It has certainly been one of the more disheartening weeks of the Arab Spring.
In Libya the National Transitional Council (NTC), which had been growing in strength, was dealt a destabilising blow with the murder of Commander Abdel Fatah Younes. Through this one act the rebels lost vast military expertise, moral was bolstered in the Gaddafi camp and those committed to decrying humanitarian intervention were given an opportunity to attack governments supporting the revolution. Even more damaging than this will be the uncertainty and mistrust caused by the killing, something only likely to grow since the discovery of a Benghazi-based cell loyal to Gaddafi, operating from within the rebel ranks.
Meanwhile, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad followed in his father’s footsteps by launching a brutal massacre in the city of Hama. With the death toll there standing at over 130 (and nationwide at over 1500) the tanks are still rolling in. Reports of mass round-ups, arbitrary imprisonment and extra-judicial killings are coming from across the country, giving further indication of al-Assad’s decision to stop at nothing in holding onto power through force, no matter how many lives it costs. It is painfully clear that the Ramadan period will marred by bombs and bullets –as well as the tyrant’s growing determination to divide and conquer through provoking sectarian tensions.
Perhaps one of the most ominous developments in the region however, has been the increasing turmoil in post-revolutionary Egypt. Protests led by Islamist groups have been held across the country demanding a theocratic state ruled using Sharia law, a move that has shaken liberal secularists and stoked fears of further sectarian violence. Other demonstrations against the slow pace of reform have been violently broken up by soldiers and police loyal to the transitional military regime, raising questions of the new political elite’s true intentions and framing their rule as little different to Mubarak’s.
Against this backdrop it would be easy to loose hope in the Arab Revolutions…but it would also be wrong.
For despite the recent setbacks, all three nations are nevertheless making incredible progress in throwing off the shackles of authoritarianism. Gaddafi may be gloating and hoping for further divisions in the rebel camp- but his own position is far from secure; having gone from that of a seemingly invulnerable dictator entrenched by decades of power, to something resembling Hitler’s last days in the bunker, in just a matter of months. Holed up in Tripoli, he is haemorrhaging funds and arms to the NTC and is under consistent military pressure from both the rebels and NATO, including serious blows to his propaganda infrastructure this week. It is strikingly clear that the despot can now never feasibly return to his previous position.
Similarly there is a feeling that Syria may be approaching something of a watershed. Despite the massacres, the people of Hama are remaining defiant; Damascus is no longer immune from upheaval and weekly rallies are becoming nightly in a sign that, if al-Assad is going to put everything on the line, so are the protestors.
His crackdown may also be something of an own-goal; triggering mass defections and generating widespread international pressure including a UN Security Council debate and uncharacteristic criticism from the Russian government. Even in early March it looked as if the Arab Spring could pass Syria by; less than six months on the democracy movement has hit heights barely anyone thought to be possible. And it is still growing.
The successes of the Egyptian revolution must not be written off either, despite the current state of affairs. After nearly three decades of dictatorship, transition was never going to be easy. The military has no previous experience of the transitional role it is currently expected to fulfil, the Islamists are naturally vocal after being supressed for so long and the turbulent nature of political pluralism’s first wave was something of an inevitability.
Of course this does not justify the violence blighting the nation – nor does it bode well for the upcoming elections, especially considering the military’s decision to maintain the ban on international observers. But the six months since Mubarak is simply not enough to determine the fate of Egypt’s future – and the many positive signs from continuing democracy rallies to inter-faith cooperation demonstrate the overwhelming determination of the Egyptian people to seize on their success in Tahrir and work towards genuine freedom.
All nations touched by the Arab Spring – whether still in the grip of revolution or taking the first steps towards building a new democracy- still have far to go; and it is the duty of governments and citizenries around the world to support them. Leaving party politics aside – and recognising a sensible statement when it is made- UK Foreign Secretary William Hague’s summary strikes exactly the right note:
“What has started this year will take a generation to work through. We mustn’t expect each country to be neatly done in six months. It’s not a computer game that comes to an end when you get bored. It’s not a TV programme that finishes at 10pm. We are going to be working at this for the rest of our lives.”
For those who have died during the revolutions and for the future of their nations – it’ll be worth it.