A Revolutionary Ramadan
Where the uprisings in the Arab world stand today.
"O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another," reads a verse of the Quran. The idea of diverse groups and countries joining together in common cause is never more appropriate than during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on Aug. 1. Over the next month, many of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims will fast from sun up to sunset and pledge to rededicate themselves to the tenets of their faith.
Although it is supposed to be a period of introspection, politics doesn't stop during the holy month. In 1979, the Middle East's last revolutionary Ramadan, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized on the holiday to shutter restaurants and ban music from the airwaves -- a step that signaled the Islamists' consolidation of power in the country. And in 2001, much of the NATO campaign in Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban and brought President Hamid Karzai to power took place during Ramadan.
This tumultuous year in the Middle East promises to be no different. Ramadan has already witnessed the beginning of the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who stands accused of corruption and ordering the killing of protesters -- charges that could bring the death penalty. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad launched a vicious crackdown on protesters in the cities of Hama and Deir al-Zour, a move that provoked Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait to withdraw their ambassadors. And that's just the first week of the holy month.
"O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another," reads a verse of the Quran. The idea of diverse groups and countries joining together in common cause is never more appropriate than during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on Aug. 1. Over the next month, many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims will fast from sun up to sunset and pledge to rededicate themselves to the tenets of their faith.
Although it is supposed to be a period of introspection, politics doesn’t stop during the holy month. In 1979, the Middle East’s last revolutionary Ramadan, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized on the holiday to shutter restaurants and ban music from the airwaves — a step that signaled the Islamists’ consolidation of power in the country. And in 2001, much of the NATO campaign in Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban and brought President Hamid Karzai to power took place during Ramadan.
This tumultuous year in the Middle East promises to be no different. Ramadan has already witnessed the beginning of the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who stands accused of corruption and ordering the killing of protesters — charges that could bring the death penalty. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad launched a vicious crackdown on protesters in the cities of Hama and Deir al-Zour, a move that provoked Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait to withdraw their ambassadors. And that’s just the first week of the holy month.
Since the heady days of February, Arab activists have received a rude lesson in the stubborn resilience of the Middle East’s autocrats. Some protest movements have been smothered in their infancy, others have devolved into civil war, while a few have achieved fragile gains. But partisans throughout the region are continuing their struggle this holy month — while also sparing a moment for quiet reflection.
After an 18-day revolution led to Mubarak’s departure to Sharm el-Sheikh on Feb. 11, Egypt has been ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Egypt’s myriad youth movements attempted to revive the sit-ins to express their frustration with the slow pace of reform and continued military rule. But SCAF is doing its best to make sure that the Ramadan protests don’t emerge as a threat to their rule: Soldiers and plain clothed policemen forcibly cleared the remaining protesters from Tahrir Square on Aug. 1, sending at least a dozen tanks to the area to restore order.
But even as SCAF cracks down, the remnants of Mubarak’s regime continue to crack up. Mubarak’s trial, on charges of corruption and murder, commenced on Aug. 3 with the bizarre spectacle of the former dictator wheeled into the defendant’s cage on a hospital bed. The former dictator was prosecuted along with his two sons and former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly. With the trial televised across the Middle East, Arabs everywhere watched Mubarak raise a tired hand to deny the charges against him.
Yemenis observed the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt closely, hoping to end the 33-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh through street protests. After Hosni Mubarak fell, they came out by the hundreds of thousands, crowding public squares across the country to call for Saleh’s ouster. Dozens of diplomats denounced the regime, an entire armored division defected en masse, and rural tribesmen surged into the capital, Sanaa, to join the protesters. Saleh promised to step down, and seemed near to accepting a deal that would ease him out of power and enable a democratic transition — but again and again he balked. Eventually, fighting in the famously well-armed country broke out after Saleh mobilized his own supporters and, more importantly, his loyal security forces, led by his sons and nephews. Only when a bomb exploded in the presidential mosque, gravely wounding Saleh and sending him to convalesce in Saudi Arabia, did the stalemate appear to break.
A month and a half later, the Yemeni leader is now out of the hospital but refuses to step down, leaving the country’s institutions in a state of disarray. Shadowy insurgents have exploited the chaos to seize territory in the country’s south, prompting a counteroffensive by government troops and tribesmen. Meanwhile, diplomats warn of "Somaliization" and impending famine.
Sleepy Saudi Arabia has earned its reputation for rock-solid political stability, but the kingdom has seen surprising pockets of unrest this year, with small protest marches in Shiite towns in the east and a rare demonstration or two in central Riyadh. King Abdullah reacted swiftly, announcing a $130 billion package of economic goodies intended to stave off wider dissent. Since then, Saudi Arabia has only gotten more autocratic, the most recent example being a draft law that defines "terrorism" as anything from "harming the reputation of the state" to "endangering national unity" to "questioning the integrity" of the royal family.
The House of Saud has long been allergic to any hint of popular unrest on the international front as well — but it may be prepared to make an exception in the case of Syria. The Alawi-led Syrian regime’s crackdown on predominantly Sunni protesters provoked the ire of King Abdullah, who implored Assad to "stop the killing machine," and withdrew the Saudi ambassador in protest. The Gulf Arab countries of Bahrain and Kuwait soon followed suit, withdrawing their envoys from Damascus.
Of all the region’s uprisings, Bahrain’s — a call for greater civil rights and political freedoms that quickly devolved into sectarian hatred — is the most clearly failed. Sporadic acts of defiance have continued, but the massive demonstrations that began on Feb. 14 and culminated in a sit-in at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout have long since been crushed by the Sunni-minority regime, at the cost of dozens killed and hundreds injured or arrested. As if to underline the point, the towering monument at Pearl Roundabout was itself torn down and destroyed by authorities. Meanwhile, an alleged purge of universities, hospitals, and other institutions has seen more than 2,000 Bahrainis lose their jobs, while radicalized Sunnis blame an imagined American-Iranian plot for the unrest.
Meanwhile, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s "national dialogue," which resulted in a few cosmetic reforms to Bahrain’s political system, largely confirmed the persistent divisions in the island kingdom. Wefaq, the largest Shiite opposition group, pulled out of the dialogue on July 17 after complaining that it received only "three minutes" in each session to address its concerns. But Bahrain’s protesters aren’t taking their defeat lying down: Thousands returned to the streets on July 29 to protest the results of the dialogue. The government released two detained opposition members of parliament on Aug. 7; they were reportedly tortured while in prison.
As the uprising in Syria passes the five-month mark, the violence wracking the country is bad and getting worse. Over 2,000 Syrians have been killed in President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown, according to human rights activists.
The violence has only intensified during Ramadan, which activists hope will allow them to organize ever-larger protests. The Syrian military attacked Hama and Deir al-Zour at the beginning of the holy month, using artillery fire and snipers to suppress popular demonstrations in the restive cities. The crackdown cost more than 300 Syrians their lives, and drew the ire of Syria’s neighbors. Not only did the Gulf Arab countries withdraw their ambassadors, but the Turkish government — one of Syria’s most important allies — dispatched Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to deliver a "harsh message" to Assad.
The success or failure of the protest movement now largely hinges on Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities, which have witnessed sporadic protests but still remain under government control.
Libya’s rebels have made both military and diplomatic gains recently, but infighting now threatens their hard-won gains. Rebel fighters have carved out a foothold in the western Nafusa Mountains, along the Libyan-Tunisian border, and are attempting to advance toward Tripoli. The rebels have also advanced on the strategic oil town of Brega in the east, suffering dozens of casualties in their attempts to take it from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces. The rebels’ Transitional National Council also received a boost when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally recognized it as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people — a step that could pave the way for it to receive tranches of the more than $30 billion in frozen assets.
However, the rebels received a shocking blow on July 28 when it emerged that their army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah Younis, was killed by fellow rebels. Some had accused Younis, a longtime Qaddafi confidant, of secretly negotiating with the Libyan leader, though the exact reason that he was killed remains unclear.
Meanwhile, the Western powers leading the NATO campaign are quietly searching for a managed solution to the Libya crisis that ensures Qaddafi’s exit from power. But with an ICC indictment hanging over his head and no obvious way for the rebels to penetrate his stronghold of Tripoli, the aging autocrat has every reason to stick to his guns.
WEST BANK AND GAZA
The Palestinians arguably wrote the book on Arab political activism, but the Occupied Territories have been relatively quiet over the last few months. A dubious unity deal (not to mention a few cracked heads) seems to have held off protests demanding reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the two dominant political factions, and calls for a "third intifada" against Israel have so far gone unheeded. Still, dramatic May 15 marches on Israel’s de facto borders have shown how unarmed activists can command the world’s attention, and a prominent jailed political leader has called for nonviolent protests in support of the Palestinians’ impending U.N. statehood bid. If anything, Palestine is the dog that hasn’t barked — yet.
Since Feb. 20, when more than 10,000 protesters hit the streets in major cities across Morocco, the small Arab monarchy has been beset by low level political unrest. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia where protesters demanded the fall of the regime, Moroccans have mostly limited their activism to calls for democratic reforms, enhanced rights for women and minorities, and limits on the power of the king.
In response to mounting pressure, King Mohammed VI drafted a new constitution that cedes power to an elected prime minister and establishes an independent judiciary. The July 1 constitutional referendum passed with 98 percent of the vote, but was boycotted by members of the pro-democracy February 20 Movement — named for the date the protests began — which continues to stage demonstrations in cities across Morocco. On July 31, thousands of protesters hit the streets in the cities of Tangier and Casablanca to press for more substantial reforms.
Protests began in Jordan in late January, when the spirit of Tahrir swept north to the Hashemite Kingdom. King Abdullah II, already grappling with his country’s economic woes, attempted to preempt further unrest by dismissing his cabinet and Prime Minister Samir Rifai, replacing him with Marouf Al Bakhit, who he enjoined to implement "genuine political reform."
But promises of reform have remained vague — such as the king’s curious announcement in June that future governments would be elected, not appointed, though no mention was made of a timeline for implementation. While protests have yet to reach a critical mass, confrontations between demonstrators and pro-government loyalists have at times turned violent. King Abdullah’s motorcade was reportedly attacked during a visit to a tribal area in the south of a country on June 13, and tensions were reignited two days later when riot police and pro-government thugs attacked a protest camp in central Amman.
The second country to erupt in protest after Tunisia, Algeria initially appeared as if it might follow in its neighbor’s footsteps and rid itself of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. But after weeks of sporadic but violent protests, in which at least five died, a delicate calm has settled over the North African petro-giant. Made weary by a decade of civil war in the 1990s, Algerians have by and large focused their rancor on bread and butter issues instead of political reform. In recent weeks, the government has responded by implementing a number of economic reforms, including a 25 percent increase in public spending designed to placate unrest.
Largely unaffected by the Arab Spring, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) — the fourteenth attempt to create a functional government since civil war erupted in 1991 — faces a fierce Islamist insurgency. News that the Somali rebel group al Shabab has retreated from the capital city, Mogadishu, sounds like progress, but Islamists still control vast territory across the country.
But it’s the widespread famine in Somalia’s south that is the country’s most pressing problem. One in three Somali children suffers from malnutrition, and some 11 million people are in need of emergency humanitarian assistance, according to USAID. An uptick in terrorist activity, including the 2010 bombings in Uganda that killed 70 people, has also raised concerns that al Shabab is forging deeper ties with al Qaeda. The United States has recently expanded its use of Predator drones to target the country’s Islamic militants — while also considering steps to ease anti-terror restrictions in order to allow Western-funded NGOs to operate in al Shabab controlled areas of the country.
The tiny gulf Sultanate of Oman was hit with protests in late February when thousands of demonstrators turned out to demand jobs, better wages, and an end to corruption. But like their counterparts in Morocco and Jordan, protesters did not demand the ouster of Sultan Qaboos, who has ruled Oman for nearly 41 years.
In a bid to sooth unrest, the sultan reshuffled his cabinet in March and promised to create some 50,000 new civil service jobs. Since then the protests have largely petered out, which convinced credit rating giant Standard & Poor’s to remove its negative credit watch rating for Oman on July 20.
Whether out of genuine conviction or cynical realpolitik, this hydrocarbon-rich emirate on the Persian Gulf has emerged as the region’s most ardent advocate of the Arab Spring, underwriting Al Jazeera’s cheerleading coverage of the demonstrations, pulling its diplomats from Damascus, and sending loads of humanitarian aid and even military supplies to the Libyan rebels.
At home, however, there has been virtually no challenge to Emir Hamad bin Khalifa’s absolute power: no petitions, no protests, and very little dissent in the country’s thoroughly tamed press. Qatar’s astronomical per capita GDP of $179,000 — the highest in the world, by some measures — may have something to do with the country’s tranquility. The one sign of civic life has been a surprisingly vigorous consumer boycott campaign aimed at Qtel, the emirate’s major telecommunications company — no substitute for democratic politics, but perhaps a harbinger of things to come.
A week after Mauritanian businessman Yacoub Ould Dahoud set himself ablaze near the presidential palace on Jan. 17, hundreds gathered in the capital of Nouakchott to call for political and economic reform. Initially, Mauritania Prime Minister Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdaf said that people were free to protest, because "this is a democratic country," but by late April police were using tear gas and batons to disperse anti-government demonstrators.
Although the protesters, who organized themselves on Facebook, demanded the resignation of Laghdaf, they made no attempt to unseat President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who came to power in a coup in 2008.
Protests have since subsided as the country grapples with fresh quandaries like the Mauritanian government’s simmering conflict with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Fighting between government forces and Islamic militants claimed the life of one Mauritanian soldier and injured five in July.
Iraq, which is struggling to emerge from a brutal civil war and foreign occupation, has witnessed sporadic protests — but nothing that threatens to challenge Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s firm hold on power. Following the outbreak of unrest in February, Maliki vowed to fire underperforming ministers after a 100-day period of assessment, then promptly reneged on that promise after demonstrations failed to gain momentum.
Iraqis, meanwhile, are caught up in the never-ending soap opera of the government formation process, which remains incomplete 16 months after the election. Iraq’s political paralysis has complicated the future of U.S. troops in the country, who are scheduled to withdraw by the end of the year. While U.S. officials have signaled their willingness to keep a residual force in the country, law requires that Baghdad ask Washington to do so, and the legal wrangling over such a deal has kept U.S. plans in limbo.
Tunisian protesters kicked off the Arab Spring by ousting former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January, but their revolution didn’t end there. Elections are planned for October, but some opposition parties have warned that Ben Ali loyalists maintain a pernicious influence in the corridors of power. Protesters have also taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the lack of job opportunities and what they see as the interim government’s unwillingness to break with the last vestiges of Ben Ali’s rule.
The demonstrations have laid bare the tensions between the country’s secular establishment and its Islamist movements, which are expected to perform well in elections. The country’s interim prime minister blamed "agitators" for clashes that led to the death of a 14-year old boy in the town of Sidi Bouzid, where the protests began in December 2010.
THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Like its Qatari neighbor, the wealthy UAE has seen few signs of political ferment over the last few months. If anything, the country has gone backwards in terms of political freedoms — the only demonstrations of note were actually to denounce a group of five activists who were arrested in April for allegedly insulting the emir, Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The dissidents, among them a lecturer at the Sorbonne’s Abu Dhabi campus, were signatories of a petition calling for a constitutional monarchy and participants in UAE Hewar, a banned online forum. Still, few analysts would say the ruling family is under any real pressure to reform — years of reasonably effective governance and truckloads of cash can buy a lot of silence.
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