Promise of the Arab Spring Fades

By Dilip Hiro

As scorching summer bakes the Middle East and North Africa, the promise of the Arab Spring is wilting. While street protests continue and battles on three frontlines rage in Libya, the old order shows only bearable fissures. The hope of a clean sweep of democratic revolution toppling authoritarian regimes is receding, as an increasing number of Egyptian protesters wonder if they weren't hapless pawns in the soft coup that the Supreme Council of the Armed Force (SCAF) carried out against President Hosni Mubarak. The past six months show that regime change doesn't mean revolution.

Regime change is only a first step towards replacing the foundations that supported the previous regime. How soon and how radically these foundations are altered depends on the strength and clarity of the leaders of the revolutionary movement, often consisting of disparate elements that coalesce to achieve the shared goal of changing the status quo.

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When the flight of the authoritarian Tunisian President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali after a mere four weeks of peaceful protest triggered a mass uprising against his Egyptian counterpart, Mubarak, the world was electrified. Hopes arose in Western capitals that the wave of popular demand for democracy would sweep the region. Yet, while the gains made in Tunisia and Egypt remain to be consolidated, the democracy wave has hit barriers in Syria and Yemen; civil war in Libya remains stalemated.

What constituted a radical break in the region's recent history was the loss of citizens' fear of the security forces, achieved by assembling large numbers in vast squares. Friday prayers continue to provide opportunity for staging massive demonstrations. No Arab government dares to ban the communal Friday prayer enjoined for Muslim men by the Koran.

The seminal event of self-immolation by Muhammad Bouazizi, the unemployed computer science graduate in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, occurred on Friday, 17 December 2010, drawing more attention than it would have done on any other day of the week. On a Friday four weeks later, skirmishes between protestors, pouring out of mosques after the weekly prayers, and security forces became so bloody that Ben Ali was forced to flee.

In Egypt the protesting crowds grew exponentially on 28 January, a Friday, with the opposition leaders declaring the following Friday the "Day of Departure" for Mubarak. He stepped down a week later. Fiery sermonizing after Friday prayers by the preacher at the main mosque of the Syrian city of Deraa triggered street protests there, which then spread elsewhere.

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Dilip Hiro is the author of "The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide." His latest book is "After the Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World" (Nation Books, New York and London).

Rights: Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. Yale Global


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