The hopes for democracy that bloomed in the “Arab Spring” are drying up in a long, hot summer of crackdowns, civil war and continuing protests.
“I think the Arab Spring has devolved into a long, hot summer with severe setbacks to pro-democracy movements in Libya, Syria and Bahrain, violent civil war in Yemen and growing instability in Egypt,” said James Phillips, Middle East specialist at the Heritage Foundation.
On the plus side, he said, Tunisia, whose public demonstrations kick-started the Arab Spring, “is the country with the most optimistic prognosis, due to its large and well-educated middle class and secular tradition.”
P.J. Crowley, former chief spokesman at the State Department, said the region may end up something like Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union collapsed. Some countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, became democratic. Others, such as Belarus, stuck to their old repressive ways.
“Change is occurring” in the Arab world, Mr. Crowley said. “The region as a whole will not be the same, but on a country-by-country basis, successful transformations are definitely not assured. Some will go all the way, some part way and a couple will resist change entirely.”
Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa show:
• There are no signs that royal rulers, particularly the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, are embracing any type of democracy.
“Now there are backlashes,” said Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “Instead of reforming, they are becoming more reactionary. So the ‘Spring’ has really polarized Arab politics. And of course the Saudis are going to try to terminate all manifestations of the ‘Spring’ and are working to that end.”
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh fled to Saudi Arabia last month after barely surviving a rocket attack. Fighting continues as government troops, tribal warlords and al Qaeda sympathizers compete for power.
“The unrest has given al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula more freedom to operate within the country in expanded safe havens,” Katherine Zimmerman, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in the Weekly Standard last month.
“Yemen’s escalating violence, an economy on the brink of collapse, and the prospect of widespread civil war or a fragmented state may present the White House with a very dark reality — the emergence of a terrorist sanctuary on the Arabian Peninsula hosting an outfit that has targeted the U.S. homeland,” she wrote.
Human rights groups estimate that Mr. Assad’s regime has killed more than 1,600 Syrians and imprisoned more than 15,000. The army last week launched an assault on the city of Homs. Amateur video showed a mostly deserted city, as residents went on strike and either fled or hunkered down inside their homes.
Syrian state media say Mr. Assad has begun a national dialogue aimed at ushering in multiparty democracy. But Human Rights Watch reports the regime continues to kill or arrest those advocating freedom.
“President Assad talks reform, but continues to practice repression, not only through the widespread killings of demonstrators, but also through mass arrests,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Who does President Assad mean to include in his ‘national dialogue’ when his security forces are targeting the very people who might have something to say to him?”
Still, Mr. Springborg argues: “It is much better to have an ‘Arab Spring’ than no spring at all. It has demonstrated the limits of authoritarian power. It has put on notice all regimes in the Arab world and beyond.
“This is a region that has been sunk into sort of a continuation of the Cold War for the past two generations. So something had to be done, and it wasn’t going to be done if the people didn’t take to the streets.”
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