Embattled Arab leaders decide it's better to fight than quit

Arab leaders facing public revolt have increasingly concluded that it is better to shoot to kill, or at least to arrest and imprison, than to abdicate and flee.

That calculation appears to be based on the short-term results of the Arab Spring. Those who have left, namely Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, face the humiliation of a criminal investigation, a trial and possible imprisonment. Those who have opted to stick with the use of force, like the President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have retained power and appear to have leverage to negotiate immunity should they leave, regional analysts said.

“I don't think we're going to see rulers run away, like Mubarak,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst with the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. “We passed this stage. They will not run or abdicate. They will take their chances.”

The wave of Arab uprisings, which began with popular protests that quickly ousted entrenched autocrats, has evolved into deadly confrontations in Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, with leaders willing to use sustained lethal force against a public convinced that persistence is the key to victory. It is a face-off, a test of wills, which has left thousands dead and opened a dark chapter in what was initially called the Arab Spring.

Each side has drawn lessons from the early days of the Arab unrest and the popular push for change. The leaders have settled on a formula that consists of three elements: limited concessions; a narrative that blames a third party, like a foreign nation or al-Qaeda; and security forces that are authorised to take any steps necessary, including shooting to kill, to get people off the streets. In Bahrain, officials have tried to recast the narrative altogether by asserting that the protesters started the violence, while the government has imposed what amounts to martial law on a majority of the population.

The next stage

The question surfacing now concerns the next stage of this unpredictable Arab season of protest. Can this repression prevail, and if so, for how long? There is no certainty, and there are competing indicators from moment to moment. Nevertheless, there are some reasons to believe that the leaders who turn to bloodshed may not, ultimately, win out, experts said.

The choice of sustained, violent repression has been most evident in Libya, Yemen and now Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's forces have killed hundreds and his tanks have rolled into civilian neighbourhoods.

Those tactics of fear and force first succeeded in Bahrain, where the monarchy crushed a popular uprising. That was possible in large measure because it is a tiny nation with a small population that is more easily controlled, and because the United States was willing to look the other way to assist an ally. The United States Navy's Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain.

But that same impulse can also be seen with Saudi Arabia, which sent its tanks into Bahrain to help end the revolt there; in the United Arab Emirates, where government critics have been jailed; in Oman, where security forces have crushed protests; and in Jordan, where the police have attacked protesters.

“President Saleh was about to resign, but now he will fight and do everything he can in order to hold on to his seat so that he does not end up in the same position as Mubarak,” said Abdel Rahman Barman, a human rights lawyer taking part in the uprising in Yemen.

But, Mr. Barman added, the example of Egypt has also inspired the Arab street to persevere, the second half of the dynamic that for now is defining the second, bloody phase of the season of Arab unrest.

“What the revolution has managed to accomplish in Egypt by putting Mubarak and those around him behind bars has given us even more hope and a stronger drive,” Mr. Barman said. “Before,” he said, speaking of Mr. Saleh, “we demanded that he leaves. Now, we want him tried for the crimes he committed against the Yemeni people and for his corruption.” (Mr. Saleh has signalled a willingness to step down under a transition agreement, but only under certain conditions, including immunity.)

Under public pressure, Egypt's ruling military council detained Mr. Mubarak, who is now in a hospital in Sharm el Sheik and is being investigated for accusations of corruption and for his role in the killing of hundreds of demonstrators. His sons have also been detained and are now being questioned along with the leadership of his former government and party.

That has spooked Arab leaders who now feel that Mr. Mubarak and Tunisia's former President, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, did not hold on long enough, said a high-ranking diplomat from the Persian Gulf region, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to discuss nations other than his own.

Mustapha Kamel el-Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo said: “No Arab leader is immune from facing the prospects of Mubarak. If the pharaoh himself is going to stand trial, then the other non-pharaohs are likely to face the same prospects.”

In Libya and Yemen, leaders have indicated a willingness to fight on, while also signalling an openness to deal, although critics question their sincerity. In Syria, Mr. Assad has mixed an iron fist with airy promises of reform.

‘Need to adapt quickly'

But also in the oil-rich Persian Gulf states, Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center, warned last week in an essay in The Washington Post that repression ultimately would not work, and that the only way forward was through change. He was writing about the Gulf states, but his point could easily apply to the rest of the region.

“If the ruling families of the gulf want to maintain their legitimacy, they need to adapt quickly to the changing times and enact substantive political reform that reflects their people's aspirations,” Mr. Sager wrote. “Time is no longer on their side. If they wait too long, their rule cannot be assured.”

But for now, leaders around the region and under the greatest popular pressure do not seem to see it that way. Instead, they have decided to open fire, leading to a deadly standoff.

“It shouldn't happen this way, where there are hundreds or thousands killed,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, a political science professor at Kuwait University. “People are earning their liberation by their blood.” — © New York Times News Service

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2020 4:50:46 AM |

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