It appears that events this year are moving in spurts and starts. For the last few weeks – in fact, ever since the attack on Saleh at the start of June – the situation in each of the most active Middle Eastern countries seems to have stagnated. This week has seen that deadlock broken.
In Libya, the rebels are finally gaining ground at a convincing rate, having reached somewhere east of Zlitan and therefore encircling Misrata, finally ending the siege. And in Yemen, as I covered yesterday, Saleh broke his silence, throwing the political situation there into fresh turmoil. But it’s Syria and Egypt which have today provided the most hope for the movement which is still only tentatively being called the Arab Spring.
Ever since Mubarak, the regimes against which uprisings have mobilised have had much more time to prepare, and have realised what is at stake regionally should they give in. The element of surprise which made Tunisia and Egypt so effective (and so rapid, particularly in Egypt’s case) has been conclusively lost. The abortive uprising in Bahrain clearly demonstrated to Arab leaders that the West was not always going to rule in favour of the protesters, and provided an example of a revolution completely crushed by military power. From that point, the Arab Spring has taken on a markedly more violent nature, from the outright civil (and international) war in Libya to even the reaction of the supposedly-reigned in baltagis (Thugs) in Egypt last Tuesday. The decrease in protests makes abundant sense: if your government is trying to suppress your movement, the last thing you want to do is amass huge numbers of subversive people in one convenient killing ground. Commentators here widely supposed that the momentum was dying. But now this.
Egypt: Today saw the “million man march”, which probably didn’t meet the expectations raised by its title, in Tahrir Square, as well as other protests around the country on a scale unprecedented since Mubarak fell (in February, as every single news source seems determined to remind us, as if anyone vaguely interested in the current round of protests could possibly be ignorant of it!). It seems to be less a new revolution than a continuation of the spirit of the first, with the same determination to remain in the square, the same volunteer force searching those who enter the square, the same impromptu music and political discussions, and more tents. What has changed, however, is the attitude, which has become more focussed on avenging the deaths of those killed, both before Mubarak’s fall and during the events of last Tuesday. The police, who are on the receiving end of much of the demonstrators’ most vicious ire, have wisely been kept away to avoid confrontations. But how long can that last? If the protest remains in the square for a week, shutting down one of the central parts of Cairo, the government will have to take some kind of action, and given the new no-nonsense approach in Tahrir, both sides will have to be careful not to escalate the situation.
An interesting point to note is the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood, who had initially stated their intention to stay well away from the protest. Their participation sends a painful message of doubt to the government, given the Brotherhood’s somewhat cosier status in re the present administration than that enjoyed by many others. The declaration that they intend to stay until the end will worry Tantawi, especially because they represent a very different demographic from the youthful originators of the Revolution.
Whatever the case, the re-ignition of demonstrations in the same hotspots as before shows that the Egyptians – and the Arabs in general – are aware that although a leader might be gone, the edifice will remain, and more than one shake might be necessary to bring it down.
Syria: The shift of focus of military attention to Hama heralds a severe change for the regime. Unlike Tell Kalakh or Jisr al-Shughour, both of which are small towns on the Syrian border, Hama is one of the country’s largest cities. They cannot simply plow through it and eliminate the opposition. This is especially true because the residents of Hama, emboldened perhaps by the resonance of the 1982 massacre, have succeeded in defending their city from the tanks and military vehicles attempting to force entry. You might suppose that, with so many people devoted to defending Hama, protests would be small – indeed, that was predicted yesterday by opposition representatives. Instead, the safety afforded inside the city caused the protest to swell to 500,000 (according to the opposition), easily the largest protest in Syria since the beginning of the uprising.
This example will be difficult to replicate outside Hama, as most of the other centres of rebellion (with the exception of Deraa, which is still under military occupation) are too small to be effectively defended. The larger towns, such as Aleppo and Homs, are still not showing anything like the volume of protest the Hamawis have achieved. The most likely group to follow their example is the Kurdish population in distant Hasakeh, out by the Turkish and Iraqi border. Even if other regions don’t immediately follow, the failure of regime troops to enter the city means that Assad has conclusively lost Hama in a way that he has not thus far lost any other town, and this is a crucial turning point on a part with Gaddafi’s loss of Benghazi and Cyrenaica. Once the opposition has control of territory, it becomes much harder to defeat.
It has always been the case that both Bashar and the wider Ba’th Party (particularly its more conservative elements, his father’s legacy) would sacrifice the other in order to stay in power. As Assad’s failure to retake Hama becomes clearer, one has to wonder how long the Ba’th party will stand by him.