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Libya, Bahrain, and the Arab spring

Even as the United States military quietly prepares for possible action against the Gaddafi regime, the violence of rulers in Tripoli and Manama promises to stall the Arab democratic wave of 2011.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
17 March 2011

The escalation of violence in two Arab countries where popular uprisings have provoked elite reprisal - Libya and Bahrain - offers insight into the possible course of the Arab awakening of 2011.

It was evident even from the start of the revolt, in Tunisia in mid-December 2010, that its roots lay in deep social and economic trends stretching far beyond the region as well as in more immediate political circumstances (see “The global crisis: between Cairo and Davos”, 3 February 2011). A further striking aspect of the phenomenon is the crossover effect, whereby protests in one country appear to inspire those next door.

A column in this series published on the eve of the Egyptian explosion observed here that “[across] north Africa and the middle east, ruling elites watch the popular uprising in Tunisia with concern and even fear. There are already some indications that the uprising there is emboldening oppositions elsewhere, not least in Egypt and Algeria” (see “Tunisia and the world: roots of turmoil”, 24 January 2011) 

The upheavals have indeed swept through the region. Several would have made front-page news at any other time, but amid the more prominent upsurges have been relatively neglected.

The examples include Oman, the Persian Gulf sultanate which most western business interests would regard as stable and even reformist (if at heart autocratic); Kurdish Iraq, with protest sustained over many weeks by people rebelling against the slow pace of progress and the conservatism of traditional political parties; the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, whose monarch is pledging real reforms; Algeria, whose repressive government is attempting to ameliorate the worst economic marginalisation; and even Morocco, where the king has been obliged to respond to social discontent (see Valentina Bartolucci, “The Moroccan exception, and a king’s speech”, 11 March 2011) 

The Libyan question

This extraordinary tumult raises a key question: is the Arab spring the start of fundamental change across the region? By the first week of March 2011, many analysts would still have answered “yes”. Since then, doubts have accumulated as events in Libya and Bahrain appear to represent the stalling and blockage of the new start promised by Tunisia and Egypt. Libya’s is the more dramatic contest; but Bahrain’s may have longer-term implications.

The previous column assessed the implications of the Gaddafi regime’s use of elite military forces - limited in numbers, but effective - to control the rebellion (see “Libya: the prospect of war”, 10 March 2011). In recent days, those forces have moved further east and may now threaten the rebel stronghold of Benghazi itself. Yet their longer supply-lines have created a greater reliance on air-power, at a time when Britain and France increase their demands for a no-fly zone.

The Barack Obama administration is reluctant to impose a no-fly zone (see “Libya: the Washington-London dilemma”, 3 March 2011). The defence department, however, is quietly planning for an operation that would entail direct military action - minimal, but enough to destroy the Libyan air-force’s ability to use strike-aircraft, troop-transporters, and helicopters.

There are indications, for example, that at least one of the US’s aircraft-carrier battle-groups is moving towards the western Mediterranean; even more significant is the plan to deploy the advanced F-22 Raptor stealth strike-aircraft to the region (see David A Fulghum, “F-22s Could Be Assigned To Libyan Operation”, Aviation Week, 7-14 March 2011). The F-22 Raptor, in combination with F-16CJ Wild Weasels, would be used to suppress Libyan air defences, mainly by electronic warfare rather than direct attack; this would be followed by intensive disruption of Libyan command, control and communications systems.

A little-noticed detail in this context is the very close relationship between the United States air-force and its Egyptian counterpart (in a country now under effective military control). US air-force personnel have abundant experience of using Egyptian air-bases, especially Cairo West (host to multinational Bright Star exercises). It is not impossible that US forces could conduct large-scale operations against Gaddafi’s forces out of Egypt.

This does not mean that a no-fly zone will happen. But there could be a rapid change in Washington's attitude if Gaddafi's men inflict great violence on civilians in Benghazi. The Pentagon has been preparing  for action in that event.

The Bahrain answer

Meanwhile, potent resistance to change is being waged far to the east - in the princely states along the Gulf’s western coast. The Bahraini royal family’s refusal to countenance genuine reform in the face of large-scale demonstrations and disaffection, is unbending; on 14 March 2011, it welcomed armed Saudi and Emirati reservists from across the causeway linking it to Saudi territory, and the following day launched a violent assault on the encampment of protesters in the centre of Manama.

Bahrain’s rulers see the popular movement as Shi'a-based and sectarian, carrying a virus of instability that would result in increased Iranian influence on the small island. Riyadh shares this view, and has other fears of its own to compound it: of Tehran’s growing reach in Iraq, and of the possibility that the Manama protests spread among its own Shi'a minority (many of whom live in eastern oil-rich districts).

The worries may be unfounded, and Iran less powerful than many suppose. Indeed, the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime has concerns of its own - especially that “people power” in north Africa is rekindling opposition to its own rule (see Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's resilient rebellion", 18 February 2011). It is becoming clear, however, that most of the Gulf monarchies are unable to cope with the notion of citizens taking steps to affirm their rights as has developed so suddenly in Tunisia and Egypt. They simply cannot comprehend it - and therefore seek to suppress it with whatever force is required.

In turn this poses a further key question: will the Arab spring soon become an Arab winter, as the Gaddafi regime in Libya and elites in the Gulf move vigorously to extinguish dissent? The answer is that it looks probable, unless there is a rapid change of mood in the United States and western Europe, that the Gaddafi regime will regain full power - though this might still take weeks rather than days. It also seems clear that the authorities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia will be able to suppress opposition, leaving little prospect of serious reform.

Yet even these outcomes may not altogether crush the Arab spring's hopes. For what will have remained is a fundamental change: that in two countries (including the pivotal state of Egypt) huge crowds of everyday people have taken to the streets and overcome fear to claim their rights against power. Such self-empowerment on this scale is rare, and its impact will prove to be deep-seated and long-lasting.

The Arab spring will not disappear. But in the shadow of current reversals, its further development is likely to be measured in years rather than weeks.

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