Image Credit: Illustration: ©Gulf News

It's been over four months since the Tunisian revolt flared up triggering a domino effect across the Arab world where people from all walks of life joined protests demanding change, political reforms and democracy. What the region is going through today is unprecedented and there doesn't seem to be a letdown in public momentum. Few have predicted this tsunami of uprisings which has spread like wildfire, toppling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and besieging others in Yemen, Libya and Syria. The geopolitical aftershocks of these protests will be felt for years as the region enters a new era and uncharted territory.

We have seen different models of such uprisings: Largely peaceful protests in Tunisia and Egypt which successfully decapitated the regime in both. But there are other models as well. Yemen, which has been witnessing rallies and sit-ins for over a month now, has reached a stalemate. The country is divided between those opposing the three-decade rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, calling for his immediate departure, and those supporting him. Negotiations between the opposition and the government have collapsed. Offers by Saleh to hold elections before the end of the year, allowing him to quit in an honourable way, have been rejected. The country is polarised and chaos and violence could spread at any moment.

Yemen's case has presented Arabs and the international community with a difficult test. The US, Yemen's close ally in the fight against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has attempted to mediate with the hope of guaranteeing a peaceful transition of power. As much as the regime has been hurt by defections of key tribal, political and military figures, Saleh appears undaunted.

The biggest question for Saleh's allies is who will succeed him. Because of the tribal nature of the country, a sudden departure of the president will almost certainly create a power vacuum, one that Saudi Arabia and the United States worry could give Al Qaida a boost. In addition, observers believe that anti-government southern activists will use the opportunity to press for secession from the North, an event that could lead to civil war and chaos.

Tribal frictions in the north of the country, along borders with Saudi Arabia, led by the Houthis may flare up again destabilising southern Arabia and spilling across Yemen's porous borders. The stability of Yemen in the aftermath of Saleh worries many in the region.

The coalition of opposition parties in the country has failed to address these and other issues. Repeating the Tunisian and Egyptian examples may not work in Yemen. Since Saleh has agreed in principle to hold new elections before the end of the year and hand over power to his elected successor, the opposition may want to revise its position. There are legitimate concerns about the country's future if Saleh was forced to resign now and these concerns must be heeded.

Aerial intervention

Another model of Arab uprisings is also a problematic one. In Libya, confrontations between anti-regime protesters and Muammar Gaddafi have turned bloody. Thousands of Libyans have died and more continue to die as a result of government assaults on cities in western and eastern Libya. Arab League's plea to the international community to intervene and enforce a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians from regime airstrikes has resulted in two UN Security Council resolutions and an international coalition to besiege the Libyan leader and his family.

But after more than two weeks of allied bombardment of government troops, the Gaddafi regime is still fighting. The rebels, headed by a provisional national council in Benghazi, have proved no match to Gaddafi's heavily armed brigades. Territorial gains in the east were quickly forsaken by the rebels as pro-government troops regrouped and launched a counter attack. Coalition aerial intervention is unlikely to settle the conflict in favour of the rebels.

Politically weakened, Gaddafi remains defiant and capable of manoeuvring on the ground. The international community shows determination, but the will to carry out further strikes is waning. Washington is divided on the key issue of arming the rebels and is trying to hand over responsibility for this complex issue to its European allies who are equally divided.

In the absence of a political settlement, the Libyan conflict will drag on and fester. International consensus to remove Gaddafi from power is not enough, especially that Arab contribution to the international coalition is limited. A stalemate in Libya will leave the country divided and in ruins. It is a tough call for the international community, which relies heavily on US leadership and active participation. Barring an implosion in Gaddafi's regime, it is unlikely that this conflict will end soon, leaving Libya's fate uncertain.

Syria presents yet another model of Arab uprisings. Peaceful demonstrators were met with brutal force by state security, leaving many dead and injured. The course of the Syrian crisis could have taken a different path if the decade-old rule of President Bashar Al Assad had adopted reforms, as it said it would in 2005, much earlier. In his speech last Wednesday, Al Assad disappointed his people by failing to respond to popular demands while still reiterating his commitment to carry out reforms. There was much hype about his speech a few days earlier that many believed the president was about to contain public anger and defuse the crisis. Had he announced the lifting of the emergency law alone, sentiments would have cooled down, observers believe.

Instead, protests resumed across the country and more demonstrators were gunned down. It is difficult to understand the logic behind all this. Repression will not end protests and will only mobilise others. The regime could have averted escalation by adopting legitimate popular demands with no risk to the country's stability. Its reaction and strategy remain an enigma.


Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman.