By Osama Al Sharif
News of the premature demise of the Arab Spring, the spontaneous wave of mass protests calling for regime change and political rights, are greatly exaggerated. Those who believe that the phenomenon is over and done with rest their prognosis on a number of factors. Since the contagion reached Syria more than a year ago, after blowing through Tunis, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, its spread appears to have been contained. Other than the sporadic bursts of demonstrations in Bahrain and Jordan, the tsunami waves have kept away from the shores of other countries like Algeria, Sudan and Iraq.
Moreover, the euphoria that first accompanied peaceful uprisings in Tunis and Egypt is gone. Foreign military intervention and the ensuing civil war in Libya have eclipsed the innocence of the Arab Spring. The brutality of the Syrian regime in crushing peaceful demonstrations has shocked the world. It also underlined the complexity of the Syrian crisis as tensions erupted between world powers over ways to deal with the Damascus regime. Those who were betting on a quick and sensational end to President Bashar Assad and his lieutenants are now frustrated.
In Egypt, whose peaceful revolution mesmerized the world, chaos and uncertainty have now taken over. A power struggle between the Islamists and the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is threatening the fate of the presidential elections later this month. Egyptians have failed to agree on a mechanism to write a new constitution and there are genuine fears of the true intentions of the Islamists who now make up the biggest organized force in Parliament.
In Yemen there is also uncertainty over the future of the country as the new president fights to exercise his powers. President Ali Abdullah Saleh may have succumbed to popular and regional demands, but his supporters, especially those in the military, are challenging attempts to remove them. The country’s fate remains obscure and its future is hanging in the balance.
Post Qaddafi Libya is not in a better shape either. The struggle between the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the government is tearing the country apart. Libyans are yet to recover from the legacy of four decades of despotism and backwardness. The challenges of embracing democratic rule and civilian government while keeping the country united are enormous. The specter of tribal wars is casting its shadow over this oil-rich country.
The only glimpse of hope probably comes from Tunis, which is inching slowly toward national reconciliation after holding legislative and presidential elections. But its march forward is not without risks. Various tides continue to pull this North African country in different directions. The biggest challenge to date revolves around the identity of this once secular state.
The one common denominator in all these countries, where the Arab Spring has passed, is the rise of political Islam in its various shapes and colors. Moderate Islamists have taken over in Morocco, Tunis and Egypt. Elections in Algeria next week will disclose the true sentiments of voters. But the Egyptian exercise, so far, has frustrated observers both at home and abroad. In recent weeks Egyptians have seen examples of Islamists veering out of control; Muslim Brotherhood vying for the presidency and Salafists flexing their muscles in the streets of Cairo.
Chaos in Libya and Egypt and uncertainty in Yemen and Syria have contributed to the theory that the Arab Spring has run its course. This is reflected in recent political developments in Jordan, where popular demands for political reforms have been pressed every week for more than a year. But observers now agree that a new perception has now taken over at the highest levels. Triggered by regional developments, especially in Syria, an initial approach to incorporate the kingdom’s Islamist movement into a new political process is now being reviewed. King Abdallah has reiterated his commitment to political reforms and to holding parliamentary elections before the year’s end, but his new government, appointed last week, is taking a different approach on elections and on the role of Islamists in it, than its predecessor.
The deadlock in Syria has contributed to the new thinking. It also reflected a fundamental change in the approach of world powers to Arab uprisings. The fact that popular demonstrations have subsided, for different reasons, and that the Arab Spring has failed to materialize in other countries contributes to the theory that the phenomenon has passed.
But this is only half true. The basic foundations for the Arab Spring remain in many countries. Economic deprivation and political disparities in mostly youthful states are the main ingredients behind popular discontent. To close the chapter on the Arab Spring without addressing these issues is wrong and could prove catastrophic. The evolution of political processes in Egypt, Tunis, Yemen and Libya will have dramatic effects on the rest of the region. It is too early to pronounce the phenomenon dead and gone without drawing the right lessons from it. Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it!
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.