Summer: Libya, Syria and Yemen leaders take desperate measures
Dec 31, 2011
As spring turned to summer, the dominoes began to fight back. Tunisia's
president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had been in power for 23 years and
nobody expected him to go just because the people demanded it. Yet he did -
and when, barely a month later, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak stepped down in
response to massive public protests, it signalled a sea-change in the Middle
Mubarak was the leader of the Arab world's biggest country, a leader backed
politically, economically and militarily by the West. If he could be toppled
by his own people, it meant anyone in the region could go. The domino theory
began to gain currency.
Within days, protests erupted across the region - in Algeria and Libya, in
Yemen, in Lebanon and in Palestine, all seeking to emulate what had been
achieved in Tunisia and Egypt.
On February 25, the Middle East's day of rage, tens of thousands of people
took to the streets across the Arab world. There was a feeling of momentum,
a belief that anything could happen, that the old rules didn't apply any
more. The fear had gone.
But the regimes fought back. The rulers of Libya, Syria and Yemen had been
in power a collective 86 years, and with the addition of the three decades
Bashar Al Assad's father had ruled Syria, these leaders had the collective
wisdom of more than 100 years of repressive rule. Over the course of 2011,
they would use every tactic they knew to stay in power.
Protests in Yemen began even before Mubarak stepped down, triggered by the
arrest of several opposition activists, including Tawwakol Karman, the woman
who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Throughout January and February protests continued, thousands, then tens of
thousands taking to the streets across the country. Yemen's president Ali
Abdullah Saleh offered several concessions, but none but his removal would
Weeks turned to months and by May, hundreds of thousands were assembling for
demonstrations. Despite facing live fire from the army, these actions did
not stop. But Saleh refused to leave. When, on June 3, an explosion ripped
through his presidential compound, killing his aides and seriously injuring
Saleh, the president left for treatment in Saudi Arabia. It looked like
another Arab leader had been ousted by the people.
Yemen's uprising burnt slowly, but Libya's raged swiftly. Within days of
Mubarak's departure in February, huge protests began. They escalated so
rapidly that by February 20 - just nine days after Mubarak left, the
situation was so serious in Libya that Saif Al Islam Qaddafi gave his now
infamous finger-wagging public address.
Qaddafi's army used deadly force against civilians. A cycle was rapidly
established, the same pattern that would later occur in Yemen and Syria:
protesters would be killed, leading to huge crowds and demonstrations over
the following days at their funeral, during which more protesters would be
killed, leading to a further cycle of funerals and protests.
By February 23, Benghazi, the country's second city in the east, had fallen
to the rebels. By the end of the month, the rebels were 45 kilometres from
the capital. A regime and a leader that had seemed immovable for four
decades was swaying. The next domino was about to be toppled.
Yet Qaddafi's forces fought back hard. By air and by land, they fought back
against the rebels, retaking lost towns and speeding east towards Benghazi.
The Libyan rebels, fearing they were about to be massacred, reached out to
the international community. On March 18, the UN Security Council declared a
no-fly zone and Operation Odyssey Dawn began over Libya.
At almost the same time as Nato planes were readying, protests began in
earnest in Syria, sparked by the arrest of a group of children in a southern
city for writing revolutionary slogans.
A country that had seemed likely to weather the Arab Spring was rapidly
plunged into dissent. By the start of April, barely days after protests
began, demonstrations reached the capital Damascus.
Yet no civilian population faced the full weight of their army's weapons as
the Syrians. Tanks, helicopters, gunships and snipers were used against
innocent people. Syria was rapidly becoming a slaughter-ground as the last
domino fought hard to survive.
As the year progressed, none of the uprisings reached a conclusion. Violence
raged in Yemen, in Syria and in Libya for months, claiming hundreds of
lives. It would be five long hot months of blood before the situation
At its core, the long hot summer of fighting in Libya, in Yemen and in Syria
was an attempt to re-establish a principle of power, a principle that had
held true for many Arab republics for decades, the principle that, in the
face of force, the people would back down.
For so many years, that principle held true. States like Iraq, Egypt,
Tunisia, Algeria and Syria placed enormous resources at the service of their
surveillance agents. The intelligence apparatus, spying on citizens,
watching their movements in order to guard against political change, and the
security apparatus of the police and the military added up to an enormous
apparatus of coercion, formed to keep citizens from dissenting.
The history of this creation is long, an integral part of the stagnation
that gripped the Middle East for decades, but its outcome was to maintain
order, to keep people cowed. And for a long time, it worked. Unsurprisingly,
because few will dissent when the price is imprisonment or torture. Even the
lesser costs to career, to the education of their children, to the
well-being of their family, are high prices for most people to bear. That
was why, although it was clear the system was unsustainable, it appeared
stable. Below the surface, there was impatience, anger, fear, but nothing
had yet sparked a conflagration. Like a volcano, it was merely bubbling -
everyone predicted an explosion, but since no one could say when or how, the
status quo was maintained.
But over a few days in January, that principle was overturned, first in
Tunisia and then, most dramatically, in Tahrir Square in Egypt. First, the
Egyptian army issued a curfew - and was ignored. Attacks were carried out
against unarmed protesters - and still the protesters stayed and still more
came. Once the people had defied the curfew, and then remained in the face
of assault, there was nothing left for the state to do except use deadly
force. But when the Egyptian army issued a statement pledging not to attack
the protesters, the die was cast. The regime of Hosni Mubarak had no further
coercive force. Devoid of any legitimacy and lacking the ability to enforce
obedience, the president had to leave. The basis of the repression that held
the republics together began to unravel.
The armies of Libya, Yemen and Syria attempted to sew it back again, to use
such force against their own people that the protesters would be forced to
The Libyan and Yemeni uprisings outlasted their targets. On August 22,
Libya's capital Tripoli fell and Muammar Qaddafi vanished. Two months later,
he reappeared in grainy footage after he was captured, filmed first alive
and confused, and later dead and on display. The Qaddafi era had come to an
In Yemen, the uprising took a unique twist, when, at the end of September,
three months after he was taken to Saudi Arabia, Saleh returned to Yemen.
The target of the uprisings had re-emerged. His return galvanised those who
had, throughout the long months, often appeared on the verge of splitting
into smaller groups. Mass rallies returned to the capital. By the end of
November, having backed out of signing a power transfer agreement several
times, Saleh was finally brought to the table and signed his presidency
What comes next for those two countries - one small and oil-rich, the other
populous and fractured - is unclear. Without a figurehead to coalesce
around, the protesters have started arguing among themselves.
In both countries, outside actors are heavily involved, with strong stakes
in stability rather than change. But having thrown off the yoke of leaders
who ruled for decades, at the least a different future is possible for those
The outcome in Syria is not assured. President Bashar Al Assad is still
counting on turning back the tide of protests. He may yet, despite
everything, despite international sanctions, despite being expelled from the
Arab League, despite daily protests and daily deaths, cling to power for a
few more months or even a few more years. There is no inevitability in
politics. The power of force is persuasive.
But as 2012 opens, the principle of force has been all but forgotten and,
more importantly, the fear of force has gone. Libyans faced up to an army,
at first with no training and only small arms. Yemenis came out in their
millions, even as they were shot to death. In Syria, as the state piled on
force, the people have returned to the streets the following day.
If the unravelling of the fear of force is the one thing that comes out of
12 months of protests and violence, it will be one idea that will change the
Middle East as it enters a new year and a new era.
Faisal Al Yafai is a columnist for The National.
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Received on Mon Jan 02 2012 - 07:16:55 EST