Middle East

Arab Spring: Where it is now and where it may be going

Tunisian students protest January 31, 2011
Image caption Tunisia spark: Protests overthrow Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in power since 1987

Let's start with the numbers. Out of 22 Arab countries, five have had uprisings, one has had major clashes followed by a severe clampdown, while others have had small stirrings of dissent.

The contagious, pan-Arab changes of regime, much speculated on early in 2011, have yet to run their course.

Only two countries, Egypt and Tunisia, have actually got rid of their rulers and yet many Egyptians complain their interim government is little better.

Other ruling cliques, the Gaddafis, the Assads, the Salehs, whose imminent demise was long ago tweeted, texted and facebooked, are, despite the odds, still nominally in control of much or most of their countries.

It's a sufficiently mixed and inconclusive picture for some to pronounce, prematurely, that the Arab Spring has run out of steam. It hasn't.

Seeing the differences

A mistake made early on by some of us in the media was to try to apply a one-size-fits-all template to every Arab country currently experiencing upheaval. Anyone who has been fortunate enough as I have to spend much of my life living in several Arab countries will tell you they can be as different as Switzerland is from Albania.

The Arab world does not tend to behave as one homogenous bloc any more than Europe does; it is a thousand different shades of grey and all the richer for it.

Hence, in Egypt and Tunisia the military behaved in one way - essentially backing the protest movement against the president - while in Syria it has remained largely loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Republics have behaved differently from monarchies; rich countries differently from poor; Bahrain, split on sectarian lines, differently from its neighbours.

In Libya, the only Arab country in which the West's military is actively engaged, with a nod from the Arab League, the conflict is lasting longer than Nato's planners had expected or hoped.

Surely Col Gaddafi's forces were meant to quickly lose heart at the first sight of a low-flying Mirage or Tornado jet? Surely the desertion of elements of his army meant he had only weeks left at most?

'Not finished yet'

But Col Gaddafi, as we now know, had deliberately run down his regular army and kept the best equipment for his 'special brigades' commanded by his sons and loyalists.

Remembering how Iraq's Saddam Hussein defied the odds and survived the Gulf War of 1991, I tweeted back on 22 February: "Gaddafi not finished yet - remember how everyone wrote off Saddam after Shia uprising of Mar 1991?"

In Yemen, an intensely tribal and complex society, months of popular street protests have been overtaken by a bitter power struggle between the president, who was hospitalised in Saudi Arabia, and his clan on the one hand and their rivals, the Bani al-Ahmar.

Yes, nearly all Yemenis want to be ruled better, but the country also has unique problems of its own, including fast dwindling resources and a dangerous and innovative offshoot of al-Qaeda that is looking to exploit a growing power vacuum.

Fear of change

Syria, that has seen bloodshed costing over 1,300 lives and counting, presents the West with a problem. Why, say critics, is Nato prepared to go to war with Libya's Col Gadafi and not Syria's Bashar al-Assad, if both are prepared to kill civilians in large numbers?

The answer usually given is that unlike Libya, Syria is not 'self-contained'. Its largely loyal military and intelligence apparatus are supported by Iran. It also has a close alliance with Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Even if the West had the appetite and the capacity - which it does not - to become involved militarily in Syria, no-one wants to stir up a conflict that could draw in Israel, Lebanon and Iran.

That said, the demonstrations against the Syrian regime have grown persistently, both in number and geographical spread, defying systematic intimidation through torture by the security forces.

Most analysts doubt that Mr Assad has either the political agility or the steely resolve to survive the uprising in the long term. Yet his best ally may turn out to be the latent fear of what exactly would replace his family's dynastic rule.

Sectarian dimension

Bahrain has been, in many ways, the most opaque and difficult of situations to read, with so many bigger forces coming to bear on this tiny Gulf kingdom.

Home to the US Navy's immensely powerful 5th Fleet, it is also the only Gulf state with a now sharply polarised Shia-Sunni population.

The Sunni-led government blames Iran, saying it is stirring up the protests. Nonsense, says the opposition, people just want democracy and an end to harsh discrimination against Shia citizens, including numerous appalling human rights abuses, some of which I saw for myself in April.

Yet many expatriate workers, Bahraini Sunnis, and their neighbours in Saudi Arabia, harbour fears that real democracy would lead towards the ousting of the Sunni ruling al-Khalifa family and the establishment of a Shia-dominated government sympathetic to Tehran - something opposed at all costs by Riyadh.

An uneasy 'national dialogue' is getting underway to heal the rifts but reformers even within the government have so far been outmanoeuvred by hardliners.

Mould broken

Yet when viewed as a region, the changes that have started to take place in the Middle East are profound and in the long-term irreversible.

They may take at least a generation to come properly into effect.

After decades stuck in the political equivalent of a cryogenic freezer, large portions of the Arab world have signalled emphatically that they are no longer prepared to put up with corrupt, unaccountable, over-privileged and sometimes despotic governance.

It may take protesters and reformers years to achieve their aims, and even when free and fair elections do take place, there is no guarantee they will automatically usher in better government.

But for those at the forefront of change, their message is simple: the mould has been broken, and we will not accept a return to the status quo.

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