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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Arab Protests: The going gets tough for demonstrators and embattled leaders


What initially looked like an Arab spring is turning into a dark chapter of Arab history in which authoritarian rulers are employing lethal violence in a bid to retain power.(File photo)

What initially looked like an Arab spring is turning into a dark chapter of Arab history in which authoritarian rulers are employing lethal violence in a bid to retain power.(File photo)
The going is getting tough for demonstrators as four months of mass anti-government protests across the Middle East and North Africa enter a new phase following the relatively easy toppling earlier this year of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt.

What initially looked like an Arab spring is turning into a dark chapter of Arab history in which authoritarian rulers are employing lethal violence in a bid to retain power or, if worst comes to worst, cut deals that will secure their immunity.

Hundreds if not thousands have been killed as Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fight brutally to maintain their grip on power with no end to the violence in sight. 
Their resolve has been strengthened by the arrest of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and charges brought against the exiled Tunisian leader Zine Abedine Ben Ali. In Yemen, it took the intervention of the oil-rich Gulf countries to cut a deal that will ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the coming month on the back of a promise of immunity for himself and his family.

By the same token, the success of the protests in Egypt and Tunisia and the subsequent prosecution of former officials of the toppled regimes serve as an example for protesters elsewhere and a reinforcement of their perseverance.

The fate of other Arab rulers hangs in the balance. The monarchs of Oman and Morocco, unlike many others in the Arab world, have a window of opportunity with protesters demanding political and economic rather than regime change. That could change if Sultan Qaboos and King Mohammed VI fail to respond sufficiently proactively to demands for political and economic reform.

In Morocco, King Mohammed faces a litmus test on Sunday when protesters, joined for the first time by the country’s trade unions, will again press the Arab world's longest-serving dynasty for reform, despite its attempts to appease the demonstrators. The risk of violence has increased with security forces on heightened alert following this week’s bombing of a cafe in the tourist city of Marrakesh that killed 16 people, many of them foreign tourists.

Tension is also high in advance of the protest because of government fears that the participation of the trade unions could significantly boost the protests.

The protests in Tunisia gained significant momentum when the trade unions decided to throw their weight behind them. Moroccan trade unionists say this week’s government announcement that it is increasing public sector salaries and raising the minimum wage as of Sunday will not dissuade them from joining the protests.

All in all, if the going is getting tough for protesters, the same is true for the region’s increasingly embattled leaders. That is also true for countries like Tunisia and Lebanon who are finding it more difficult to stay out of the fray. And it is true as well for the United States and Europe who are walking a fine line trying to limit their military engagement, prevent the region from destabilizing further and ensure that their vital national interests are secured.

The battle for Libya has already spilled beyond its borders with forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi clashing with Tunisian soldiers after chasing rebel fighters across the frontier.

International pressure is certain to increase on Mr. Qaddafi, who this weekend again vowed not to step down and urged NATO to negotiate a ceasefire. NATO warplanes carried out bombing raid near the Libyan television broadcaster as the colonel delivered his one-and-a-half hour address to the nation. Mr. Qaddafi’s offer is a no-go with the rebels as well as their allied backers demanding his departure.

NATO earlier this week targeted the Libyan leader’s compound in Tripoli. Stepped up NATO airstrikes are likely to aim in the coming days at tightening the noose around Colonel Qaddafi’s neck while further leveling the battlefield in what promises to be a protracted struggle as allied imposition of the United Nation-sanctioned no-fly zone in the North African state enters its second month.

The slow-going in Libya coupled with the threat of the crisis spilling across the border into Lebanon and possibly drawing Israel into confrontation in a possible Syrian bid to divert attention from its crisis has persuaded the United States and Europe to step up pressure on Mr. Assad with economic and financial sanctions and shy away from a military commitment.

That may prove increasingly difficult as Syria escalates its brutal crackdown on protesters. US and European officials fear that military intervention in Syria could spark a war with Israel, with the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah acting as a Syrian proxy. Syria, moreover, unlike Libya, has a well-trained army backed by Russian-made missiles and combat aircraft as well as a possible stock of chemical weapons.

The week’s most encouraging news—with some caveats—is Yemeni President Saleh’s expected signing of a Gulf-sponsored agreement with the opposition to step down after 30 years in office–the third Arab leader to be forced out of office since the beginning of this year.

The Yemeni model of an Arab mediated transition is however unlikely to be replicated elsewhere in the Arab world. Mr. Saleh is far more dependent on Gulf largesse than other Arab leaders, and the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia wield significantly greater influence in Yemen than elsewhere in the Arab world.

As the battle lines harden between protesters and embattled regimes, the Middle East and North Africa are seeing what originally looked like an Arab spring turn into a long, hot summer. Continued bloodshed will put the United States and Europe in an increasingly uncomfortable corner in which the inherent contradictions in their responses to fires across the region will be called into question.

It also raises the specter of groups in Arab countries so far relatively unaffected by the protests being inspired to follow the example of their brethren who are risking their lives to achieve greater political freedom and increased economic opportunity. Said one Arab activist, in not entirely original words: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

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