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Arab revolts set to transform Middle East

The astonishing popular protests against Arab autocrats that have churned the region for three months are the authentic birth pangs of a new Middle East.

Israel’s American-backed attempts to bomb Hezbollah and south Lebanon into submission in 2006 did not change the region, as Condoleezza Rice predicted it would.

Nor did the United States-led invasion of Iraq three years earlier, which former president George Bush touted as introducing democracy to the Arab world, have much effect.

The change now is coming from within — and from below.

Ordinary people taking to the streets swept away the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia. The leaders of Libya and Yemen are fighting for survival.

Arab leaders almost everywhere else are trying to fend off real or potential challenges with a mix of repression and concessions.

“The rulers are running scared, with good reason — the people have terrified them,” said Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies at Columbia University in New York. “The spectre of popular power haunts the dictators and monarchs.”

The region’s mostly Muslim citizens are at last proving they are no exception to the democratic trends that have transformed eastern Europe, Latin America and much of Africa and Asia in recent decades.

Live media coverage has thrust protests and violence in one Arab city into Arab homes everywhere. Witness accounts ping from cellphones to YouTube and Facebook.

The pro-democracy movement will reshape the Arab world as powerfully as the ideologies of Arab nationalism, socialism, communism and political Islam in the last 150 years, argues Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre in Beirut.

“It is a sea change,” he said. “The change is profound. It hits people’s identities, their core.”

“Islam is still the most powerful current, but this paradigm has in a way superseded and absorbed it, creating the democratic, pluralist, human rights value system as the dominant one.”

But ousting authoritarian rulers is one thing, installing stable systems of representative government quite another.

Success will depend partly on how well elected governments handle the social problems and economic hardships which, along with a yearning for freedom and dignity, have fuelled unrest from Algeria to Oman.

Some Arab rulers will ride out the storm — the monarchies seem slightly less vulnerable than the republics so far.

The question, three months on from the first protests in Tunisia, is what happens next?

Three responses
The answer will differ from country to country.

Broadly speaking, Arab leaders have responded in three ways to the pent-up frustrations that have burst into street protests.

Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali bowed to people power, grudgingly stepping down after their generals withdrew support and showed them the door.

Others, most especially countries in the Gulf, have tried to pre-empt protests by offering bribes, often combined with promises of political reform.

Finally, a few have resorted to naked force to cling to power.

Muammar Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya since 1969, and whose bloody crackdown on protests helped trigger an armed revolt, occupies the bloodiest end of the spectrum. But Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen have also ungloved iron fists against protesters not content with economic handouts.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh looks doomed as even his own clan has turned against him.

But Saudi Arabia has made clear it will not tolerate dissent at home or serious challenges to Sunni rule in other Gulf countries, particularly in Shi’ite-majority Bahrain where Riyadh has sent 1 000 troops to help suppress the island’s worst unrest since the 1990s.

Violent change in societies already split on ethnic or sectarian lines is unlikely to foster democracy. In countries such as Bahrain, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the future may be greater fragmentation much as in Lebanon and Iraq.

How far will they go?
In countries which have offered reform — Morocco, Algeria, Jordan — it remains to be seen whether leaders will stick to pledges and peacefully cede real power, or find ways to divide, co-opt or cow their opponents.

“Thus far no Arab ruler has really made a substantial offer of political reform to protesters,” said Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

“The closest appears to be the offer of constitutional reforms presented by Mohammed VI of Morocco, but he has hedged that offer pretty significantly.”

King Mohammed, seeking to pre-empt protests, unveiled plans in March for a 19-member team — named by himself — to draft constitutional changes by June that would strengthen Parliament, empower local officials and promote judicial independence.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency and offered unspecified political reforms in February, but has not yielded to demands for constitutional amendments to limit presidential terms and allow new parties.

Jordan’s King Abdullah has so far resisted pressure for a constitutional monarchy or an elected government, although he fired his cabinet in February and told his new prime minister, a former intelligence general, to accelerate political reform.

Islamist, leftist, liberal and even tribal figures have called for constitutional limits on the king’s power. Protesters in the streets are still chanting for reform, not regime change.

Centre stage
No matter what happens in those other countries, all Arabs will be watching Egypt and Tunisia, which are already on the stony path to more representative government.

Egypt’s military rulers have set a tight time-table for a return to civilian rule, with parliamentary and presidential elections this year. A new constitution is also planned — an unprecedented 41% of voters turned out for a March 19 referendum and 77% approved amendments to the old one.

In Tunisia, where the military has already stepped back, voters will pick a 200-member assembly in July that will elect interim leaders and draft a new constitution ahead of elections.

Springborg said such changes were not easy in countries where past regimes relied on patronage and allocations to buy support. The challenges “turn on shifting the base of popular acceptance of rule from a material to a policy basis”, he said.

“So in the absence of economic development occurring very quickly — and it won’t — how does one create competitive political parties in the absence of patronage resources?”

Springborg said Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of Mubarak’s ruling party could still wield such resources and offer cash or jobs to counter promises from young reformers.

“The change is reversible, but not all at once. A creeping authoritarianism could gradually erode democratic reforms.”

A new law in Egypt makes it easier to form political parties. That will help the once-banned Brotherhood’s nascent Freedom and Justice Party. Youthful, secular activists who led the anti-Mubarak protests say they need more time to organise before elections if they are to compete with the Islamists.

Whoever wins power will have to tackle the problems — youth unemployment, stunted economic growth, poor education — that helped trigger the change in the first place.

“People are happy to see there is a new regime,” said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, citing Egypt’s referendum turnout.

“But at some point when the enthusiasm is over and elections have taken place, people will start asking for results — where are the jobs?”

Tunisia, with its well-educated, homogenous and relatively prosperous population of 10-million, has already dismantled much of the old regime, including Ben Ali’s coterie, his ruling party, the information ministry and state security agencies.

“Egypt’s done much less,” Carnegie’s Salem said. “The family has gone, but the ruling party is still there. State security has been disbanded, but many other institutions are still there. The government still contains some Mubarak appointees.”

Taming the generals
Perhaps the most difficult hurdle to transforming a country like Egypt will be working out what role the military should play. Egypt’s military has been at the heart of power for the past six decades. So far, pro-democracy reformers have been reluctant to question their future place.

“The Egyptians have an extremely good chance of transiting to a democratic system,” said Khalidi. “But to what extent is the military going to withdraw from power?”

“To what extent does it not only keep its privileges, perks, industries, its sector of the economy, but also a certain veto over major foreign policy decisions which relate to the connection with the United States?”

Salem cited Turkey’s mixed experiences to suggest a possible partnership between the government and the military in Egypt that could promote stability, if not full civilian rule for now.

Turkey’s AK party, which combines Islamist roots with a modern outlook, has gradually forced the military to retreat from politics, an achievement admired by Arab reformers.

Khalidi said the Turkish model was attractive “in the sense of keeping the military out of politics, having an independent foreign policy, accepting the idea that Islam plays a role within politics, but in an essentially secular system”. – Reuters

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