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Arab Spring 2013: Revolutionary wave enters a third year

By Sharif Nashashibi | Al Arabiya | 02 Jan 2013

As we start a new year - the Arab Spring's third - it is time to reflect on its developments, successes and failures over the last 12 months. Its causes - dictatorship, economic stagnation, political repression, human rights abuses, corruption - may be similar regionally, but how it has manifested itself in each country differs greatly.

Most of the Arab autocrats are still in power, and those countries that have overthrown them are facing significant upheavals. This has led to debate over whether the Spring - described by Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara as the "most important geopolitical event in the region since the 1950s" - has turned to winter.

"After the fall of dictators and the promise of freedom and justice that brought," the past year has been "a time of division and doubt in the Middle East and North Africa," wrote The Independent's defence correspondent Kim Sengupta.

While there is much to be concerned about, the cynics are overlooking the significance and inherent difficulties of what has been achieved. Strongmen have been ousted; decades-old one-party systems have been abolished; establishments and taboos have been challenged; and political and economic reforms have been promised, with varying degrees of implementation.

Whether they like it or not, Arab leaders are being forced to heed the hopes, rights and grievances of their people, and to realise that suppressing them is having the opposite effect intended. A region long thought to be immune to change has become the inspiration and catalyst for protest movements worldwide.

Such a mammoth task was never going to be quick or easy. Taking on authoritarianism, as difficult as this has been, pales into comparison with the challenges of the aftermath: the very reinvention and rebuilding of states, infrastructure, institutions and societies.

With freedom of expression and dissent long banned, opposition movements have had to spring up out of nowhere, organise and articulate themselves almost immediately, learn to govern and democratise with no prior experience, and cooperate with or challenge other groups with different, and sometimes contradictory, visions for the future. It is only natural, under such circumstances, that the road will be as long as it is bumpy.

Yemen

This year has seen the removal of a fourth Arab dictator - Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh - following Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Saleh resigned in February and transferred his powers to his Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi, under a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia that was controversial for granting Saleh immunity from prosecution, and allowing Al-Hadi to run unopposed in elections. Al-Hadi has since been steadily ridding Yemen's military and polity of his predecessor's relatives and cronies. However, the country is plagued by serious, long-term problems.

These include dire poverty (it is the poorest Arab country), shrinking oil reserves, severe water shortages (its capital is predicted to be the world's first to run out of water), high unemployment, widespread private gun ownership, popular use of the narcotic qat leaf, a strong Al-Qaeda presence, tribal conflict, a secessionist movement in the south, a Shia insurrection in the north, frequent US drone strikes, and a refugee influx from Somalia. None of these are likely to be resolved anytime soon.

Syria

Syria has garnered the most Arab Spring-related headlines in 2012. This is primarily because it has experienced the latest full-blown uprising, it is the bloodiest and most sectarian (with death toll estimates of almost 60,000), it has attracted the most foreign involvement, and it has been the most destabilising regionally, directly affecting its neighbours Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

While Syria's revolution has been the most enduring, it is likely that 2013 will see the end of Bashar Assad's reign, whether that comes about militarily or diplomatically. He has been the most tenacious of the Arab dictators under threat, and at the start of the uprising most of its supporters would not have imagined that he would still be in power today.

However, his regime is hemorrhaging defections, and his forces are steadily losing ground to increasingly organised, recognised, trained and equipped rebel forces. His ouster is a matter of when, not if, but Syria is also likely to see the most turbulent and drawn-out aftermath - perhaps even an intensification of the civil war if the outcome is decided military - in a country with a particularly diverse social fabric and foreign interests.

Egypt

Egypt has attracted much attention, particularly in the second half of 2012. Its first democratically elected president was sworn in, then caused national outrage and division by behaving blatantly undemocratically, though public pressure forced Mohamed Mursi to rescind his decree placing himself above the law sooner than he promised.

A highly controversial constitution has just been approved by some 64% of voters - albeit with turnout of only around 30% - amid allegations of fraud and irregularities. Mursi's calls for dialogue have so far fallen on the deaf ears of an exasperated - but reenergized and united - opposition.

Egypt's political and economic woes are likely to continue well into 2013, and possibly plague the duration of Mursi's presidency - a far cry from the heady days of optimism following Hosni Mubarak's downfall.

Libya

The past year saw Libya's continued transition to democracy since Muammar Qaddafi's ouster. Elections were held in July to form the General National Congress, from which a prime minister and cabinet would be chosen. The secular National Forces Alliance prevailed over Islamist parties, bucking a regional trend of Islamist electoral successes.

In August, the interim government - the Transitional National Council - handed power to the Congress, as promised. However, Libya has experienced tribal and regional tensions, culminating in lawlessness, open combat, and a movement for autonomy in the country's oil-rich east - the birthplace of the revolution - with accusations of economic and political marginalization.

The government is struggling to disband and co-opt the myriad tribal militias into the national army, amid increasing public frustration at the lack of security. One of the biggest headline-grabbers regarding Libya in the last year was the murder of the American ambassador and other staff in an attack on the US embassy.

Gulf states

Despite their wealth, and willingness to use it to keep public frustration at bay, the Gulf states have not been immune to unrest, with the most serious in 2013 taking place in Bahrain, Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia.

However, "the lid on the pressure cooker" is "still screwed down tight," wrote the Guardian's assistant editor and foreign affairs columnist Simon Tisdall. The Gulf States are helped by their knowledge that their oil and gas wealth ensures Western backing, with a deafening silence from the U.S. and Britain - as well as security agreements and weapons sales.

Bahrain's monarchy spent 2012 promising reforms and calling for dialogue, amid occasional outbreaks of violence between protesters and security forces. This will likely continue in 2013, as will Kuwait's unrest, which has increased markedly as the year draws to a close.

Jordan

On my regular travels to Jordan, those I speak to tell me of popular discontent - even among the king's traditional support base - that is under-reported, both inside and outside the country. People are unhappy with the rising price of essential products such as fuel, and the slow pace of promised political and economic reforms.

"Unaccountable government, rampant corruption and the influence of patronage networks added to public resentment at...austerity measures," wrote the Guardian's former Middle East editor Brian Whitaker. The king "has talked constantly about reform since coming to the throne almost 13 years ago...with very little to show for it."

Despite the International Monetary Fund predicting economic growth reaching 3% by the end of 2012, and GDP rising by 3.5% in 2013, the past year has seen unprecedented protests. This has "made investors wary," according to the Oxford Business Group, which says that public debt "will have risen substantially" by the end of 2012. Inflation is also forecast to rise in the coming year.

The economy is struggling to cope with a growing influx of Syrian refugees (250,000 as of December), as well as 450,000 Iraqis, while receiving nowhere near enough international aid to adequately care for them. The conflict in Syria has also hit tourism in Jordan - a vital revenue source - as well as external trade, with many of its export routes cut when its neighbour closed its borders.

Legislative elections due in January may be hampered by public scepticism and a boycott call by opposition movements, which "could lead to further unrest in 2013," says the OBG. "Analysts expect the 17th parliament to be a copy of the controversial 16th chamber, with few new faces," wrote Jordanian journalist Raed Omari.

Iraq

Ongoing protests in Iraq have increased markedly in December, particularly among Sunnis who accuse the Shia Prime Minister Nouri Maliki of instituting sectarian policies.

"Iraq's politicians seem more interested in factional wrangling than in setting the country to rights," wrote the Guardian's former Middle East editor Brian Whitaker. "Maliki's behaviour has become increasingly authoritarian as he seeks to amass power for himself...Not that any of Maliki's opponents would necessarily behave differently."

Tunisia

Tunisia has experienced its share of instability in the past year, with protests against the state of the economy, as well as demonstrations by secularists against a democratically elected government that they deem too Islamist (despite being in coalition with liberals), and Salafis who accuse the government of not being Islamist enough.

Other Arab states

The past year has witnessed ongoing protests in Mauritania, Palestine and Sudan. On the other hand, Algeria and Morocco have managed to largely placate public frustration, at least for the time being - the former by lifting the 19-year-old state of emergency, and the latter with political concessions by the king, a referendum on constitutional reforms, and pledges to respect civil rights and end corruption.

(Sharif Nashashibi, a London-based writer and Arab commentator, is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya. He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash.)