- - Thursday, April 19, 2012

BERLIN — What happened to the Arab Spring?

The uprisings that swept dictators and autocratic regimes from power last year were supposed to have ushered in a new season of democracy.

From Tunisia to Yemen, however, things have gone wrong.

Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest police confiscating his goods in December 2010, inspiring revolts across the Arab world. Over the next 14 months, despots fell in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt.

Today, demonstrators continue to take to the streets of Tunis to protest a worsening economic situation.

Transitional governments in Libya and Yemen are struggling, as armed militia and terrorist groups attempt to seize control.

Egypt held elections that brought the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood to power, along with extremist Islamic violence against the Christian minority.

‘Bitter inheritance’

The old secular authoritarian rulers, such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, manipulated “sectarian and tribal tensions to consolidate power,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

“They leave behind a bitter inheritance which will take tremendous effort on the part of the transition governments to begin the process of institution building, dealing with abject poverty that exists and creating a competitive private sector that doesn’t.”

Tunisia held its first free elections in October 2011, which resulted in a coalition government led by the conservative Islamist Ennahdha party that is now charged with drawing up a new constitution and tackling urgent social and economic concerns of the Tunisian population.

“You have 50 percent of young Tunisians unemployed, and there are hardly any institutions,” said Mr. Gerges.

On April 9, police beat up demonstrators and fired tear gas as they tried to flee, during protests in the capital city of Tunis in honor of Martyr’s Day, which marks a 1938 incident when French colonial rulers opened fire on demonstrators calling for a constitution.

Still, analysts say Tunisia is way ahead of other Arab Spring countries.

“They’ve already made great strides in elections and forming a coalition government,” said Paul Salem, director and senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Tunisia’s problems in the medium and long term are in economics. People have a democracy, and that’s fine. But at the end of the day, a lot of the people who revolted wanted jobs, and it’s hard enough in Europe to create jobs let alone in Tunisia.

“They don’t have oil like Libya, so they are going to have to make it through hard work,” he added.

Yemen losing control

The situation is dire in Yemen, which has been in turmoil since protests began in early 2011. In February, President Ali Abdulah Saleh formally stepped down after 33 years in power.

Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the former vice president, was the only candidate in a presidential election in February. He promised fundamental reforms, but Yeminis are complaining that too many of Mr. Saleh’s relatives or loyalists remain in the government.

“In Yemen, you have much more a limited transition, if you can even call it that. It’s more of a maneuver keeping things more or less in place,” said Mr. Salem.

“But the transition is only part of the story. Whatever happens in Yemen, they are not going to do well at all because they are collapsing as an economy and the state itself doesn’t have the resources to be a fully fledged state.”

Analysts say the government has lost control over many regions of the country, allowing resurgent terrorist groups such as al Qaeda to make inroads.

“That’s been the biggest problem, and all the factional fighting in Sanaa means there have been no serious attempts to deal with the militants in the south,” Leonie Northedge, a researcher on Yemen at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“It’s going to be a very long progress, but there has been a political opening and a chance for change.”

Egypt held parliamentary elections in November, and parties aligned with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood won nearly half of the 498 seats in the legislature.

Libyans still fighting

Meanwhile, in Libya militias continue to fight each other, while the Transitional National Council rushes to hold elections following the death of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi in October.

“What you have is an institutional wasteland, and now you have regions and tribes and militias who are fighting among themselves for the social, economic and military spoils war of all against all,” said Mr. Gerges.

“In contrast to Tunisia and Egypt, the process of state building will be very risky and prolonged. Unless the new ruling elite succeeds in creating a centralized authority, my fear is that it can easily spiral out of control and descend into chaos. The Libyan situation is much more volatile and severe.”

Analysts argue that the challenge for Libya is setting up a stable democratic system.

“Their major problem now is that the country is in the hands of armed rebels and armed groups,” said Mr. Salem.

“Generally, they are well intentioned. They waged the revolution and are protecting their neighborhood towns and cities. But these are armed militias nonetheless, and they get into fights, and it’s not the best way to guarantee security.

“But I think Libya will succeed,” he added. “Generally the Libyans share a wide measure of consensus about what they want; and while there are some tribal and regional differences, they are not major or deep.”

With all the turmoil, and deep local dissatisfaction since the revolutions, analysts say it will take time for the Arab world to calm.

“There is a great deal of dust, and the challenge for all of us is not to be blinded by the dust,” said Mr. Gerges.

“It is going to take a long time for the dust to settle. A new world is being born before our eyes.”

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