Region | Egypt

Special Report: Arab Spring two years on

Divisions between secularists and Islamists widen while anger among citizens remains in the region

  • Gulf News Report
  • Published: 18:54 December 16, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: AFP
  • A woman shields her daughter during a strike by air force jets in Aleppo in September.
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The most significant aspect of the Syrian uprising in the year 2012 is the failure of the international community to prevent the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians.

Although Syria was kicked out of the Arab League on November 12, 2011, its rebels received a very slow response from both Arab states and the international community to assist them — much unlike Libya.

Syria’s uprising has shifted from popular street protests against President Bashar Al Assad to a full-fledged war, in a far cry from the idealism of  the Arab Spring.

The fervour born in March 2011 for democratic reforms still runs high, but  the initial peaceful protests against Al Assad’s regime have been overtaken by the government forces’ brutal crackdown.

Now nearly 21 months into the revolt, rebels control large swathes of rural territory as well as a number of medium-sized towns.

In northwest Syria, they hold sway from Aleppo all the way to the Turkish border.

Many believe the Syrian regime is weakening by the day and that it is “the beginning of the end.”

Having failed to recover lost ground, the regime’s military strategy has switched to defending the capital, major cities, strategic main roads and the  Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean coast. Government forces pound rebel- held villages and town districts, apparently regardless of civilian casualties.

On October 18, a bomb dropped by a MiG warplane on an apartment building in
the central town of Maaret Al Numan killed more than 40 people, including 22 children, crushed under the rubble.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has tirelessly
documented the bloodshed, more than 42,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed over the past 21 months.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced or forced into exile.  The international community, meanwhile, has been reduced to an observer,  stumped by divisions within the UN Security Council.

Diplomatic pressure Despite mounting diplomatic pressure, Al Assad has been able to count on the support of both Russia and Iran. On December 13, in a rare departure from policy, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that the regime may lose the war.

The US welcomed his comments saying Russia was “finally waking up to the reality.” However, the next day a Russian foreign ministry spokesman backtracked and said that Russia’s support for Syria was “unwavered”.

Most observers worry that the further the conflict drags on the more possibility for radicalisation. Some extremist groups and foreign  fighters with obscure Al Qaida ties have been fighting alongside rebels.

Fundamental changes in the region

On December 17, 2010 the Arab Spring was sparked by the self-immolation of Tunisian vendor Mohammad Bu Azizi. Since then the region has undergone fundamental changes. Four dictators have been ousted and citizens with newfound freedoms struggle for their voices to be heard in new democracies

Egypt

In a surprise reversal of an earlier promise, the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood announced on March 31 it would field a candidate for Egypt’s top post. Khairat Al Shater, the Brotherhood’s chief strategist, was presented as its candidate. The step fuelled fears that the Brotherhood, already in control of nearly half of parliament’s seats, planned to monopolise power.

A week later, the group fielded Mohammad Mursi, a veteran member detained more than once by Hosni Mubarak’s police, as a reserve presidential contender after Al Shater and nine other presidential hopefuls were disqualified.

Dismissed by detractors, Mursi, however, fared well in the first round of Egypt’s first democratic presidential elections on May 23 and 24. He qualified for a run-off, vying with Mubarak’s last premier Ahmad Shafiq.

On June 2, a criminal court sentenced Mubarak and his interior minister Habib Al Adly to life in prison on charges of complicity in killing hundreds of porters.

The prospect of having an Islamist president raised concerns among the country’s secularists and Christian minority. However the young activists, who led the revolt against the Mubarak regime, dreaded the prospect of Shafiq as post-revolutionary Egypt’s first president. They threw their weight behind Mursi, 61, who was elected by a narrow margin.

Eight days after his inauguration, Mursi ordered the reinstatement of an Islamist-dominated parliament, dissolved weeks earlier by the country’s top court. On July 10, the Supreme Constitutional Court annulled Mursi’s decision. Mursi backed down.

In an apparent bid to resolve a power struggle with the military, Mursi sent ex-military rulers Hussain Tantawi and Sami Anan, into retirement on August 11. He also cancelled an interim constitution issued by the military curtailing presidential powers and retook legislative authority. The move drew massive backing from Islamists and a cautious welcome from liberals.

Mursi’s most controversial move came on November 22 when he signed a constitutional declaration expanding his powers. The judiciary joined the anti-Mursi chorus, as he made all his decisions and laws above judicial oversight.

The opposition staged a series of mass demonstrations, demanding Mursi rescind the decree and suspend a call for a referendum on a new constitution drafted by an Islamist-controlled assembly. On December 9, Mursi annulled the controversial decree but refused to cancel the referendum. Despite protests and violent clashes voting was under way on Saturday.

Tunisia

Manama: 2012 is the year Tunisia, the cradle of the modern Arab uprisings and the promise of much-anticipated positive changes, devolved into political and social chaos.

When the country held elections to choose the Constituent Assembly, the progress towards democracy was launched among promises of a democratic, freer and prosperous future.

However, the landslide victory by Al Nahda, the moderate Islamist party, alarmed the secular and leftist parties that have been for decades part of the political landscape despite their limited influence.

Despite initial assurances by Al Nahda about its modern political platform, the liberals have never really accepted the new reality and have been closely monitoring the Islamists’ decisions and intentions, especially after the government was formed.

The media was initially used as the arena for the battle between Al Nahda and the radical left and liberals worried about the seemingly inexorable growth of radical religious groups, particularly the Salafists.

In April, the first violent confrontation between the two groups occurred, plunging Tunisians into a deplorable state of frustration about the shattering of their dreams.

“We are eons from the wide smiles of October when voters cast their ballots with unprecedented enthusiasm,” Adam Sellami, a banker, said.

“Today, we have no democracy. We have no trust in any political group. They have stifled our dreams,” he said.

The bitter standoff continued in the media, on the social networks and in several towns.

“We have the legitimacy of the ballot boxes,” Nejib Mrad, an MP for Al Nahda, said.

“The people have elected us and gave us the right to represent them. The ballot box is the decider, not the street or the media,” he said.

However, Chedly Fareh, a unionist, said that Tunisia had always been a moderate country with “no room for extremism.”

“We will resist all negative temptations to ensure that Tunisia remains a great country for the present and future generations,” he said.

On December 6, Chedly had to be taken to a clinic in Tunis. He was beaten up severely when unionists clashed with groups claiming to protect the revolution.

In the latest episode for the struggle for power, the federation of trade unions said that it would call for a general strike.

“We are now gravely concerned about what is happening to our country. We are worried that violence prevails in Tunisia and turns into something normal and a new culture,” Hayat Saib, a journalist, said.

 By Habib Toumi, Bureau Chief

Libya

Dubai: The year 2012 can be marked as that in which the post-Gaddafi era began as the country began picking itself up to move ahead. Economically, oil production returned to pre-war levels and some international companies resumed operations. Politically, the elections in July for the General National Congress (GNC), the country’s legislature, resulted in success for liberal blocs, with Islamists coming in second. The National Forces Alliance won the most seats, 39 out of 200, whereas Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party won 17. In November, the first post-Gaddafi democratic government was sworn in, led by human rights lawyer Ali Zaidan. A member of the National Front party, which took three seats, Zaidan is a former diplomat and a long-time opponent of the Gaddafi regime.

Libya was, however, faced with the enormous task of bringing under control the 1,700 different armed groups that emerged since the civil war. Many of the militias were part of the rebel movement that toppled the Gaddafi regime. Some of the armed groups clashed with each other, while others attempted to use force to have their way with the new rulers of the country. Militias serve as a constant reminder about the weak government’s lack of control over the entirety of the country.

The issue of armed militias received international attention with the September assassination of the US ambassador to Libya at the American consulate in Benghazi. The operation was believed to have been carried out of armed Islamists. The government has said it will disarm the groups. So far, some have been brought under the control of the ministry of defence.

 - Gulf News Report

Yemen

Sana’a: Yemen’s parliament provoked anti-Ali Abdullah Saleh protesters on January 22 by passing a law offering the former president and his aides immunity from prosecutions. Nationwide protests were organised to condemn the law, accusing political forces of “breaching the blood of martyrs” .

Proponents of the law said the step was necessary to convince Saleh to leave office. Saleh agreed to relinquish power and on February 21, 2012, millions of Yemenis cast their votes in a single-candidate election. Saleh’s deputy, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was declared on February 24 as the new president. In his first address, on April 6, the newly-elected leader took his first step towards reasserting his grip on power by dismissing some army generals loyal to the former president. He also dismissed generals who supported the anti-Saleh uprising.

As the country was gearing up to celebrate the 22th unification, a suicide bomber detonated himself in the capital Sanaa on May 21, killing at least 80 soldiers. Hadi appeared more defiant and pledged to defeat Al Qaida militants, who claimed responsibility for the attack. On June 12, and after a year of fierce fighting with Al Qaida, the Yemen army recaptured all Al Qaida strongholds in the south. However, Al Qaida continued to target security officers all over the country. On September 11, Yemen’s defense minister Mohammad Nasir Ahmad survived a car bomb attack in Sanaa a day after local Al Qaida deputy head Saeed Al Shihri was was killed.

On November 19, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Yemen, a step seen by many observers as moral support for the new president.

-  By Saeed Al Batati Correspondent

Bahrain

Manama: The contrasting visions and approaches to what happened in Bahrain in February and March 2011 continued well into 2012.

For the government, the unrest was a move with international dimensions to topple the regime and turn the kingdom, through acts of violence at home and suave language abroad, into an Islamist republic.

However, for formations from the opposition, it was a peaceful uprising to ask for more constitutional and civil rights.

Since November 2011, Bahrain’s officials and opposition groups, mainly Al Wefaq, have been engaged in a dispute both inside the country and abroad over the extent of the implementation of recommendations put forth by a fact-finding panel.

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry was established by King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa to “investigate and report on the events that occurred in Bahrain in February and March 2011, and any subsequent consequences arising out of the events,” and to make “appropriate recommendations.”

“The government remains committed to the implementation of the recommendations,” the justice minister said last month.

However, the opposition has charged that the process has been too slow.

Each side has been promoting international reports to support its statements.

However, despite the standoff, several initiatives have been launched to overcome divergences and engage in a meaningful dialogue that will help the country heal its wounds.

 - By Habib Toumi, Bureau Chief

Saudi Arabia

Beirut: In the aftermath of protests across the Arab world starting in late 2010, several incidents and protests occurred in Saudi Arabia, which resulted in at least 17 fatal casualties.

Still, the much-heralded March 11, 2011 “Day of Rage,” ostensibly called by opposition figures to emulate young Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni activists, fizzled out just as quickly as it started. However, demonstrations and clashes occurred in the Eastern Province, home to Saudi Arabia’s restive Shiite minority.

Because King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz enjoyed absolute power, he deflected most of the criticism levelled towards Riyadh, as he successfully managed calls for change by relying on a combination of sticks and carrots to help ensure domestic tranquillity.

Saudi troops clashed with demonstrators to deter unrest but where the kingdom excelled was in its ability to distribute largesse as few countries can. In February 2011, King Abdullah introduced a domestic aid programme worth $37 billion, (Dh135 billion) and rolled out an even more comprehensive $97 billion aid package on March 18, 2011 that upped unemployment benefits and paid a bonus worth two months’ salary to public servants.

 - By Joseph A. Kéchichian, Senior Writer

Oman

Muscat: The echoes of Arab Spring reverberated in Oman also but it was noise with a difference. However, it was loud enough to wake government from its slumber.

What appeared to be an innocuous Green March caught leadership by surprise with the increasing intensity in anger.

Sultan Qaboos Bin Saeed was quick to respond positively to the demands of protesters, who, unlike their North African Arab counterparts, were only asking for jobs, better pay and removal of corrupt ministers.

Today, the Council of Ministers has a new look with seven elected Shura members replacing some old guard.

The Sultan created more employment, increased private sector wages, gave unemployment allowance and that doused the fire of protests as quickly as it had erupted.

The protests were at two levels, the popular mass support was for employment, better pay and against corruption. However, some literati wanted changes in the constitution and more say for people in decision making. The popular support seems to have waned now but the intellectuals are still holding on to their demands despite heavy handed crackdown this year.

 - By Sunil K. Vaidya, Bureau Chief

Jordan

Dubai: Jordan’s King Abdullah II of has so far managed to weather the political turbulence of the Arab Spring uprisings by instituting some political reforms such as giving parliament the right to appoint the prime minister after January’s polls.

But unprecedented chants for the “fall of the regime” during last month’s protests against fuel subsidy cuts suggested a deeper malaise in the kingdom.

Though the protests have mostly subsided, the cash-strapped government’s planned electricity price rises starting next year may ignite more popular fury.

Zaki Bani Irsheid, vice-chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, said in a recent interview that his faction had expanded alliances with Salafists, unions and the loose-knit, largely secular protest movement known as the Hirak during the past two years.

“We are insisting on creating the Jordanian spring with a Jordanian flavour, which means reforming our regime and keeping our Hirak peaceful.”

An influx of 240,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict next door has further strained the resources of a country of seven million that has almost no oil and precious little water. The turnout in the January poll will test public support for the pace of political change.

 - Gulf News Report

 

Morocco

Morocco’s King Mohammad VI is one of the few leaders who is credited with having deftly dealt with protests. The monarchy instituted constitutional reforms last year, deferring more of its power over political, economic and security affairs to the elected government.

However, a year later not much has changed.

The government, led by the Justice and Development Party, is blamed for a surge in fuel prices that has driven up the cost of food and other basic goods. Public finances in Morocco, a country of 33 million, are in dire straits after the government increased social spending last year to help contain protests. King Mohammad led a delegation on a tour of the Gulf last month and the kingdom expects to receive the first part of $2.5 billion (Dh9.18 billion) in aid from the states early next year. There seems to be no scope for large-scale protests in the ­country, with the monarchy having taken steps to bring in foreign assistance, while the ‘February 20’ protest movement, which was formed last year, has lost much of its support.

- Gulf News Report

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