State of the Arab Spring

On the eve of President Obama's address, the Middle East's restive countries are experiencing everything from measured success to incipient civil war. Here's where things stand.


As President Barack Obama puts the finishing touches on what is expected to be a seminal speech on America’s engagement with the Middle East, it’s worth taking another look at the revolutions roiling the Arab world. Five months after Tunisian protesters overthrew their autocratic leader, sparking a wave of unrest from Libya to Oman, the euphoria of the first wave of democratic uprisings has largely given way to political stalemate, open warfare, brutal crackdowns, and backroom negotiations. That’s not to say that there haven’t been real and profound successes, but there’s also no doubt that the region has a much more complicated political landscape than it did in November of last year. Here then, on the eve of Obama’s speech, is a look at the State of the Arab Spring.

Success stories

The success stories of the Arab Spring have proved that a country’s ills don’t miraculously disappear when its dictator leaves the stage. Both post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt are facing the uncertainties of new political orders, the challenge of a wide array of popular grievances that were suppressed under previous regimes, and interim governments that have a suspect commitment to promised democratic reforms.

Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali may have been ousted in January, but the protest movement that drove him from power has never fully abandoned the streets. Interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, who served as the president of Tunisia’s Chamber of Deputies under Ben Ali, suggested that an election planned for July 24 to assemble a committee to write the country’s new constitution could be delayed. His announcement came after four days of protests demanding the resignation of his government, which police broke up on May 8 by firing tear gas at demonstrators.

"I do not think the Tunisian people, the founder of the revolution of dignity, need the services of old supporters of tyranny to continue on its path and reach its achievements," wrote M. Necibi on Nawaat, one of the most active dissident websites in Tunisia. "While the revolution continues, one is far from being free."

Egyptians has also discovered that their newfound freedoms do not automatically guarantee stability. Cairo has been the scene of bitter clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians in recent weeks, which have left 15 people dead. The clashes were serious enough to force Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s ruling military council, to deliver his first speech since assuming power, in which he vowed to crush with "an iron fist" those who instigate violence.

Quelling sectarian tensions, however, is easier said than done. Christian protesters have gathered outside the state TV station in Cairo, to protest their community’s lack of protection. And while some have blamed sectarian extremists on both sides for the violence, other Egypt analysts are having none of it. "Discussions about sectarianism in Egypt that harp on Xtian sectarianism as an equivalent issue reminds of discussions in US abt black racism," tweeted Century Foundation fellow Michael Wahid Hanna on May 13.

The growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains Egypt’s best-organized opposition group, has only exacerbated the fears of Christian and secular Egyptians alike. The Islamist organization — officially banned for over a half-century — recently launched a formal political party, and a prominent member of the organization announced that he would be a candidate in the country’s presidential election scheduled for later this year, albeit without the Brotherhood’s permission.

Meanwhile, the post-revolutionary government continues to debate how far it should push its corruption probe of members of the Mubarak family. Former first lady Suzanne Mubarak was released from prison after returning some of her assets to the state, while the government also confirmed that former President Hosni Mubarak would not be granted immunity from corruption charges.

One fear is that Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is made up of military officers who until recently were stalwart Mubarak supporters, could use the instability to renege on their promises of a swift transition to democracy. "I think there’s a tremendous amount of mistrust among the revolutionary groups about what the military’s intentions are — it seems like the military is on its own side and not anybody else’s," Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steve Cook told FP. "It’s not beyond the bounds to suggest that people will want to use the breakdown of social cohesion and instability to advance their political interests."

Descent into chaos

Ben Ali and Mubarak were certainly no angels, but, when push came to shove, they were unwilling to massacre their populations en masse in order to maintain their grip on power. But some Arab regimes are ruled by a different breed of dictator. In Syria, Libya, and Yemen, governments responded to popular uprisings with the massive application of military force, risking international intervention and social fragmentation.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which provided the legal justification for NATO’s intervention in Libya, was passed on March 17, just as Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s tanks encroached on the outskirts of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Over the past two months, a sustained international bombing campaign has weakened Qaddafi — rebels recently drove back his military from the western port city of Misrata, and made gains along the country’s mountainous border with Tunisia. However, these military setbacks, a pending ICC indictment of the Libyan leader, and the defection of top officials have not yet been enough to force the mercurial autocrat from power.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh appears to be intensifying his crackdown even as the country fractures around him. The capital of Sanaa has been the scene of competing protests by pro- and anti-government demonstrators in recent weeks, who have gathered by the hundreds of thousands. Saleh’s forces have used live ammunition against protesters in the southern town of Taiz, wounding dozens. Meanwhile, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has seized on the chaos: Militants belonging to the terrorist group launched multiple attacks over the weekend, killing 12 soldiers in 24 hours.

But despite the deteriorating security situation, chances of forcing Saleh from power appear increasingly distant. Saleh initially indicated that he would sign a plan sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council that would pave the way for his resignation within 30 days, but then threw a wrench in the process by saying that he would only sign in his capacity as head of the ruling party, not as president — a caveat bitterly opposed by the opposition. "Time to sleep after confusing day of #Saleh is signing or not," tweeted Ghanem_M. "Who cares will kick him out!!"

Meanwhile, a brutal military response by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not been enough to suppress the country’s determined opposition. Gruesome videos emerged of mass graves reportedly discovered in the southern city of Daraa; human rights organizations have estimated that over 850 people have been killed and over 10,000 arrested in the military crackdown, which has seen troops and tanks invade entire cities. Protesters nevertheless took to the streets again last Friday, albeit in lesser numbers than in previous weeks, with demonstrations occurring in the cities of Homs, Idlib, and the capital of Damascus.

The White House imposed new sanctions on Syria on May 18 that targeted Assad directly for the first time, but has stopped short of siding completely with the protesters’ demands. "The Obama administration is increasingly holding the Assad regime accountable for its actions against protesters, but it’s still hedging concerning its decision whether Assad must go or not," said Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Andrew Tabler.

Not with a bang, but a whimper

Several countries initially witnessed the stirrings of a protest movement — only to see the demonstrations quickly fizzle out. Morocco, long considered one of the Arab countries ripe for revolution, saw demonstrations peak on Feb. 20 when as many as 10,000 people took to the streets in the capital of Rabat to demand greater political freedom. Five people were killed in the day’s violence, and one protester narrowly avoided being flattened by a police van. But the protests died down as quickly as they started — by early March, reporters were crediting King Mohamed VI’s promises of reforms and the country’s omnipresent security services for nipping the movement in the bud.

Protests in Jordan similarly failed to achieve a critical mass. Thousands rallied against the country’s dire economic state as early as January, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai and a rejiggering of the cabinet. But the cycle of government capitulation followed by escalating demands from the opposition seen elsewhere in the region did not take hold in Jordan; the protests continued in fits and starts until March, before largely petering out.

King Abdullah II confirmed that his standing in Washington remains strong when he scored a meeting with President Barack Obama on May 17. "His Majesty discussed the reform efforts that are taking place inside Jordan," Obama said in a statement following the meeting. "[We] feel confident that, to the extent that he’s able to move these reforms forward, this will be good for the security and stability of Jordan."

But Jordan and Morocco’s allies don’t seem all that confident that the countries have seen the worst of the uprising. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announced on May 11 that it would begin membership talks with the kingdoms — a surprising step, given that the two countries do not border the Persian Gulf or have the oil riches of other GCC states. Many analysts suggested that it was an attempt to establish a "counterrevolutionary front" of countries opposed to the changes sweeping the Middle East.

But not even the GCC states have been completely immune from the regional unrest. Saudi Arabia experienced small protests on March 4 and March 11 in its Eastern Province, which is home to the majority of the country’s Shiite population — and its oil fields. King Abdullah, eager to avoid the unfamiliar sight of confrontations between state security forces and angry citizens, showered his subjects with $36 billion in handouts upon returning to the kingdom from medical treatment abroad. It appears that Saudi Arabia’s deep pocketbook has successfully defused the problem — for now.


The GCC established its counterrevolutionary bona fides in Bahrain, where it has been ruthlessly effective at crushing a popular uprising in the tiny Gulf kingdom. The ruling monarchy’s response to the demonstrations, which broke out in early February, was initially equivocal: The protesters were allowed to gather peacefully, and demonstrators in the capital, Manama, flocked to Pearl Square by the tens of thousands.

The regime’s tolerant attitude did not last. A military crackdown on Feb. 17 scattered the demonstrators at Pearl Square, killing at least four people. Perhaps due to splits in the ruling Khalifa family, the government then vacillated between attempts at repression and reconciliation — achieving neither. Videos of peaceful demonstrators being shot in cold blood on the streets of Manama did little to stop the protests’ numbers from growing.

By March 14, the regime’s allies in the Gulf — worried about the collapse of a fellow Sunni monarchy and Iranian intervention on behalf of the majority Shiite population — had seen enough. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent over 1,000 troops rolling into the kingdom under the aegis of the "Peninsula Shield" mutual protection program. The government crackdown accelerated: On March 18, the military demolished the Pearl Monument that had been at the literal center of the protest movement.

The crackdown has only worsened in recent days. Bahrain’s justice minister announced on May 3 that doctors and nurses who treat injured protesters would be prosecuted before a military court. According to a major opposition group, dozens of mosques and Shiite religious sites have been destroyed by the government. According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, dozens have been killed and hundreds arrested since February.

And the tactic has worked. The United States, concerned about enabling Iranian influence and endangering the crucial base of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, has been largely silent about the government crackdown. Obama has called for the regime to embark on "a process of meaningful reform" but has stopped short of taking any actions that would pressure it to do so.

On Thursday, May 19, Obama will address the very different situations in these countries, in which the United States has varying interests, and try to lay out a coherent U.S. policy toward them. But at least a few former officials think he shouldn’t even try. "Great powers behave inconsistently — even hypocritically — depending on their interests," wrote Aaron David Miller in FP. "That’s not unusual; it’s part of the job description." Sounds like the president has his work cut out for him.

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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