A year ago this month, a young street vendor in Tunis, Mohamed Bouazizi, vset himself ablaze after police threatened to confiscate his wares. He was impoverished, deeply in debt and his family’s sole breadwinner. Eighteen days later, he succumbed to his wounds, a burning symbol of the injustices, economic disparities and heavy-handed authoritarian political system weighing down Tunisian society.
Bouazizi’s death touched off mass demonstrations and forced the president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to resign and flee into exile in Saudi Arabia after 23 years in power. Shortly afterward, inspired by Bouazizi’s martyrdom, a 49-year-old Egyptian restaurateur, Abdou Abdel Moneim Jaafar, set himself alight in front of Egypt’s parliament building. He, too, was a catalyst. His self-immolation led to nation-wide protests against the status quo, as exemplified by president Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
When Mubarak stepped down after 18 days of turmoil, the Arab world was already inflamed by the so-called Arab Spring, a spontaneous, leaderless mass movement whose effects were already felt in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen and would soon engulf secular dictatorships in Libya and Syria.
The revolutionary fervour, a watershed in the modern Middle East, was suppressed in Jordan and Saudi Arabia when the monarchies there offered cosmetic concessions. But elsewhere, the regional upheavals have left an indelible impact and empowered Islamic political parties.
In Egypt, the largest and most powerful Arab country, the status quo essentially remains in place despite months of unrest.
Mubarak, charged with corruption and complicity in the deaths of more than 800 demonstrators, was succeeded by his long-serving defence minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a self-appointed body composed of 20 generals.
With the military still at the helm, little has changed. The Egyptian armed forces ousted the monarchy in 1952, and ever since then, its leaders have been in charge. Gamal Abdel Nasser ruled from 1954 until 1970. His successor, Anwar Sadat, was an army officer as well. After Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Mubarak, his vice-president and a former air force commander, took over.
Tantawi is a member of that old boy’s club. He sacrificed Mubarak and his closest associates so that the military could preserve its powers, prerogatives and privileges.
Mubarak and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, are currently under house arrest and face the death penalty. Their trial, which began last June under the full glare of television cameras and was widely seen as a populistic sop to the masses, has been adjourned until Dec. 28.
At first, Tantawi promised to turn over control to a civilian government by September. But then, to the consternation of many Egyptians, he announced he would stay on until parliamentary elections, ratification of a constitution and election of a president in 2013.
Tantawi has not lifted the 30-year state of emergency, and he has sought powers that would enable the armed forces to interfere in domestic politics and render that institution immune from civilian oversight.
As a result of renewed protests in Tahrir Square in late November, which claimed the lives of more than 40 demonstrators, Tantawi agreed to accelerate the transition to a civilian government.
But his associate, Gen. Mukhtar el-Mallah, announced that the military has no intention of ceding power, even after last week’s phased parliamentary election, the results of which will not be known for months. “Egypt is not Tahrir Square,” he declared. “We will not relinquish power because of a slogan-chanting crowd.”
According to some observers, Egypt’s exercise in democracy has been devised to marginalize liberal, progressive and secular Muslims and the nation’s Coptic Christian minority, all of whom were in the forefront of last winter’s revolution. With the economy stagnating and the suspicion growing that the military is stoking sectarian divisions for its own ends, Egyptians are once again in a cranky and rebellious mood.
The ripple effects of the Arab Spring have inundated Syria, the self-styled beating heart of Arab nationalism.
Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, has promised to enact sweeping reforms since rioting broke out last March. And while he has tinkered with the system to placate opponents, he has not fundamentally changed it. Instead, his security forces have dealt brutally with dissenters, having committed war crimes in killing more than 3,500 civilians.
Initially, protestors demanded real changes in governance and policy, but Assad’s crackdown has been so bloody that they now demand regime change. Once basically peaceful in nature, the popular revolt in Syria has grown increasingly violent as soldiers and officers have defected in droves from the army.
Under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, a militia composed of hundreds or possibly thousands of defectors, guerrillas have attacked Syrian military convoys, the offices of the ruling Baath party in Damascus and air force intelligence headquarters outside the capital. Assad’s standard claim that “armed gangs” are behind the troubles has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as Syria lurches closer to a civil war.
Never in its history has Syria been so isolated as it is today. The Arab League suspended its membership and imposed sanctions on Syria after Assad failed to abide by an Arab League plan to end the violence. Assad had pledged to remove armoured vehicles from the streets, halt violence, release all political prisoners and allow special monitors and journalists into the country. But he reneged on these promises, prompting the usually ineffectual Arab League to take action. Prior to this unprecedented development, King Abdullah II of Jordan became the first Arab ruler to openly call for Assad’s resignation.
With U.S., European Union and Canadian sanctions also in place, the Syrian economy is beleaguered.
Assad has managed to alienate even friends. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Russia’s president, Dmitri Medvedev, have urged him to step down if he cannot implement promised reforms. Even China, one of his staunchest allies, has advised Assad to move faster to honour his promises.
In all probability, Assad will try to “tough” it out, hoping he can somehow prevail. If this is the route he chooses, his fate may be bitter. Assad may go the way of Moammar Gadhafi, the eccentric dictator of Libya, who was killed in ignominious fashion by rebel fighters in October after failing to crush a revolt that had spiralled into a full-fledged civil war.
The situation in Syria has not reached such depths, and NATO has no plans to intervene in Syria, as it did in Libya. But Assad’s days may well be numbered.
Yemen’s dictatorial president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has finally stepped down after three decades, having transferred his powers to colleagues and family. But Yemen is still awash in violence.
In Tunisia, where the least bloodshed has occurred, a moderate Islamist party won a plurality of the votes in a recent election. In Bahrain, where pro-democracy protests were put down by the king’s security forces and troops from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, resentment runs deep.
It’s clear that the last chapter of the Arab Spring has yet to be written.