Middle East

Are the Arab uprisings running out of steam?

It is not yet clear where the Arab revolts are heading. The ripples set off by the uprising on the streets of Tunis in January have yet to reach the shore, so to speak.

From Morocco to Muscat, Arab rulers are now getting the clear message that the status quo that has existed in their countries for years, even decades, is unacceptable to large numbers of their population.

Protests are at different stages in different countries - it would be wrong to think of this as one, single movement with a united opposition and a common agenda. But there are still common threads that run right across the region.

Image caption Protests have spread throughout the Arab world, from Casablanca to Cairo

Yes, it is about jobs and opportunities, food prices and corruption, but many - especially the well-educated urban young - want more than economic comfort. They want a political system that is not stifled by the dead hand of autocratic government.

So behind closed doors in gilded palaces and well-guarded mansions, the fundamental question being asked in the inner circles of government is - what can we give them and still stay in power?

When Tunisia and Egypt both drove their presidents from power in a short space of time the talk was all of the "domino effect" and the region was rife with speculation that autocratic Arab regimes would inevitably be toppled, one by one.

The only question, people said, was who would be next. We saw a number of hastily introduced concessions by rulers which amounted to panic measures to stave off a threat to their survival.

Yemen's president promised to stand down in 2013, Jordan's king sacked his cabinet, Algeria lifted its state of emergency and Saudi Arabia and Bahrain both announced lavish handouts of money. These are stop-gap measures, of course, not long-term solutions.

But what has certainly dampened expectations of swift and radical change are the events in Libya.

If Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his family had been driven from power within days then the momentum of Tunis and Cairo would have been maintained.

But the Libyan regime, as we have seen this past week, has dug in and is fighting back against its opponents, using its superior firepower and extensive patronage.

Whether Col Gaddafi survives now for days, months or years, it is clear that overthrowing him is no pushover and will have cost many lives.

Brendan Simms, a professor of international relations history at Cambridge University, was quoted on Friday by Reuters as saying that "Libya is where the fire of revolution from Tunisia and Egypt could go out. The stakes are very high."

Let's take a brief look now at where the uprisings have got to, country by country.

Libya

The only Arab country with a major, full-scale armed insurrection, it is not quite a stalemate as there is an ebb and flow dynamic to the conflict between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces.

Image caption The insurrection in Libya has divided the country. Col Gaddafi now largely controls the capital, Tripoli.

Col Gaddafi largely controls the capital, Tripoli, his birthplace Sirte and a number of other smaller towns to the south and west. His opponents control most of the east, including the second city, Benghazi.

Much of the recent fighting has been around the strategic oil terminals of Brega and Ras Lanuf. Col Gaddafi needs these if he is to sustain himself in power beyond this immediate crisis.

He and the senior members of his government are almost completely isolated internationally but there is little Western appetite for military intervention to help topple him.

Venezuela's president has offered to mediate between him and the rebels but they will not settle for anything less than his departure.

There are a handful of countries that might possibly offer refuge to Col Gaddafi - Nicaragua and Zimbabwe have been mentioned - but he and his family say they are adamant they will stay in Libya.

The possibility of being hunted down and arrested for alleged war crimes if they flee is a factor they will be considering.

Yemen

Sizeable protests continue on and off against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power now for 33 years.

Image caption Yemeni protesters are demanding that the country's wealth be more evenly distributed

The poorest Arab country, Yemen suffers from high unemployment, overpopulation, dwindling oil reserves, dwindling water tables, a Shia rebellion in the north, a separatist movement in the south, a resurgent al-Qaeda in the east, a wasteful national preoccupation with the narcotic qat leaf and too many guns in private hands.

The protesters want more job opportunities, an end to corruption, more even distribution of wealth and an end to the president's rule. He has agreed not to stand again when his term expires in 2013 but shows no sign of leaving before then.

Bahrain

The clashes that erupted in this tiny island Gulf state on 14 February quickly turned violent. After police fired on protesters, seven people were killed, sending shock waves up and down the normally placid Arabian peninsula.

Outsiders have been quick to point to a sectarian split, the so-called "Sunni-Shia divide", focusing on the fact that the ruling al-Khalifa family come from the Sunni minority while 70% of Bahrainis are Shia.

But many of the protesters say this is not what they are objecting to, and they are playing down the sectarian issue.

Instead, they want the 2002 constitution abolished in favour of free elections for a parliament with genuine lawmaking powers.

They want political prisoners released, an end to corruption and cronyism, and the removal of the ageing Prime Minister, Sheikh Khalifa al-Khalifa, who has been in the post for 40 years.

Some have gone further to call for the ousting of King Hamad and some want an end to the two-century rule of the al-Khalifa dynasty altogether.

But Bahrain's uprising is not as clear-cut as Egypt's or Tunisia's. There has been a significant backlash by supporters of the government, some of it orchestrated but much of it genuine.

The king has appointed the Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa, to conduct a "national dialogue" with the opposition.

So far, the two sides still appear far apart and protests continue, focusing on a giant sculpture at Pearl Roundabout.

Oman

The eruption of protests in Oman's Arabian Sea port of Sohar surprised everyone. Oman has been a peaceful country since the popular ruler, Sultan Qaboos, overthrew his backward father in 1970 and then defeated a communist insurgency in the south.

Image caption Oman may not be as rich as its Gulf neighbours, but the protests there surprised many

The recent unrest was sparked by a government measure that led to several workers getting laid off, but it was, once again, an over-reaction by the security forces that led to an escalation in which two people died.

Oman is not a rich country - unlike its Gulf neighbours Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE, it does not have a huge hydrocarbon industry and many of the population work in agriculture and fishing.

There is now discussion of a Gulf-wide "Marshall Plan" for Oman and Bahrain to inject billions of petrodollars into their economies and give priority to their nationals for jobs, in order to stave off further protests.

Iraq

Iraq may have suffered eight painful years of invasion, occupation and insurgency, preceded by decades of brutal rule by Saddam Hussein, but its growing pains towards full democracy are not yet over.

There have been protests in Baghdad and Mosul by frustrated Iraqis demanding more jobs and less corruption. Police reaction has resulted in deaths of protesters.

Egypt and Tunisia

These are of course the two countries to have had their revolutions, but it is still a work in progress, made more urgent by the ongoing upheaval and mass displacement of migrant workers in the country between them, Libya.

Image caption Cairo's Tahrir Square has remained a focal point for demonstration - and celebration

In the last few days the interim prime ministers of both countries have had to resign, facing rising impatience by protesters who do not want to see the democratic gains they believe they have made so far undermined by a slow drift backwards towards old, autocratic ways.

With Presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali removed from office, both countries are in a kind of limbo, pending elections.

Egypt's security forces have raised the spectre of renewed repression when they fired on protesters recently.

Realistically, it is probably going to take at least a generation to iron out all the repressive tendencies that have become institutionalised in Egypt's internal security forces.

Human rights there will only stand a chance if the new government is serious about upholding them. It will be interesting to see if visiting Western leaders keep this in mind.