The second Spring?

Published on 23 February 2012 in Opinion
Mahir Ali / (author)

Mahir Ali /


“Yemenis prepare to vote Saleh out of office” was The Guardian’s slightly disconcerting headline over a news report about a somewhat fake election in a country that has experienced one of the least fruitful versions of the so-called Arab Spring.

After all, Ali Abdullah Saleh – now presumably under treatment in the United States for internal – or internalized – wounds that Saudi medical experts failed to heal, wasn’t on the ballot. Nor, for that matter, were any of his rivals. In fact, there was only one person that voters could vote for: Saleh’s vice-president and designated successor, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

What’s more, his “popular endorsement” bore no relation to the turnout – even one vote would have sufficed to confirm him as Saleh’s successor. And the upholder of a status quo that may well prove untenable.

The story is different, but not entirely unrelated, to other supposed beneficiaries of the Arab Spring. Tunisians arguably had some cause to celebrate the first anniversary of an uprising that established a regional trend.

Egypt is another story. There, the authoritarian structure of the Hosni Mubarak regime remains intact, despite the former president’s relegation to the infirmary and the defendant’s dock, much to the relief of neighbors such as Israel and ex-sponsors of the status quo ante from Washington to Riyadh.

The much-feared Islamists, held up as bogeymen by Mubarak over the decades, haven’t been reticent in seeking accommodation with the military hierarchy that is reluctant to let go of its political supremacy. But those who crowded Tahrir Square wanted something more, and they indicated last month that they are reluctant to let go.

The same goes for Washington and Riyadh. A presidential election cannot indefinitely be postponed, however. Egypt’s course in the months ahead will prove both crucial and fascinating. Not surprisingly, it has been compared with Pakistan, whose military is famed for its proclivity to maintain control of the reins of power.

It will, in all probability, continue to be a far cry from Libya, where Nato’s intervention brought forth a change that has left some people scratching their heads, given that the replacement regime seems almost as prone to human rights abuses as the Gaddafi regime, with elections still a promise rather than a definite prospect.

The fact that regime change in Libya was preceded by a United Nations resolution that prompted Nato to intervene in the name of protecting civilians inevitably played a role in the recent Russian and Chinese vetoes that pre-empted a Security Council condemnation of the Bashar Al-Assad administration.

The votes were, not surprisingly, much criticized – not least because the tally of deaths in Syria runs into the thousands, with much of the damage concentrated in Homs. The targeted city isn’t all that far from Hama, were Assad’s father, Hafez, perpetrated a notorious massacre some three decades ago, aimed chiefly at the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates.

At the beginning of the Libyan intervention a year ago, a moderately publicized comment from American military sources cited the apprehension that Muammar Gaddafi’s opponents may include elements associated with Al-Qaeda. That particular scenario has been replicated in the case of Syria, with reports suggesting Al-Qaeda in Iraq is keen on a fresh battlefield.

It is, therefore, hardly a revelation that neighboring Israel has resisted calls for regime change in Syria; it was also as upset as Saudi Arabia by its ally Mubarak’s removal from the helm of affairs in Cairo.

The Arab League’s foray into Syria was welcome – such organizations ought to be able to sort out regional issues as and when they arise – but faltered in terms of achievements, thereby damaging its credibility. Yet the Gulf Cooperation Council can hardly cry foul when Assad refuses to budge, given the political arrangement in member-states.

An international agreement on suspending arms supplies to Syria would undoubtedly be a step forward, provided it applies to all parties. Beyond that, if Assad refuses to come to his senses, some kind of intervention may indeed be of some assistance, providing it does not involve any of the powers that once controlled that part of the world.

One can only hope that Tunisia will take a turn for the better, that the Egyptian military will agree to its own relegation, that Libya will turn out all right, that Yemen will fall apart peacefully, if at all. As for Syria, its fate should ultimately be determined by Syrians, and them alone.

Mahir Ali is a former Assistant Editor of Khaleej Times.