The Arab Spring certainly has not blossomed into an Arab Summer. The “democratic transition” heralded by Western journalists and politicians is moving at a snail’s pace in Tunisia and Egypt — if at all. Yemen really never was about democracy and Bahrain’s demonstrations for freedom began to fizzle once the Sunni monarchy ordered brutal attacks on the primarily Shia protesters and then did what Bahrainis do best — financially satisfied the deal makers after jailing top Shia leaders. Of course it didn’t hurt to have a Saudi Army contingent roll across the causeway separating the two countries in support of the ruling Khalifa family’s security forces.
Libya and Syria have presented very different issues, even though both have death and destruction as a characteristic. The Assad family has been on alert for a Sunni-driven uprising for years. They had practiced their planned reaction in the past by killing tens of thousands led by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982. Qaddafi has had to keep a lid on Cyrenaica (the eastern portion of Libya) ever since his overthrow of King Idris in 1969. The King’s family came from that part of the country and tribalism once again has become a major factor in national politics. Key Cyrenaican politicians always were strategically placed in Qaddafi’s governments to limit regional dissent and add balance to the Tripolitanian dominance. To add further confusion, Libyan recruits for al Qaeda disproportionately came from Cyrenaica.
Though Tunisia was the site of the first popular uprising, it was Egypt and the many thousands of people cramming Tahrir Square that really signaled the political upheaval that was characterized as a new era in Arab governance. Within the numerous anti-Mubarak factions that rushed to protests in the street was the long restricted — but still widely followed — Muslim Brotherhood. These disciplined elements were the ones on which the military kept the closest watch.
What evolved in Egypt was always going to be the key to uprisings elsewhere. The continued dominance of the Egyptian military — which has ultimately controlled the nation since Nasser — marked the immediate post-demonstration period. In the past two weeks, however, crowds have returned to Tahrir Square demanding trials for many of the Mubarak politicians and security force personnel. This represents essentially a challenge to the current military administration and shows that a volatile civilian atmosphere continues to exist. The Muslim Brotherhood has so far stayed out of the fray.
While most analysts concede a close relationship between the Assad regime in Syria and the clerical leadership in Iran, the working relationship between the Egyptian and Syrian military goes back many years. The bond leans heavily on their shared antagonism toward the Muslim Brotherhood, though the reasons for this enmity are different. It’s been known for some time that Damascus and Cairo maintained and utilized backdoors to each other’s mutual military and intelligence interests.
Even though the United States has been the principal source of aid to the Egyptian military, the British have continued to be an important conduit of Egyptian interests in Europe. This has been true also of the Syrians, who would have been expected from their history to be closer to the French. The sending of Bashar al-Assad to Britain for further medical schooling by his father, Hafez al-Assad, was a carefully-made political decision. The Assad family holds its London connections even today in the highest regard. (Conspicuously, when pro-Assad mobs attacked the U.S. and French embassies a short while ago, the U.K. embassy was spared.)
It is this sort of connectivity and behind-the-scenes intrigue that holds a traditional role in all Arab affairs. The people in the street may courageously demonstrate for freedoms taken for granted in the West, but in the end the deals are made among the privileged few. This is particularly true in Yemen, where the extended family of President Ali Abdullah Saleh hold controlling positions on both sides of the current upheaval.
Similarly, military and political power positions held by the Assads’ Alawite clan and their Shia allies are under threat by the majority Sunni populace favored by Wahhabist Sunni Saudis. On a personal basis, the Saudi ruler, King Abdullah, always has been unhappy with the efforts of the Assads to curry favor with Iran. The West looks for and encourages democratic yearnings, while the Middle East in general and Arabs in particular manipulate and are manipulated by various traditional interests both religious and political.
Perhaps the current situation in Libya is the best example of Western misperceptions of democracy in action in the region. In fact, several individuals of Cyrenaican background serving in the Qaddafi government (the interior and justice ministers) joined forces with local eastern Libyan political, commercial and tribal power brokers to take advantage of the highly-publicized uprising in neighboring Egypt, actually aiming to organize a similar event in their oil-rich eastern region. No matter how one views this escalating civil war, it is not a revolution for democracy — rather an attempted coup d’état led by the eastern sector of the country aiming to overthrow the western province-dominated government of a quasi-monarchist ruler pretending to be a democratic socialist.
And lest we forget, the principal military and political allies of the Cyrenaicans are those Western European nations (like the U.S., which provides defense-budget support) that hold the main interests in Libyan oil development and distribution. And this is an Arab Spring?