As Ramadan began last week, people and governments across the Middle East welcomed Islam’s holy month of fasting with extraordinary levels of apprehension for the fate of their region. For even with the Middle East’s turbulent modern history in mind, this Ramadan is very messy.
Mass protests, brutal regime crackdowns, increasing prospects of civil strife, and muddled attempts at state-building or state reform have featured in one country after another as the ‘Arab Spring’ transforms into the ‘Arab Summer,’ threatening more rage, violence and instability.
Syria facing increasing turmoil
In Syria, brutal army crackdowns in Hama and a fierce assault on the Eastern city of Deir al-Zour continued a desperate effort of Bashar Al-Assad’s Baathist government to crush protests that have now entered their fifth month. The onslaughts came in defiance of increasing international pressure on Assad’s regime. Last Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council issued a Presidential Statement condemning “widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities.”
In an editorial entitled ‘Who will help the Syrians?’ the New York Times argues that far more decisive action is required, including referring Assad to the International Criminal Court, and suggests that the top consumers of Syrian oil – Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands – should stop buying it: “The exports are small enough that a suspension would have little effect on world prices but would still have a big impact on Damascus.”
More diplomatic activity has followed since, with the U.S. treasury freezing assets of pro-Assad Syrian businessmen, the usually-limp Arab League expressing “growing concern and strong distress” and Saudi Arabia announcing yesterday that it is withdrawing its Ambassador from Syria as it demanded an end to the regime’s “death machine.” The Saudi decision was quickly followed by similar diplomatic moves from Kuwait and then, in a sad ironic twist, by Bahrain too – the small Gulf kingdom that has ruthlessly repressed its own protesters over the last two months.
Bahrain authorities attack medical NGO, as two prisoners go on hunger strike
Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are much less vocal when it gets to Bahrain, which continues to experience heavy repression as the Khalifa monarchy seeks to stamp out dissidence in the oil-rich kingdom. Speaking to the BBC last week, UK director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the only medical emergency charity still operating in Bahrain, described how many doctors “have been arrested and beaten and questioned for simply doing what a doctor should do.” MSF’s offices, the charity reported, were “violently raided... damaging office property and confiscating all medical and office equipment and supplies.” The move is consistent with what Human Rights Watch describes as a “systematic” policy of “retribution against Bahrainis who supported pro-democracy protests,” according to a damning report it published last month. While news of a release of two prisoners brought some relief and happiness for their families, Amnesty International reported last week that two Bahraini women activists have gone on hunger strike to demand their freedom. Roula al-Saffar, head of the Bahrain Nursing Society and Jalila al-Salman, deputy head of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association, were tortured in detention and have been held for several months, according to the London-based group. Far from being over, the repression, Ian Black for The Guardian reports, is only “getting worse.”
Libya Rebel Blueprint revealed as Seif al-Islam warns alliance with Islamists will make Libya “look like Saudi Arabia”
A 70-page draft transition plan by the National Transitional Council (NTC) prepared with Western consultation was obtained by The Times this week. The plan seeks to establish a 10,000-15,000 strong ‘Tripoli task force’ to secure the capital and capture prominent Gaddafi supporters. It heavily relies, The Daily Telegraph reports, on defections from the old regime, without whom, the plan concedes, there is little chance of toppling the long-serving dictator. Meanwhile, as conflicting reports continue to radiate from the battlegrounds in Libya, Colonel Qaddafi’s son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, declared in an interview with David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times, that a “deal” with an Islamist faction that is currently part of the rebel forces would soon be announced. They are “terrorists,” he said, but “we have to deal with them.” Thanks to the West’s intervention, he argued, Libya would now “look like Saudi Arabia, like Iran.” The Islamist leader he identified, Mr. Sallabi, rejected Qaddafi’s claims, saying he welcomed liberals and secular leaders: “I believe in their right to present their political project and convince the people with it.”
The openSecurity verdict on the ‘Arab Summer’:
Welcome as pro-democracy protests are in a region held back for far too long by corrupt dictatorships, the outcome of protests, in the short-term at least, increasingly looks like more bloodshed, and less likely, democracy.
Worryingly, the protest movements are increasingly being complicated by a proliferation of sectarianism across the region, a development deliberately stoked by the actions of rulers who see in sectarianism the key to their survival.
Bahrain’s Al-Khalifa monarchy was the first to use the sectarian card with brutal efficiency. Thus, tragically for Bahrainis, the regime with Saudi and Gulf assistance managed to crush a people’s rallying cry all too easily, only because it could soothe the conscience of Arabs with the notion that Bahrain was ‘different’ – code word for: they’re Shia, so you need not sympathise.
Sectarianism is increasingly rearing its ugly head in Syria. Iran, which has welcomed protest movements in other Arab countries, has been silent on Syrian massacres. After all, Assad is in theory a Shia (even if, strictly speaking, an Alawite).
Laughably, it is Saudi Arabia that has become enraged by human rights abuses in Syria. Kuwait, and most pathetically of all, Bahrain too has followed suit in condemning the abuse.
Democratic transitions are invariably messy, turbulent affairs. But it does not help that western involvement is so schizophrenic – limited by a combination of interest-based calculations (e.g. the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain) and a sorry lack of resources in the context of financial recession and catastrophe back home.
Hence the fate of Libya. One potential outcome of NATO’s half-hearted intervention is a divided country. Another is of Qaddafi being eventually evicted, but at the cost of putting in his place a regime equally, if not more so, undemocratic.
Against the backdrop of sectarianism and civil strife, Muslim extremists flourish. Syrian Islamists are increasingly being radicalised. A massacre, this time of pro-regime Alawites might unfold should Assad’s regime suddenly collapse. And amidst all the chaos, it is Al-Qaeda that can rejoice, with much recruiting potential in North Africa and new openings to exploit in the Levant.
And yet – against a picture of all-gloom, is that mesmerising image of Mubarak in a cage. While his trial is only just beginning, its symbolic impact is arguably already done. A key demand of protestors has been met: Mubarak in court. Wheeled in on a stretcher, Mubarak fittingly looked ill and broken, a stark contrast from the Pharaoh-like image of eminence and unrestrained power he projected during twenty nine years of iron rule. Will his fate be like that of Saddam’s: the death penalty? Certainly, many Egyptians will demand nothing less.
Yet, regardless of the verdict, the lesson is all too clear for remaining dictators in the region, and indeed, the world at large as well. Mubarak in a cage. Ben Ali in hospital. This much then we can celebrate about the ‘Arab Summer’ this Ramadan. However low the prospects of genuine democracy, the survival chances of the remaining flock of decaying dictators appears lower still.