By James Brandon
The last few days have seen a fresh surge in violence in many ‘Arab Spring’ countries, raising new questons over the emerging direction of the ‘new’ Middle East.
In Egypt, almost 80 people were killed two days ago when political violence broke out at football match. Clashes between police and various groups are still continuing around the country, with five more people killed in Suez today. Separately, two female American tourists were briefly seized by armed gunmen in Sinai.
In Libya, new crimes apparently committed by country’s powerful militias continue to emerge. Human Rights Watch today reported that man who had served as a senior Libyan diplomat under Gaddafi had been tortured to death by a Tripoli militia after being taken into custody in mid-January. Yesterday other militias fought a pitched battle in the capital as they struggled for control of an army barracks.
In Syria, violence also continues with both the regime and opposition forces apparently targetting civilians and non-combatants. Earlier today, Human Rights Watch alleged that Syrian government forces were routinely detaining and tortuing children as young as thirteen. Separately, Sunni-led opposition forces are believed to have kidnapped a number of Iranian Shia pilgrims in the country’s east, leading Iran to urge pilgrims to avoid travelling to Syria by road.
Tunisia, where the ‘Arab Spring’ began, is somewhat calmer. But although there is little violence, protests and strikes are common. As Reuters reported on Wednesday: ‘Tunisia’s economy is stuck in a feedback loop: people are protesting over poverty and unemployment, yet by slowing the economy, they are entrenching the problems that inspired the protests in the first place.’
In addition to these main ‘Arab Spring’ countries, there are additional concerns over instability in Yemen , over who will ultimately succeeed Saud Arabia’s 88-year old King Abdullah and over what will happen next in Iran, which is ever more internationally isolated and is increasingly beleagured by international sanctions. Another key question is whether Algeria’s political and social reforms will be enough to keep a lid on bubbling youth dissent there, especially self-immolations by desperate young people continue.
This is not to say there have not been some improvements in these countries. One clear gain, for example, is that in some countries like Tunisia, freedom of speech is now the defacto state of affairs and people are (mostly) free to protest and demonstrate. Even in Egypt and Libya, people also mostly enjoy greater freedom of speech than at any time in living memory, even if protesting remains a high-risk activity.
That said, it is clear that the overall situation in the Middle East and North Africa is much less rosy than just a few weeks ago. Sectarianism is one clear danger, particularly in Syria but also in Egypt. Regionalism, is also emerging as an underestimated hazard, particularly in Libya where militias are largely based on regional and tribal lines. In addition, there is a general sense that the bonds of social solitarity, so evident in the early protests in Tahrir Square and in the uprising against Gadaffi are breaking down. Indeed, one notable trend in Egypt has been a spate of crime and armed robberies.
It is important too to remember that one of the initial triggers for the Arab Spring uprisings was the economy, particularly in Tunisia but also in Egypt. In recent months, however, the region’s economies have remained moribund and youth employment stubbornly high. Tourism too is uniformly down and often only oil, gas and defence companies have shown the apetitite to seek work in unstable countries like Libya. The end result is that one of the central goals of the 2011 uprisings – for more jobs and greater economic opportunities – essentially remains unmet.
The metaphor of the ‘Arab Spring’ turning into an ‘Islamist autumn/winter’ is over-used. It is also often inaccurate. The emerging struggle in many Middle Eastern countries is not simply a binary ‘Islamists versus secularists’ conflict. Rather it is often a struggle between between the old elites and the disenfranchised, the powerful against the powerless, between capital cities and the provinces, and between military men and technocrats (both Islamist and non-Islamist). It is also defined by international alliances, particualry between those with good links to the Gulf States (mainly Sunni Islamist groups) against those organisations who have to raise their own funds (for example, trade unions and many liberal groups).
Given the number of political, social and economic challenges that the region faces, it is hard to imagine that the Middle East’s current instability will vanish overnight. Many long-standing problems like corruption, religious intolerance, over-dependency on oil, inadequate education systemsa nd the lack of women in the workplace are generational issues for which there is no quick fix. The only certainty for now, it seems, is more uncertainty.
James Brandon is a principal analyst and communications manager at Maplecroft.