A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle East

Dilip Hiro
Olive Branch Press
ISBN: 978-1-56656-904-0
Pages 49-56

ARAB SPRING: grass roots pro-democracy movement in the Arab world; also known as Arab Revolutions (Arabic: al-thawrat al-Arabiyya) Arab Spring stands for a series of demonstrations and protests in the Middle East [q.v.] and North Africa for democracy, which started peacefully but in some cases escalated to recurrent bloody clashes, and even to civil war, as in Libya. The movement originated with the self-immolation by Muhammad Bouazizi, a computer science graduate making a precarious living as a fruit vendor, in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on 17 December 2010. By spring of 2012 it had resulted in the ouster of autocratic Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak [q.v.], Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh [q.v.] under varying circumstances. Taking their cue from the United States, the senior generals in Tunisia as well as in Egypt withdrew their support from the chief executive, paving the way for his downfall. In Libya it was the military intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that brought about the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime and his death. In Yemen, defying popular pressure, Saleh succeeded in blocking his departure by unconstitutional means and handed over power only after his deputy Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi had won the specially arranged presidential election. Due to the exceptionally complex ethnic and religious composition of Syria, and the steadfast Russian backing for Syrian President Bashar Assad [q.v.], the Arab Spring seemed to have encountered an almost insurmountable barrier.

Tunisia: In Tunisia, Bouazizi’s dramatic act shocked the public at large. Protest demonstrations against the corrupt, dictatorial Ben Ali followed throughout the country. The government’s brutal means failed to quash the popular unrest. On 14 January 2011, the violent skirmishes between protestors, pouring out of mosques after Friday prayers, and security forces became so bloody that Ben Ali lost the confidence of the military high command. This compelled him and his family to flee to the Saudi city of Jeddah [q.v.], where they were given refuge by Saudi King Abdullah [q.v.].

Egypt: Ben Ali’s overthrow acted as a catalyst in Egypt, where discontent against Mubarak’s regime had been brewing since 2006 against the background of rocketing prices and declining living standards. A call for one-day nationwide strike on 6 April 2008 to protest high inflation and political repression under the emergency laws imposed since 1981 was disseminated by Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and mobile phone text messaging, with a “General Strike in Egypt” Facebook group gaining 54,000 members. The government responded by arresting and convicting a dozen cyberspace activists, all of them based in Egypt. But two years later it faced a challenge mounted from outside Egypt.

The appearance in cyberspace of the deformed face and battered head of 28-year-old Khaled Saeed, killed by two policemen in Alexandria [q.v.] on 6 June 2010, shocked many Egyptians, including Wael Ghonim, who ran Google’s marketing department for the Middle East and North Africa from Dubai [q.v.]. He set up a Facebook site titled “We are all Khaled Saeed” without giving his identity by using the innocuous word “admin.”

Within a few weeks, his page attracted almost 222,000 members. They focused on getting the guilty policemen punished while demanding the lifting of the emergency laws that facilitated police brutality. To stay within the emergency law, “admin.” advised silent protest mounted by people dressed in black reading the Quran [q.v.] or the Bible [q.v.] while standing in a line in a street. The government did not know how to stop the source of the protest, which succeeded in seeing the offending police officers were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. Thus the cyber protestors had their first success.

Unsurprisingly, following the overthrow of Ben Ali on 14 January, the “We are all Khaled Saeed” Facebook page became a rallying point for the protest on 25 January. Yet it was only on the following Friday, 28 January, that peaceful demonstrations in the Tahrir Square of Cairo [q.v.] gathered momentum after the weekly Muslim congregational prayers.

At this point the Mubarak government withdrew the riot police and sent army troops to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the civil uprising. Violent clashes between protestors and the security forces broke out as Mubarak combined his promise on 2 February not to enter the next presidential election in 2013 with his appointment of Omar Suleiman, his intelligence chief, as vice president, a post he had deliberately left vacant. Demonstrators were not satisfied. On Friday, 4 February, labeled “Day of Departure,” an ever-larger gathering of protestors demanded Mubarak’s immediate resignation as the economic life of the nation started ebbing.

Behind the scenes Egyptian defense minister Field Marshall Muhammad Hussein Tantawi was in daily contact with his counterpart in Washington, Robert Gates, who stressed U.S. President Barack Obama’s advice not to use military force to disband the over one million demonstrators who had set up tents in Tahrir Square. Before 25 January, several senior generals on the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) privately disapproved of Hosni Mubarak grooming his businessman son, Gamal, to succeed him, thus breaking the monopoly over power that the military had enjoyed since 1952. The burgeoning popular protest coupled with Obama’s withdrawal of support for Mubarak led the fence-sitting generals to join the anti-Mubarak camp.

On 10 February, claiming that a national dialogue on political reform was in progress, Mubarak transferred power to Vice President Suleiman, but refused to step down. But the next day he bowed to the popular will backed by the SCAF. By the time he resigned after 18 days of civil uprising, and retired to the presidential palace in the sea resort of Sharm al-Shaikh, 846 protestors were dead and 12,000 were arrested.

After assuming power, the SCF accepted the amendments to the constitution proposed by its appointed committee. These were designed to prepare Egypt for free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections. Once the amended constitution was approved in a referendum on 25 March by a large majority on a turnover of 91 percent, the country’s revolution entered a new phase.

At his trial in August, a bed-ridden Mubarak denied charges of killing protestors and abuse of power. Following massive protest at the slow progress toward democracy, Tantawi promised a presidential poll in June 2012. The SCAF appointed Kamal Ganzouri, a former prime minister, as head of a national salvation cabinet. 

Staggered elections to the People’s Assembly started in late November and continued until early January 2012. The Democratic Alliance, led by the Freedom and Justice Party [q.v.], won 235 of the 508-member People’s Assembly, with the Islamist Bloc [q.v.] headed by the al-Nour Party [q.v.] gaining 127 seats. In the 180-member Consultative Council elections that followed, the FJP-led Democratic Alliance gained 105 seats and the al-Nour-led Islamist Bloc [q.v.] gained 45.

In the first round for the presidential poll on 23–24 May there were 12 candidates. Since none of them ­received 50 percent plus one vote, there was a second round on 16–17 June between the Freedom and Justice Party’s Muhammad Morsi [q.v.] and Ahmed Shafiq [q.v.], the last prime minister of Hosni Mubarak, who was given a life sentence on 2 June for his part in the killing of protestors during the 2011 upheaval. Shafiq lost to Morsi by 48.3 percent of the vote to 51.7 percent.

Two days before the presidential election the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that some of the articles on which the bicameral parliament was formed were unconstitutional. The SCAF dissolved both houses of parliament and re-assumed legislative powers.

In August President Morsi forced the 75-year-old Tantawi, head of the armed forces, and 64-year-old Sami Anan, the Army chief of staff, to resign, thereby ending the dual power structure. In October, Morsi granted pardon to all the protestors detained and tried in the civil protest movement between 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2012, the day he assumed the presidency, which marked the official end of the Arab Spring in Egypt.

Libya: By then, buoyed by Mubarak’s downfall, the opposition to Gaddafi in Libya had taken up arms. Making a deceptive use of the UN Security Council resolution in March authorizing a no-fly zone to protect civilians from the Gaddafi regime’s attacks, NATO intervened directly into the Libyan civil war. Yet it took another six months to see the regime in Tripoli toppled.

Bahrain: The eastward advance of the Arab Spring wave hit Bahrain, where the predominantly Shia [q.v.] opposition had been agitating for political reform since 2009. Like their counterparts in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the protestors in the Pearl Square of Manama [q.v.] during February-March 2011, were peaceful. That did not stop the ruler Shaikh Hamad bin Isa II [q.v.] from declaring martial law and letting loose the security forces who shot 30 demonstrators dead. His violent response was capped by the arrival of the largely Saudi contingent of 1,000 soldiers under the banner of the Gulf Cooperaton Council [q.v.] in mid-March. Aware of the stationing of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, the Obama White House did nothing more than issue mild criticism of the ruler’s crackdown.

Kuwait: Like Bahrain, Kuwait had an earlier history of popular dissension with the rule of Shaikh Sabah IV al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah [q.v.], centered on widespread corruption and nepotism. With its parliament enjoying the most power of any elected body in the Gulf monarchies, the opposition lawmakers had been publicly critical of the ruling family. The Arab Spring arrived when there was rising tension between the parliament and the Sabah-dominated cabinet amidst allegation of corruption at the highest level of government. Demonstrations, attracting tens of thousands, occurred with increasing frequency. In November the protestors broker into the parliament house. The cabinet led since 2006 by the ruler’s nephew, Nasser Muhammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah, resigned. The emir dissolved the parliament and ordered a fresh election in which the opposition won more than two-thirds of the seats.

However, given the bountiful oil reserves of the emirate, and the close links of the royal family with the U.S. buttressed by Kuwait’s defense pact with Washington, there was no prospect of the al-Sabah clan losing its hold over the country.

That too was the case with the royal family of Saudi Arabia for the same reasons that applied to its Kuwaiti counterpart.

Saudi Arabia: Encouraged by the events in Egypt, web activists in the Saudi kingdom declared Friday, 11 March, as the first day for mass protests demanding constitutional monarchy and a democratic government. But a heavy-handed police action combined with a religious ruling against demonstrations kept most of the potential protestors off the streets—except in the major Shia city of Qatif in the Eastern Province. There, peaceful demonstrators, shouting “One people, not two—the people of Qatif and Bahrain!” demanded the release of Shia prisoners. The next Friday, 18 March, King Abdullah [q.v.] made a rare televised speech. He thanked his subjects for not staging large pro-democracy protests, and offered $93 billion in benefits to underprivileged Saudi citizens and for strengthening of the security and religious police forces. This was in addition to the $37 billion he had announced a month earlier to ease social pressures.

Significantly, King Abdullah was instrumental in co-opting Qatar and Kuwait to provide $10 billion in aid to Bahrain and Oman. The promised handout helped Sultan Qaboos [q.v.] of Oman, whose hydrocarbon resources were puny compared to those of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar.

Oman: Inspired by the peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain, in mid-February 2011, the protestors in Muscat demanded higher salaries, an end to corruption, less official control of the media, and an equitable distribution of oil wealth. Those who staged a sit-in outside the Consultative (Shura) Council building in Muscat [q.v.] on 1 March demanded that the council be given real powers of legislation. Protest in the industrial port of Sohar at the end of February turned violent, with a shopping mall set ablaze. The police firings killed two demonstrators. When protest spread to a few oilfields, Qaboos appointed a committee to draft proposals for boosting the power of the Consultative Council. He reshuffled the cabinet, firing unpopular ministers, and abolished the ministry of national economy, known to be corrupt. After raising the salaries in the public sector, he mandated an increase in the minimum wage in the private sector from $364 a month to $520. He doubled social security ­benefits.

No such concessions came from the rulers of the United Arab Emirates

United Arab Emirates: The Arab Spring arrived in the UAE against the background of collapse in real estate values in the confederation caused by the 2008–2009 virtual global credit freeze. The government moved quickly to block a website popular with those UAE nationals who called for a constitutional monarchy and an elected parliament with full legislative powers.

They arrested five dissident intellectuals, charging them with threatening state security and undermining public order. At the end of a seven-month detention they were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment which was commuted by UAE President Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayid al-Nahyan [q.v.].

Yemen: In contrast to the sparsely inhabited UAE, Oman, and Bahrain, Yemen has a population of 25 million and the lowest GDP per capita in the Arabia Peninsula. As a republic with a directly elected president and parliament, it had acquired a multiparty system. Yet Ali Abdullah Saleh [q.v.] had contrived to remain president since 1978, initially of North Yemen which contained four-fifths of the population of the united Yemen.

Therefore, the republic was vulnerable to the winds of the Arab Spring. But unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the military high command in Yemen split, and Saleh refused to step down except in a manner that had a legal stamp. So the crisis lasted for a year, during which 2,000 people were killed, many of them as a result of fighting between loyal and dissident troops.

The GCC mediators led by the Saudis, who coordinated their strategy with Washington, played the crucial role in resolving the crisis, which had enabled al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula [q.v.] to establish itself in three southern provinces. In other words, the Yemen imbroglio was unraveled within the U.S.-led camp.

Syria: Such a strategy could not be deployed in Syria because the U.S. lacked any leverage there, diplomatic or military. Alone among the Arab capitals, Damascus remained attached to Moscow. Having witnessed NATO’s duplicitous use of the UN Security Council resolution on a no-fly zone, imposed to protect civilians, to intervene directly into the Libyan civil war, Russia and China vetoed a resolution on Syria at the Security Council in October 2011 and again in February 2012.         

Thus, in Syria the Arab Spring got entangled into rivalry between the U.S.-led bloc and the Sino-Russian diplomatic alliance. Having lost the friendship of Libya under Gaddafi, Moscow was keen to retain its close diplomatic and military ties with Syria, where it has a naval base in Tartous.

Internally, the one-third of the Syrian population that was not Sunni Muslim [q.v.] was apprehensive of its future shorn of the protection offered to it by the secular Baath Socialist Party [q.v.]. Among Sunnis the influential business class, which had done well under the Baathist rule, was also reluctant to rock the boat.

As in Egypt, the Syrian opposition made use of social networking media to organize demonstrations and keep the outside world informed. Initially, the protestors’ demands were modest: release of political prisoners and an end to the 48-year-old state of emergency. But with the government reacting harshly, the opposition demanded Assad’s immediate resignation. Assured of the loyalty of the predominantly Alawi [q.v.] military high command, Assad resorted to using tanks and heavy weapons to regain control of the areas taken over by the armed opposition.

At the same time, Assad made concessions, starting with the lifting of emergency in April 2011, followed by the constitutional end to the Baath Party’s monopoly over power, and held elections first at the local level in December 2011 and then for the national parliament in May 2012.

Though periodically calling on Assad to step down, Western leaders from President Obama down were privately concerned about the influence the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood [q.v.] exerted even in the Western-backed Syrian National Council [q.v.], whose leadership was dominated by Westernized Syrian intellectuals settled in Europe—not to mention the Free Syrian Army, rife with Brotherhood militants. There was also the question of rebuilding a fractured Syria after the overthrow of the Assad regime. The experience of Iraq during and after the war in 2003 was salutary.

Another complicating factor was the irreconcilable division within the ­opposition. It was split three ways. At home it was represented by the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change [q.v.]. Opposed to violence, it was prepared to negotiate with the regime. The Syrian ­National Council too was against violence, but it actively lobbied for an invasion of Syria by the Western powers along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. By contrast the 10,000-strong Free Syrian Army, composed almost exclusively of militant Sunnis, was all out for an armed confrontation with the Assad regime. On their part, the Western powers and the Western-backed Syrian opposition refused to recognize that armed protestors and other militants were killing security forces.

Before the United Nations-brokered ceasefire between the government and its opponents came into force on 12 April 2012, more than 9,000 civilians and armed rebels and 2,600 security personnel had been killed.

It seemed the Assad regime had the backing of one-third of Syrians, most of them belonging to religious and ethnic minorities. Another third, consisting almost exclusively of Sunni Muslims, supported the insurrection. The rest, including many middle-class Sunni urbanites, the beneficiaries of the regime’s economic liberalization, did not like either camp but were apprehensive of the alternative.

With the ceasefire unraveling, and Sunni and Alawi villages resorting to violent attacks on one another, Syria slipped into a civil war in July. By now the initial civil movement for democracy in Syria had morphed into a struggle between regional and global powers—with Iran, Iraq, Russia, and China siding with the regime, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Western nations opposing it.

The situation worsened in mid-July after the killing of the defense minister and his deputy during a meeting by a bomb triggered by remote control. In a concerted move, the rebels gained control of parts of Damascus and Aleppo. The International Committee of the Red Cross ruled that Syria was in the midst of a civil war. Backed by Russia and Iran, Assad reiterated his resolve to defeat the rebels. Due to lack of popular support in the city neighborhoods they had captured, the rebels were often unable to consolidate their gains. The government mounted periodic offensives to regain the lost territory. The stalemate at the UN Security Council continued. Annan decided to step down as the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria at the end of August and was replaced by Lakhdar Ibrahimi.

As the size and importance of the Syrian and foreign jihadists rose in the war, the Western powers and Turkey decided not to supply anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels who continued to be vulnerable to the regime’s air strikes. Western leaders feared that such weapons would end up with Islamist extremists and make Western aircraft vulnerable once Syria had gone off the boil. By early September, the conflict had claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 civilians and armed rebels and 8,000 members of the security forces. The ongoing battles in Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs [q.v.] raised the death toll steadily.

Lebanon: The intractable crisis in Syria made the Lebanese President Najib Mikati [q.v.] maintain strict neutrality in any comments he chose to make on the events in Lebanon’s most important neighbor. That was not the case with the leaders of the pro-Syria 8 March Alliance [q.v.] and the anti-Syria 14 March Alliance [q.v.]

Jordan: Unlike Mikati, in August Jordanian King Abdullah II bin Hussein [q.v.] called on Assad to step down. He did so to placate the Islamic Action Front [q.v.], the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In early 2011, the Arab Spring in Jordan took the form of demonstrations by the IAF and leftists as well as the educated, unemployed people. The participants made economic and political demands, and complained about corruption. In response the monarch replaced his prime minister twice, first in February and then in October, with his choice falling on Awm Shawkat al-Khasawneh, a former judge of the International Court of Justice. Though he promised British-style parliamentary government in June, it was not until February 2012 that he spelled out the modalities: fair elections, a law guaranteeing the broadest representation, a parliament based on political parties, and governments drawn from that parliament. When al-Khasawneh, acting independently, reached out to the IAF as part of the promised political reform, he was replaced by a yes-man of the Palace, Fayez al-Tarawneh, in April 2012.

The pro-democracy opposition has been careful not to agitate against the king because that would open the fault lines between East Bank tribesmen and Jordanian citizens of the Palestinian origin, leading to a civil war. The bloodshed in Syria witnessed by Jordanians on their TV sets is another factor to keep the protest quiescent. Lastly, there is the unique element at work here: Jordanians fear that if their country disintegrated, outsiders would try to convert it into a Palestinian state.

Not surprisingly, Syria’s strategic location in the Middle East makes all parties apprehensive of the prospect of chaos that would follow Assad’s downfall.

Copyright © Dilip Hiro