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9 June, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

Time Bomb

High hopes of the Arab Spring have crashed

As so often, the news from the Middle East gives both hope and despair. Will the Arab Spring usher in a new era of democracy for Egypt, the region's largest country, after voters have had their first chance freely to cast their votes for a new President? Or will the terrible events in Syria, now spiralling downwards to full civil war, mark a new era of instability, repression and turmoil in the Arab world?

The violence in Syria is some of the worst seen in the region since the first protests against the government of President Assad began more than a year ago. The systematic cold-blooded massacre of villagers, including women and at least 40 children, in the town of Houla has united the world, including even Russia, in condemnation of the Damascus regime. But with evidence that further massacres are still going on, there seems no way to stop the escalation of bloodshed. The mission by Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, to promote a ceasefire followed by political dialogue has failed completely: neither the rebels nor the government forces are willing to lay down their weapons. Indeed, some of the worst atrocities committed by the pro-Assad militias have taken place after the plan was accepted by both sides.

The outside world is powerless to intervene. In the West, there is no wish for any new military adventure in a Muslim country. The Arab League has neither the armies nor the weapons to take on the Syrian government. And Russia, which still clings to its alliance with the Assad regime, has blocked all moves towards new sanctions or any UN intervention, a signal to Damascus that it can continue cracking down hard. Some Western statesmen, including Britain's foreign minister William Hague, are now warning Syria that unless it stops the killing, new moves may soon be made to arm the resistance, set up buffer zones and humanitarian corridors on the Turkish border and risk military confrontation with the Assad regime. The danger is that the violence in Syria will spread and destroy all the gains of the Arab Spring. Already, the fighting is spilling over into Lebanon. Jordan, fearing an influx of refugees and with nervous advisers urging the King to go slow on political reforms, is waiting to see whether the growing power of the Islamist opposition in Syria will start to affect stability within Jordan. In Libya, tribal rivalries have already held up moves towards a new democratic government, and there are clear signs that the anti-Gaddafi forces are now taking revenge on former government officials and anyone connected with the previous regime. The message from Syria appears to be that those in power must be prepared to use as much force as necessary to maintain control and prevent their enemies making gains.

Is Egypt the exception to this gloomy picture? Have the recent elections justified the hopes of the thousands of protesters who filled Tahrir Square last year and forced Mubarak from office? Hardly. For the outcome of the presidential election is about the worst imaginable: the moderate centrist candidates have all been eleminated and the two remaining men who will face each other in the final round are each likely to widen the present deep split in Egyptian society. If Ahmed Shafiq, the last Prime Minister under Mubarak and the candidate supported by the ruling military authorities, is elected, millions will see this as the return of the old regime. The Muslim Brotherhood will feel cheated. Liberals and the middle classes will conclude that little has changed and that the military will continue to have the final say in Egyptian politics. But if Muhammad Morsi, the Islamist candidate, wins, there will be real alarm among secular Egyptians and the Coptic Christian minority that the Islamists will become too powerful. Already the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nur party, the more extreme fundamentalists, hold almost three quarters of the seats in Parliament. Morsi has said he will observe the treaty with Israel and will respect minorities in Egypt, but there are fears that an Islamist president, with the backing of Parliament, will try to impose sharia (Islamic law) and may provoke a coup by shadowy military forces fearful that their grip of power will be broken.

This split in society has been heightened by the judgment on Saturday of the court trying former President Mubarak, his two sons and several former ministers. The sentence of life imprisonment for the former leader was welcomed by many - although there are doubts whether he will indeed serve more than a few years. But the acquittal of his sons and of several prominent politicians on the charges of corruption has provoked fury among the Islamists and many young Egyptians. If the verdicts provoke fresh demonstrations and riots, many people will be fearful that the country, already hit by a crime wave and by a massive fall in investment and economic activity, will become ungovernable. That may bolster support either for a new military-backed strongman or for a strictly enforced Islamist regime. Either way, democrats may see their hopes of a pluralist society dashed. Elsewhere, the reform movements have made little progress. In Bahrain, the crack-down on protesters from the Shia majority has eased, but it is clear that the ruling Sunni royal family - especially the Saudi-backed Prime Minister who has been in office for 40 years - have no intention of granting full political rights to the Shias. Saudi Arabia has tightened its restriction on its own minority Shias in the oil-rich eastern provinces, and any further political reform of the system under the ageing leaders of the House of Saud looks out of the question. And to the south in Yemen, the tense stand-off that followed the departure of the long-serving President Saleh has revealed the deep splits between tribal factions, the military and the growing number of al-Qaeda supporters. The recent suicide bomb that killed more than 90 people, blamed on al-Qaeda, is a clear indication that the struggle for power in this impoverished country is intensifying. And the outside world, especially America, is deeply worried by the power of al-Qaeda in Yemen and the potential threat to shipping passing through the entrance to the Red Sea.

The turmoil created by the Arab Spring has eclipsed two other sources of instability in the region: the continuing failure to start any new talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and the growing tensions over Iran's attempt to develop a nuclear weapons potential. The recent talks in Baghdad between Iran's negotiator on nuclear matters and the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) were seen in some Western capitals as a sign that international sanctions on Iran were finally having an effect. But hopes that the talks would lead to a break-through on the nuclear issue have been disappointed. Iran gave a limited invitation to UN nuclear inspectors to resume their mission, but did not agree to halt its programme or make any real concessions. Iran agreed to the Baghdad talks partly to forestall any US or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear research facilities, and partly to see how serious the West was about applying new sanctions. Tehran concluded that the West was still going to keep up the economic pressure, and therefore swiftly retreated from the flexibility hinted at earlier. On the Palestinian question, Prime Minister Netanyahu's Israeli government has now strengthened its majority in the Knesset by making a deal with the centrist Kadima party - thus avoiding new elections. This would make it less dependent on minority religious parties and in theory would give it a freer hand to reopen talks with the Palestinians. But there appears to be no sign that it will do so, and indeed former Prime Minister Ehud Barack now suggests that Israel should withdraw from some of the West Bank unilaterally- a call that has angered both the Right in Israel as well as the Palestinian negotiators. No breakthrough appears in sight therefore on all the three most difficult questions: Syria, Iran's nuclear weapons and Middle East peace negotiations. The high hopes of the Arab Spring have been frustrated by economic stagnation, growing unemployment, political violence and fears of rising crime and instability. The Middle East remains as tense and unpredictable as ever. 


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