Middle East

Analysis: Arab Spring still a work in progress

Protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo. 20 May 2011
Image caption Protesters in Egypt are keeping up the pressure for reform

It is not over. That much is clear, six months after a desperate young Tunisian set fire to himself in a public square, provoking a wave of protest throughout the Middle East.

But the Arab Spring remains a work in progress.

In Tunisia and Egypt, where it all began, there is room for guarded optimism. Multi-party elections are due in both places which, despite much uncertainty, are likely to usher in more democratic systems.

If that happens, Egypt, a regional bellwether, will become a beacon for reformers elsewhere.

At the other extreme, Libya and Syria stand as warnings of what happens when ruthless regimes resort to sustained violence to cling to power.

Most other Arab states lie somewhere in between. None is immune to the pressures for change.

Demise of the strongmen

The West is at a loss to know how to respond.

The stalemate in Libya has blunted the appetite for direct intervention. Whatever the outcome there, Libya will be a one-off.

The rhetoric of support for democratisation - whether from US President Barack Obama or Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron - needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Western diplomats, military men and intelligence chiefs find themselves - rather like the Middle East itself - in limbo.

For decades they relied on regional strongmen to promote Arab-Israeli peace, fight Islamist extremism and counter the influence of Iran.

Now they no longer know who they can count on. They are left waiting anxiously for the dust to settle - which may take months or even years.

Image caption Gulf Co-operation Council troops intervened during unrest in Bahrain

Then there is Saudi Arabia, dubbed by some commentators "the elephant in the room".

The West needs the Saudi kingdom more than ever - yet is at odds with it over whether the Arab Spring should be encouraged or repressed.

As a status-quo power in a region in flux, the House of Saud is in a deeply uncomfortable position.

The Saudi princes were able to intervene in next-door Bahrain, to prop up a friendly regime facing sustained popular protest.

But they are not in a position to do so elsewhere.

They are unsettled by the regional upheaval - and angry with their Western allies whom they accuse of abandoning them.

Finally, why has the unrest been more pronounced in some places than in others? Are the monarchies less susceptible to change than the republics?

If so, why has there been no serious unrest in Algeria? A republic with an ailing leader, a burgeoning population and deep-rooted economic and social grievances, the country would seem to typify the Arab malaise.

Some analysts think Algerians are fearful that any new unrest would revive the terrible violence of the 1990s.

The Arab Spring has not lost its power to shock, puzzle and amaze.

Roger Hardy is a visiting fellow at the Centre for International Studies at LSE

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