regimes, but they aren't likely to result in broad democratization anytime soon, activists and political analysts say.

Arab rulers of countries in revolt are digging in for long, lopsided fights, betting that they can wear down the protesters and survive the turmoil. The outlook for the next phase of the uprising looks grim: a protracted civil war with Western involvement in Libya, a ruthless state killing spree in Syria, a resurgence of violence and militia authority in Iraq, and a dangerous presidential limbo in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia silenced murmurs of unrest early on, allowing it to focus on the decisive crackdown against protesters in neighboring Bahrain. Other kingdoms, such as Jordan and Morocco, appear stable despite bursts of anti-government activity.

Tunisia and Egypt, where protesters toppled their governments quickly and fueled the wider revolts, aren't exactly success stories, either. Both North African nations are struggling with security vacuums and political disarray just months before scheduled elections.

Political observers who once spoke excitedly about the wave of peaceful protests transforming the region are now invited on panels to debate a gloomier topic: Is the Arab Spring over?

"The phrase 'Arab Spring' is supposed to suggest a certain kind of movement, change, democratization, people enjoying greater freedoms, but none of that's happening anymore," said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center in Qatar. "I don't think we should delude ourselves that the Arab revolts are going well because they're not. The opposition is being destroyed across the Middle East."

After the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt fell in quick succession, many observers predicted that other Arab leaders would learn from the deposed leaders' mistakes and respond to protest movements by opening dialogue with opposition groups and introducing real preemptive reforms. As the months ground on, however, the opposite happened.

Nervous autocrats closed ranks with their militaries and set about crushing the popular revolts, garnering only muted U.S. and international criticism even when they used lethal force.

Bahrain's ruling Khalifa family called in Saudi-led Gulf troops to help put down a revolt in the tiny, Shiite-majority island kingdom. The Sunni royal family's vicious sectarian backlash — widely censured by human rights activists — already has inflamed nearby Iran, as well as Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon.

The peaceful protests in Libya and Yemen quickly became armed conflicts, eclipsing the demand for democratic reforms. The same scenario could unfold in Syria, where President Bashar Assad's forces on Friday laid siege to a rebellious town near the Turkish border.

On Friday, Syrian forces shelled the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour and fired on protesters in other cities, killing more than 30 people, according to news reports.

Syrian state media and protesters acknowledged an attack on a police station and other government buildings in another northern town, Maaret al Numan; the government said "gunmen" staged the assault, according to news reports. Huge crowds of protesters also overwhelmed security forces in Egypt and other countries that experienced large-scale rebellions, but typically using only light makeshift weapons — not live ammunition.

"The armed route is dangerous because it gives the regime pretext to erase the opposition," Hamid said. "There's a real risk that if protesters keep demonstrating peacefully and getting shot down, they might ask, 'Why are we doing this?' and take the armed route. We've seen it in Libya and Yemen and there are signs we may see it soon in Syria."

At least 1,000 people have died so far in the Syrian uprising, according to human rights groups, and hundreds of refugees are streaming into Turkey. Yet Assad still hasn't faced the high-level defections and military reticence that preceded the countdown to regime collapse in Egypt and Tunisia.

That doesn't necessarily mean that Assad or other Arab strongmen who manage to retain power will be able to maintain the status quo, activists and analysts said. People are less fearful now that they've seen portraits of their rulers ripped up in public squares, and have armies of "citizen journalists" who shoot amateur video from within even the most repressive regimes.

"Perhaps for some observers there was some excessive euphoria, but it is equally naive to render a verdict of failure at this incredible early juncture," said Michael Hanna, a Middle East scholar at the Century Foundation in Washington. "I think there have been fundamental changes in the political consciousness of the region and people's conception of the role and responsibilities of governments and citizens. These changes will play out for years to come."

In Saudi Arabia, for example, early protests were almost exclusive to the Shiite minority and never gained steam nationwide. The government also took a series of preemptive steps to stop the regional revolt from seeping into the oil-rich, U.S.-allied nation, home to Islam's most sacred pilgrimage sites.

King Abdullah, the Saudi ruler, announced a multibillion-dollar benefit package for Saudis, including unemployment pay and salary increases to offset inflation. The government also increased funding for security forces and launched an anti-corruption initiative. No similar political reforms were announced, though the government did push up the date for municipal elections.

The one bright spot now, Saudi activists say, is the increasing activism by Saudi women for the right to drive. Women activists who connected through social networking sites are encouraging Saudi women to join them on June 17, when they pledge to cruise the streets in defiance of the driving ban. Activists said the women's protest is a test case that's being watched by other groups seeking greater personal and political freedom.

"At least, psychologically, the so-called fear barrier is broken," said Mohamed Qahtani, head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association in Riyadh, the capital.

"If women are able to snatch the right to drive their cars, that'll be a step in the right direction," he said.

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