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After the Arab Spring

Author: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
March 28, 2011


A couple of days before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was finally forced from office, it rained in Cairo. When the storm passed and the sun re-appeared, one of the protesters pointed out on Twitter that a rainbow had appeared over downtown -- a sign, she believed, of the freedom and prosperity that was to come. Caught up in the romance of the barricades, it was hard for demonstrators and democracy activists, in Egypt and beyond, not to think that way. It seemed that Middle East was on the verge of a democratic breakthrough. It was one thing for Tunisians to force a tin-pot dictator like Zine Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Jeddah, it was quite another for Egyptians to dump the Pharaoh. That's not supposed to happen. And as Tunisians inspired Egyptians, what the revolutionaries in Cairo accomplished gave impetus to Pearl Square, where Bahrain's own protesters have gathered, and to Benghazi, the base of Libya's rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi. Yet the successes of Tahrir or November 7 squares have not easily translated to these other places. It seems entirely possible that the Arab spring could end on the banks of the Nile. What went wrong?

Something very different and troubling is happening in Bahrain, Yemen, of course Libya, and now Syria, where security forces killed at least 61 people since protests began last week. President Barack Obama made the case for military action in Libya when he stated, "Not only do we have a humanitarian interest, but we also have a very practical interest in making sure that the changes that are sweeping through that region are occurring in a peaceful nonviolent fashion." But he was too late. The defenders of the status quo in the region, having learned the hard lessons of Ben Ali and Mubarak, have become resolute in their efforts to reverse the revolutionary dynamic that began in Sidi Bouzid on December 17. For obvious reasons, the Obama administration, analysts, and other observers have focused their attention on Qaddafi. After all, the war he has unleashed against his own people is the ultimate counterrevolutionary step. Yet Tripoli is not the only center of anti-revolutionary activity; so is Riyadh.

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