'Arab Spring,' once an inspiration, now a more cautionary tale

Two years ago, the "Arab Spring" that deposed dictators and demagogues was an inspiration to hundreds of millions of repressed souls across the Middle East who yearned for a say in how they were governed.

Today, with the Egyptian economy in ruins, tribal clashes convulsing Libya and at least 70,000 dead in Syria’s crushed uprising, those still chafing under authoritarian rule in the region are curbing their revolutionary impulses.

The sweep of democracy in 2011 has stalled as post-overthrow chaos has become a cautionary tale for those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. Entrenched monarchs are backtracking on pledges to make their governments more inclusive. So, too, are the populations thinking twice about risking relative affluence and stability for vague notions of freedom.

The stumbling of the reform movement can be attributed to a convergence of ancient rivalries and newly incubated tensions, say Middle East experts tracking the fits and starts of the region’s transformation. There are political divides pitting pro- and anti-regime forces against each other. The Cold War is allegedly over, yet Moscow and Washington once again stand with their allies across new chasms in the region. Most destabilizing, security analysts say, is the reinvigoration of a nearly 1,400-year-old rift between Sunni and Shiite Muslims as sectarian leaders vie for power in nations reinventing themselves, with no successful model to follow.

Perceived interference by outside powers in the reform movements and the armed uprising in Syria have resulted in a volatile proxy war between Shiite leaders in Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia on one side and the United States, Turkey and Sunni-ruled Persian Gulf states on the other, Middle East scholar Geneive Abdo warns in a new report  published by the Brookings Institution.

Bahrain was swept up in the regionwide democracy movement two years ago, but activists have retreated to a standoff with the government. Little progress has been made, though, because the Sunni rulers reject any power-sharing with the Shiite opposition for fear that will open the door to Iranian domination, Abdo said in an interview.

“Shiism is being so closely associated with Iran that it has become a justification for not becoming more democratic,” Abdo said of the Manama leadership’s failure to deliver on promised reforms.

In Egypt, where the overthrow of the 30-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak sowed expectations of a wave of democracy washing across the Middle East, persistent unrest and weak government by the inexperienced Muslim Brotherhood have turned the most populous state in the region into an impoverished and restive basket case.

“With empowerment has come a lot of spontaneity, and no one is thinking about strategy. There’s so much chaos in Egypt now. You have thousands of women marching in Tahrir Square in demand of their rights and not thinking about getting attacked or getting tear-gassed,” Abdo said.

Although some opposition groups are getting organized into political factions to challenge the Islamist bent of President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government, “many of these groups don’t have any real leadership. They’re just renegade activists” whose scattered protests have little effect, Abdo said.

People in the gulf states who describe themselves as pro-reform are souring on the idea of taking to the streets to demand change because of what they see in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, said Nathan Field, who co-founded a business services start-up to aid potential investors in the Middle East. He warns that the turmoil is scaring away private capital.

“People in the gulf are looking at how reform has played out elsewhere,  and they don’t really like what they’re seeing,” said Field, who lived in Saudi Arabia for the two years that straddled the early Arab Spring changes. “They’re seeing two things happening: violence and economic collapse.”

The negative examples of what revolution brings have not only slowed reform’s progress elsewhere, they have made many who spearheaded successful regime changes regretful, Field said.

“Unless the government makes some real job-creating economic reforms, I think there’s a strong likelihood for a return to authoritarianism,” Field said, reiterating dire warnings he made in an article for the Atlantic Council's EgyptSource website this week. “People have in their minds that at least they had a degree of stability and certainty to their lives under Mubarak.”

Rami G. Khouri, editor at large of Lebanon’s Daily Star and a foreign policy institute director at the American University of Beirut, sees the problems besetting the post-authoritarian leaderships as growing pains aggravated by the region’s historic tensions.

“The modern Arab state still hasn’t proved itself as a permanent structure validated by its own people. There is still no example of a stable, secure, constitutionally democratic country in the region -- not a single one,” Khouri said.

He criticized the United States for failing to do more to help democracy take root in the region, where it backed Mubarak and other autocrats to secure its oil needs and continues to ignore repression by gulf Arab leaders.

“It’s a shame to see this missed opportunity,” Khouri said of the flailing,  neophyte democracies. “Hundreds of millions of Arabs are reading from the playbook of the American Declaration of Independence, and the United States is not reaching out to them. They are missing the greatest opportunity of the last century.”


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A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.


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