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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Middle East Turns Back Clock as Remnants of Old Regimes Rise Again - Egypt, Gulf Monarchies Increasingly Project Power

From The Wall Street Journal:

Four years after the Arab Spring began, the new Middle East looks more and more like the old one—but worse.

For decades, the bleak choice in the region was between dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and the Islamist militancy that they always invoked when pressured by the West to liberalize.

The uprisings of 2011—often spurred by liberal and secular activists—produced fleeting hopes that the jihadists and autocrats would no longer be the only alternatives.

But today, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi oversees a regime that is seen as more repressive than Mr. Mubarak’s in many ways.

This new Egypt and its main financiers and allies—the absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates—increasingly project power and influence across the region.

On the other side of the equation, Islamic State has seized a Britain-size chunk of Syria and Iraq, and now is spawning affiliates in Libya and Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula. It is outmatching al Qaeda of old in wanton barbarity and military prowess.

Underscoring the growing terror threat to the West, al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen claimed responsibility for last week’s attack on a satirical magazine in Paris, while a French follower of Islamic State killed first a policewoman and then four hostages at a kosher grocery.

“We have turned the clock back,” said Maha Azzam, a political scientist who heads the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, an umbrella group of organizations opposed to Mr. Sisi’s rule. “The political space in the middle has not shrunk, it has disappeared. What you are left with in the younger generation is a choice between acquiescing to dictatorship or, for the more radical ones, resorting to violence.”

In his three decades in power, Mr. Mubarak often told visiting American dignitaries that the choice was between him and the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s main Islamist organization with branches across the region. He did prove right: A year after his ouster, the country’s first democratic presidential elections put the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in power.

The Brotherhood under Mr. Morsi alienated many Egyptians by clamping down on dissent, excluding other political movements, and imposing its religious agenda.

Another year later, liberals who once joined hands with Brotherhood supporters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square chose a dictatorship that would preserve secular freedoms over a democratically elected Islamist government. Their mass protests egged the army on to end the country’s democratic experiment, putting Mr. Sisi in power and enabling the current crackdown.

Egypt’s new authorities have since imprisoned tens of thousands of political foes and imposed new restrictions on protesting, the media, nongovernmental organizations and human-rights groups.

Elsewhere in the region, an outright Saudi military intervention choked the Arab Spring in Bahrain.

And in still-democratic Tunisia, the only relative bright spot, voters in December elected as president the 88-year-old former speaker of the ousted dictatorship’s rubber-stamp parliament. He promptly named another senior former regime figure as prime minister.

Chastened by the Egyptian example and fearing a similar fate, Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Ennahda, didn’t even field a presidential candidate.

“What happened in Egypt affected directly or indirectly the entire Arab world,” said Osama el-Ghazali Harb of the Free Egyptians party, one of the leaders of both the 2011 uprising against Mr. Mubarak and the 2013 protests that precipitated Mr. Morsi’s ouster. “The defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood here means the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood, directly or indirectly, in other countries of the region.”

Egypt suffered relatively minor violence by the bloody standards of the recent four years, avoiding the horrors of the Syrian and Libyan civil wars. It is those horrors, which fill the screens of Arab TV channels every day, that make increasingly appealing the Arab rulers’ old mantra of “istiqrar” or stability, at all costs.

Championing this mantra are some of the least democratic countries in the region—Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.

“The Arab Spring represented change, and the monarchies do not like change,” explained Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi analyst who manages a new regional TV network, Al Arab News.

After emerging unscathed from the region’s revolutionary upheaval and squeezing out dissent at home, the Saudis and Emiratis now are driving a regional campaign to stifle whatever has remained of the Arab Spring’s hopes of establishing democratic, accountable governments, critics say.

“There is a counterrevolutionary process, characterized by restoring the old ways of the Middle East,” said Yasin Aktay, deputy chairman in charge of international relations at Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, a key backer of the Arab uprisings. “Deep-state actors of the old regime, some Arab countries and some international actors are trying to reverse the democratic processes, to restore dictatorships, and to re-establish their own systems.”

The key question is whether this restoration in the Arab world is transient—to be upended by even more dramatic cataclysms in the coming years—or represents the new normal.

Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, coined the term “Saudi Thermidor” to describe the current “reactionary period in Arab uprisings.” He argued in a recent article that the counterrevolutionary drive in the region is unsustainable and would ultimately collapse, just as it happened with the Thermidor conservative backlash against the excesses of French Revolution.

Others, however, aren’t so sure.

“There is not going to be another uprising in Egypt anytime soon,” cautioned Heba Morayef, senior Egypt analyst at the International Crisis Group and until recently, the local representative of Human Rights Watch. “I don’t think Egypt is going to see anything remotely democratic for the next couple of decades.”

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