By Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal
The sweet fragrance of Arab Spring heralding from Tunisia and Egypt has turned sour in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain. Even in Tunisia and Egypt, it was never unadulterated sweetness; the success was a mix of hope and despair. The old regimes collapsed, but the new order is far from what was hoped for. This is not the dawn envisioned by those who came out in their millions, but in both cases, a process of change has been initiated and it may only be a matter of time that a final break with the past is achieved and people get rid of the ever-present shadow of fear and humility. Yemen, Libya, Syria and Bahrain are, however, another story, each in its own way.
Yemen and Libya have both fractured to such an extent that they can easily be said to be in the initial stages of a civil war which may rage for years. This is because of the presence of independent players: in both countries, numerous smaller factions are fighting each other. There are local, regional and national-level alliances which have no name. The two largest and identifiable factions—the so-called rebels and the government forces—have become symbolic while many internal, much smaller alliances and factions on both side of the divide, are changing ground realities in an indeterminate manner.
Libya is more volatile than Yemen. The recent murder of Abdul Fattah Younes, who had defected to the rebels only after four decades of friendship with and service to Gaddafi, is a clear indication of this internal break up. His murder has also revived age-old tribal divisions in the Libyan desert and it is unlikely that his tribe, which is amongst the largest in eastern Libya, will easily forgive and forget this murder, after all, Obeidi tribe is well-known for its bravery.
With all the unknown factors, Libya remains an emergent situation and the NATO led military initiative, which amounts of an invasion sans ground troops, may be a long and slow war in which no one will be victorious. Saif al-Islam, the old colonel’s eldest son, has been able to put together a formidable challenge to NATO-supported rebels by using tribal loyalties.
The brutal crackdown in Bahrain has received far less international (read Western) attention, because of the regime’s deep ties with the ruling cliques in Britain, France, and the United States. The submissive shaykhdom is a virtual US colony and a frontline state for Western plans against Iran. No amount of human rights violation can, therefore, stir the conscience of the Western powers. Thus, right from the beginning, the Arab Spring never had a chance in Bahrain.
Syria is altogether a different case. France and Britain are both happy to work with the dictatorial regime; it is a trusted, weak, and submissive family known for its full cooperation whenever occasion arose. There is no oil and Syria’s strategic importance in the Middle East equation, dominated by the Western concerns for Israel, has meant that the safest bet for that wonderful land of beautiful people is a harsh family fiefdom that keeps its citizens in bondage. This has worked for over forty years for both the Asad family and its Western supports. The arrival of the Arab Spring in Syria was thus a big surprise for all.
Syria is a country where everyone breathes in air mixed with fear. The fear of the ever-present mukhabarat has been the greatest factor in favor of the regime. This monstrous fear, with which every Syrian has lived for over forty years, is a unique blend of oppression, economic poverty, lethargy of people, and real-life experiences of death and disappearance of family members. The Arab Spring broke the spell of that fear. For the first time in over forty years, people have been able to breathe air that is not mixed with fear.
The Syrian situation is also dominated by the tribal loyalties, but in this case, the Alawi clan stands in stark isolation of the weaker, but majority Sunni population. It has, nevertheless, been able to rule with brute force for over forty years. Syrians have not known independence and freedom from fear. Yet, despite the brutality with which Syrian state has tried to crush people, it stands on the wrong side of history. Even though it is being protected by the Western powers, it is unlikely to survive. Like Libya and Yemen, it faces a complete economic meltdown. Time is against it and thus every day the regime becomes more ruthless, more desperate. But ultimately it is the resilience of people that matters.
In all cases, ultimately, on the one side of the equation is brute power held by these regimes through a military that has never been successful against anyone but its own people. This power has many local centers and “mini-armies”, controlled by influential families and generals, are the greatest contributors to this power. These armies are made of brute men who have been indoctrinated and bought with privileges; for all practical purposes, these are mercenaries who can be sent to any town to ruthlessly kill innocent civilians. On the other side of the equation are millions of people who do not even have a leader. They are just reacting to a living situation which has become untenable.
The greatest achievement of the Arab Spring so far is the lifting of the veil of fear that had enfolded millions of human beings for decades. Even in this sour-smelling stage of the Arab Spring in Syrian, Yemen, and Libya, one can entertain a certain hope for its future because once people have realized that it is possible to shake off fear, they cannot be held in bondage anymore.
The true dawn of a future free of dictators may still be a generation away, but the march of history is such that no place on earth can remain immune to the winds of change, not even the Arab world with all its lethargy.