Sectarian conflicts, especially between Sunnis and Shias, have escalated in many Arab countries, including Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Lebanon, in recent years and have undermined political stability and societal harmony. The politicization and intensification of the Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East is reflected in the political ascendancy of the Shias and the marginalization of the Sunni minority in Iraq, in the brutal suppression of the Sunni-dominated uprising in Syria by Bashar al-Assad, in the repression of restive Shia minorities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and in the growing clout of the Hizbullah and in its involvement in Syria’s civil war. The escalating spiral of sectarian conflict in the Arab region has become increasingly violent. Beirut has not been able to get out of the vicious circle of violent attacks and counter attacks on Shia and Sunni targets. On December 27, 2013, a powerful explosion rocked central Beirut, in which several people, including Mohammad Chatah, a former finance minster who was opposed to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, were killed.
It cannot be gainsaid that the Arab Spring has ushered in a culture of freedom of expression, which cannot be suppressed for too long. Despite setbacks and formidable obstacles, the spirit of the Arab Spring is still alive. This is evidenced in the continuing wave of protests and demonstrations across the Arab world. This is also borne out by a recent region-wise survey of attitudes by the Qatar-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, which revealed that most Arabs see their revolutions as positive overall, are confident they will achieve their aims and consider democracy the best form of government. A significant finding of the survey is that, although most respondents described themselves as religious, a large majority among Arabs say that governments should not use religion to win popular support.
Egypt: A Throwback to the Mubarak Era?
After three weeks of mass protests across Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country with an iron hand for three decades, resigned in February 2011. In the first democratic parliamentary elections held in 2011-12, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won the largest number of seats. Just before the declaration of the presidential election results, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a constitutional declaration whereby it exempted itself from civilian oversight and granted itself sweeping legislative powers, including the power to determine the defence budget and complete control over all army affairs. The declaration authorized the SCAF to oversee the formation of a new constituent assembly to write Egypt’s new constitution and gave it the right to veto it. The declaration stripped the new president of much of his powers. The declaration gave the military de facto control over the country’s foreign policy as well as internal security.
Shortly after assuming office, Mr. Morsi began dismantling the legacy of the Mubarak era. In August 2012, he annulled the constitutional declaration that gave sweeping powers to the military and announced the retirement of two top generals. He fired the Mubarak-era chief prosecutor in October 2012. Since then the generals were smarting from their loss of power and humiliation and were biding their time. Mr. Morsi had to face the grim prospect of a deeply fractured, polarized and fragmented society and polity.
Shortly after assuming office in June 2012, Morsi dissolved the House of Representatives and revoked a decree issued by the SCAF which restricted presidential powers. In November 2012 Morsi granted himself far-reaching powers, which led to growing public resentment against his government. Morsi was deposed by the chief of the armed forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in June 2013 and replaced by a military-installed interim government. Morsi’s removal was backed by the opposition Al-Nour Party, Coptic Christians and Al-Azhar. Reports in The New York Times and Al Jazeera news website have revealed how the Egyptian military orchestrated a sinister conspiracy, in collusion with the opposition and in connivance with the Obama administration, to topple Mr. Morsi. The reports suggest that Washington quietly funded Egyptian opposition leaders and activists with the objective of inciting anti-Morsi feelings and encouraging protests against the government. There is credible evidence to suggest that the US knew about the plot to overthrow Mr. Morsi well in advance and that it supported it.
The sacking of Morsi resulted in widespread protests and demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood. The military launched a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, in which nearly 2,000 people have been killed. The interim government has passed a new law banning public gatherings and even peaceful demonstrations. Thousands, mostly Morsi supporters, have been detained. On December 25, 2013, the interim government designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
The ouster of Morsi and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood have triggered a country-wide wave of public protests and demonstrations. Student protests against the new government’s authoritarianism have intensified in recent months. In 2011 an Egyptian court banned the police from entering universities. But in November 2013 the interim government took a decision to allow the security forces to enter campuses to deal with student protests.
The crackdown on peaceful demonstrations and the curbs on the Muslim Brotherhood have triggered violent reactions. On December 24, 2013, 16 people were killed and more than 100 injured in a car bomb attack on a military building in the northern city of Mansoura. There is a growing concern and anguish across the country about the return of authoritarian rule.
Tunisia: Hope Amid Uncertainty
Following the departure of Tunisia’s president Zeine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia held its first democratic parliamentary election in October 2011, in which the moderate Ennahda Party won more than 41% of the vote and formed the government with Moncef Markouzi as president. The new government promised to write a new constitution. However, since July 2013 there has been a stand-off between the Ennahda government and the secular opposition parties, which was triggered by the assassination of two leftist politicians. In December 2013 the main political parties agreed to appoint a care-taker government, with Mehdi Jomaa as care taker prime minister, until new elections are held.
The Tunisian people, especially the youth, are extremely disappointed with the failure of successive transitional governments during the past three years to fulfill their promises. The economic scenario remains as gloomy as before and the unemployment rate among educated youth remains as high as 27%. The jubilation and euphoria that was witnessed across the country three years ago has now given way to despair and discontent. However, a perceptible change that has come about during the past three years is the atmosphere of political freedom.
Syria: The Rising Spiral of Violence and Insecurity
The death toll in Syria’s protracted, bloody civil war has exceeded 100,000, including more than 6,600 children and 4,450 women. Nearly 6,000 people, mostly civilians, are killed every day. More than a quarter of the country’s population of 21 million have been displaced. Essential commodities are in short supply and the spectre of food insecurity is looming large. The United Nations reckons that nearly half of Syria’s population will experience severe food insecurity by the end of this year. The civil war has forced more than three million Syrians to flee the country and take refuge in neighbouring countries.
Syria’s ruling regime used chemical weapons on dissidents and rebels, which killed hundreds of people. When an American-led strike against Syria seemed imminent, Russia stepped in to broker a deal, with the backing of the United Nations and the US, under which Syria would destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons. The process of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons under UN supervision is underway.
Syrians are hopelessly caught between a brutal dictatorship and a fragmented opposition movement that has come to be dominated by extremist and militant groups. There are scores of armed militias in the country, who control a number of small cities and towns. An Al Qaeda-affiliated militant group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, has swept across northern Syria and is in control of several towns where it has carried out brutal attacks on rival groups, including beheading and suicide bombings, and sought to enforce strict Shariah laws.
The war and violence continue to rage across the country, but Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad refuses to step down. The UN estimates that nearly three-quarters of Syria’s population will be in dire need of food and other essential commodities in 2014. Since the outbreak of the civil war, sectarian violence has worsened.
Libya: An Uncertain Future
A massive uprising against Muammar Gaddafi began in February 2011, which soon spread to large parts of the country. In March 2011 NATO powers launched air strikes on government targets. Gaddafi was killed in August 2011. The National Transitional Council, which spearheaded the revolt, promised a democratic government. In the July 2012 elections, the General National Congress, dominated by secular candidates, emerged victorious, defeating the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Justice and Construction Party.
The political situation in Libya continues to be marred by violence and uncertainty. There are some 300 revolutionary militias who refuse to be disarmed.
Bahrain: Escalating Discontent
In 2011 there were large-scale protests and demonstrations in Bahrain against the ruling establishment, demanding greater say in politics and better representation in jobs and services for the Shias, who constitute the majority. The ruling regime called in the Saudi military to curb the protests. Since 2011 clashes between protesters and security forces have claimed more than 45 lives. Angry Shia youth are increasingly turning to violence. On September 28, 2013 thousands of people took part in an anti-government protest march.
Yemen: The Long Shadow of Violence and Uncertainty
The massive wave of protests and demonstrations that swept across Yemen in 2011was directed against economic insecurity, extremely high unemployment rates and corruption in high places. In November 2011 President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to transfer power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Hadi. Hadi formed a unity government, with a prime minister from the opposition. Hadi promised to oversee the drafting of a new constitution, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014.
Since February 2012, Yemen has faced a secessionist movement in the south and Al-Qaeda-sponsored violence. The country has experienced a series of suicide bombings in the past couple of years, in which hundreds of people have been killed. The Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda is widely believed to be involved in these suicide bombings. The US has launched a series of drone attacks on Al Qaeda hideouts.
On December 5, 2013, Al Qaeda attacked a defence ministry compound in San’a. During the attack, a military hospital came under fire, in which 52 people, mostly doctors, nurses and patients, were killed. The victims included medical personnel from Germany, India, the Philippines and Vietnam. Al Qaeda later offered an apology to the families of the victims and offered to pay blood money.
Kuwait: Tortuous Transition to Democracy
In 2011, youth groups in Kuwait called for the resignation of the Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, who was alleged to be involved in payment of bribes to pro-government MPs. Following the storming of the National Assembly by angry youths, al-Sabah was sacked by Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah, the Emir of Kuwait, who promised to hold fresh elections and also offered a cash gift worth about $3,500 to every citizen. In the February 2012 elections, parties with an Islamic orientation made significant gains. However, in June 2012 the Constitutional Court ruled that the elections had been invalid, which led to the reinstatement of the previous government. The opposition MPs boycotted parliament sessions, following which the Emir dissolved parliament in October 2012. The stand-off between the Emir and the opposition continues, which accuses the ruling regime of stifling freedom of expression and political dissent.