10:39am

Thu October 27, 2011
Middle East

The Arab Uprisings: Now Comes The Hard Part

Originally published on Thu October 27, 2011 11:06 am

The heady days of the Arab uprisings have seemingly passed, and now the countries that tossed out autocratic leaders, or are still trying to, face much more difficult tasks.

Tunisians held a successful election on Sunday, but now must form a government and write a constitution. Libyans have not only purged but killed former leader Moammar Gadhafi. Now, they face enormous difficulties in unifying the country in the wake of his regime's total destruction.

Egypt is preparing for elections next month, but it appears the military will remain in charge for some time to come. And in Syria and Yemen, uprisings are still ongoing months after they began, but the longtime rulers in both places are still holding power.

"It's normal for transitions of these sorts to be very difficult," says Marina Ottaway, director of Middle East studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I don't think there was any reason to believe that things would be easy and smooth."

Tunisia In The Lead

Tunisia, which staged the first revolution in January, is the furthest along the path toward democratization. A moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, appears to have won about 40 percent of Sunday's vote, and will take the lead in shaping an interim government and writing a new constitution.

Ennahda didn't win a majority, and it's considered unlikely to promote Sharia, or strict Islamic law. That may ease concerns in other countries about Islamists coming to power, Ottaway says.

Many observers believe Tunisia has the best chance to establish itself as a true democracy among countries in the region.

"If they set up a credible government in a reasonable amount of time, some of the anxiety about the election of Islamists may be contained" in other countries, says Barbara Bodine, an international affairs scholar at Princeton University.

Ennahda is also a genuine political party, says Ian Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. That is, it seeks to unite groups with different backgrounds toward a common purpose. In other Arab countries, some emerging political groups represent little more than tribes or limited geographical groupings.

Libya After Gadhafi

That sort of fragmentation threatens to undermine the transition toward democracy in Libya, the only Arab country that has experienced wholesale regime change this year. Although the country has been declared liberated by its Transitional National Council, it is also home to a variety of armed militias with different allegiances.

The country has historical divisions along both geographic and tribal lines, and the struggle over what a post-Gadhafi Libya should look like is just beginning.

"The old regime has really been destroyed, and it's going to be much more difficult to put something together," says Ottaway, the Carnegie Endowment analyst. "I think they're deluded to think they're going to have elections in eight months, as they've said."

Playing Political Chicken In Egypt

Egypt is scheduled to begin parliamentary elections on Nov. 28. But the election process could be drawn out, and the military could remain as the country's interim leaders for an extended period.

In the meantime, Ottaway suggests, it will take this first round of elections for the various political parties to gauge their relative levels of support.

"At this point, everybody thinks they can become the major players there, and therefore they don't have to make deals with anybody else in the country," says Ottaway, who recently returned from a trip to Egypt. "Once they have elections and can measure support, then, if everything goes well, we can begin to see the deal-making."

No Unity In Yemen

The lack of a coherent opposition in Yemen is one reason why President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains in charge. At various times, Saleh had promised to step down if certain conditions were met, and he spent much of the summer recuperating in Saudi Arabia after an attack that left him badly burned.

Protesters in the street and a military faction that has defected have not managed to coalesce in a way that would assure Saleh's ouster.

"It makes Saleh's job of postponing this that much easier," says Barbara Bodine, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen under President Clinton. "You had not just Saleh, but most of the senior political leadership out of the country for three months, and the opposition wasn't able to pull itself together to take advantage of that."

Fear Of What Comes Next In Syria

In Syria, Bashar Assad's hold on power appears relatively solid, at least for now. He has relied heavily on his security forces, and some 3,000 people have been killed this year, according to human rights groups and Syrian activists.

But the protesters have also been unable to claim a particular territory as a base of their own, as anti-Gadhafi forces did in Libya. Their movement has not taken root in the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, while the protests elsewhere have not been coordinated in ways that would challenge the military on multiple fronts at once.

There have been no major defections from the military, which is dominated by Alawites, the minority group to which Assad belongs.

Assad may not be able to maintain the status quo forever, but it's also difficult to envision a near-term scenario in which he loses control, says Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

"Most people are sticking with the regime because they can't tell if it's going to fall," Landis says.

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