- - Saturday, May 7, 2011

BERLIN — A cold rain is falling on the Arab Spring, as autocrats violently cling to power; but many pro-democracy advocates still hope for the change inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that toppled long-term rulers.

Western observers of the region remain worried about the civil war in Libya and the brutal crackdowns on peaceful protests in Syria and Yemen.

“It’s just not clear yet how it is going to turn out,” said Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American professor of Arab studies at New York’s Columbia University. “It’s early … I wouldn’t say that it’s not necessarily going to be successful in Yemen, or Syria.”

In spite of the see-saw pattern of most of the protest movements, some observers say there is a good chance that the seeds from the Arab Spring eventually will put down deep roots in the entire region.

“I think it’s a matter of time,” said Maha Azzam, an Egyptian-born Middle East specialist at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House.

“While each country has its own circumstances, the grievances of protesters are very similar - the demands for greater accountability and greater participation are not going to diminish.”

Mr. Khalidi agreed. “There is a false portrayal of this region as one full of people who only hate the United States … a breeding ground for terrorists.”

“Most people in the region want peaceful change and a constitutional democratic secular government,” he said. “That’s what the millions on the streets willing to take bullets have shown that they want.”

‘Everybody’s talking politics’

In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started in January with the overthrow of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali after two decades in power, people are “hyper-politicized,” said Akram Khelifa, a human rights activist in Tunis.

“Everybody is talking politics on every single corner, in every single coffee shop,” he said, attributing much of the excitement to preparations for the country’s first free elections in July. “For 23 years, we did not have the right to do that.”

In another frenzy of political activity, Egyptians already have exercised their newfound freedoms. In March, almost 80 percent approved a series of constitutional amendments in a referendum that calls for national elections within six months.

While both countries work on building new political structures, economic advances are crucial, especially soaring youth unemployment, observers say.

The economic situation is one of the reasons Egypt’s military rulers, who took over after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February, are happy to hand over power to a civilian administration after elections in September.

“The army does not want to be out in front politically,” said Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “It only makes them a lightning rod.”

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