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Hope shines despite soggy Arab Spring

- - 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."

Threat from political Islam

The West, which has watched Tunisians and Egyptians direct their own political development, is concerned, however, over how much influence political Islam will have in the future there.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized political group in Egypt. Many younger members insist they are moderates and pose no threat to democracy, although the organization was dedicated to holy war when it was created in 1928.

"A huge bogeyman has been made out of political Islam," said Mr. Khalidi.

"As long as the basic constitutional, secular nature of the regime is preserved ... as I believe will probably be the case in Egypt and Tunisia, if people chose to pray or not pray that is entirely their business," he said.

Mr. Khelifa said he is worried about the Islamists' potential showing in Tunisia's elections. "Still, people are very aware that this revolution is theirs, and they would not permit anybody to hijack it and take it away from them," he said.

As much as Tunisians and Egyptians are caught up with events at home, they are also closely watching to see what happens to the revolution they exported to other Arab countries.

In Libya, an uprising has descended into a bloody civil war, with rebels pitted against troops loyal to the regime. The inexperienced fighters hoping to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, now are backed by NATO air support, following a U.N. sanctioned military intervention aimed at protecting civilians.

If Col. Gadhafi falls, tribal rivalries could prevent a stable government from emerging, analysts said.

In Bahrain, the Sunni ruling family with Saudi troops in March crushed protests led by the majority Muslim Shia population. Since then, the regime has arrested hundreds of activists, fired workers from state-owned companies who took part in the protests and banned the main Shia opposition party, Wefaq.

Saudi Arabia was unnerved by the uprising in Bahrain, which it regards as its own backyard. The Saudi monarchy has placated potential domestic protesters with financial handouts.

In Morocco and Jordan, both close U.S. allies, protesters demanding free and fair elections and an end to corruption have won concessions from their monarchs.

In Yemen, the situation is far more fluid and uncertain. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has refused to sign a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council in April that would require him to step down.

Meanwhile, the protesters have continued to pour onto the streets, mistrustful of Mr. Saleh's real intentions and angry that the agreement would grant the president immunity from prosecution.

The United States has long regarded Mr. Saleh as a key partner in the fight against terrorism. But analysts said there is now some alarm in Washington that al Qaeda, with a foothold in Yemen, could exploit any political chaos that might follow the president's departure. Yemen is also the poorest country in the region.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad unleashed security forces to squash demonstrations, after initial concessions, including a new Cabinet and the end to 48 years of emergency rule. Human rights groups say at least 500 people have been killed since the protests began in March.

Koumay Al Mulhem, a Syrian journalist based in Berlin, said most of the demonstrators had been hoping for some kind of peaceful transformation to democracy.

"It is no longer about changing some laws but about calling for the overthrow of Assad," he said.

There is little chance of the West becoming militarily involved in Yemen or Syria, despite charges of inconsistency from many in the region.

Bruce W. Jentleson, a former State Department policy adviser, said the Obama administration has assessed each situation on its own merits and has opted for the policy "most effective for achieving the objective of peaceful political change."

In Libya, there was a broad international consensus, including the Arab states, on the need for military intervention. That does not exist for countries like Syria, he noted.

What is clear is that the Arab world will be marked by increased uncertainty and instability in the near future, something that will pose a challenge to the West.

The White House was slow to shift policy after being caught off guard by the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt and Yemen.

Yet, Mr. Jentleson, now professor of public policy at Duke University in North Carolina,insisted that the White House has not made "any major mistakes" since then because the uprisings have been anti-regime, not anti-American

However, he cautioned: "If people don't think the U.S. is supportive enough of political change, that could shift."