Analysis - Ground shifts as new Middle East order takes shape

LONDON Fri Mar 25, 2011 6:50pm GMT

An anti-government protester gestures to riot police in the mainly Shi'ite village of Diraz, west of Manama, March 25, 2011. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

An anti-government protester gestures to riot police in the mainly Shi'ite village of Diraz, west of Manama, March 25, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

LONDON (Reuters) - The scene is eerily similar, everywhere you look in the Middle East. The physical geography may be different but the political geography is the same.

Switch on any Arab satellite TV channel and you can watch pro-democracy demonstrators openly defying the rulers who have controlled their lives for decades. But it may take more than a moment to figure out whether you are seeing Libya or Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia or Syria, maybe Morocco, Bahrain or perhaps Oman.

The ground is shifting underneath these ruling elites and few seem likely to survive without undertaking major changes.

"You have a sense of empowerment, people feel emboldened. They realise they can really change their governments," said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics. "That's why almost every Arab country is undergoing social upheaval. These are more than protests.

"People want real change."

The revolts have not just exposed the vulnerability of Arab autocrats but have extracted concessions from them unimaginable only a few months ago. The old ways no longer work.

"The whole system is changing," said Beirut-based commentator Rami Khoury. "Arab leaders have to change. They can no longer use the same techniques they used before. Every single country without exception has to make changes."

Gerges said: "I think we have reached a point of no return. I don't think the Middle East will be the same. It is a new order in the making. It is revolution in the making."

SPARKS OF REVOLT

In a region where opposition has come in recent decades from militant Islam, the nature of the sparks that have touched off explosive anger reveal a much broader, less religious, movement intent on reclaiming a sense of personal destiny and dignity.

The protesters are often young, but always courageous and mostly determined. No longer cowed by the arsenal of repression available to their rulers, these young Arabs have a sense of climbing out of a dungeon that has been their disfigured world.

In Tunisia, it all began with a slap and a slur hurled at a vegetable seller by a policewoman in a rundown provincial city. Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest and, three months after his death, he would scarcely recognise the region he knew.

In Egypt, it started with a march of anger against police brutality and the beating to death of an activist, Khaled Said.

In Libya, the spark was the arrest of a human rights lawyer in Benghazi. In Syria, peaceful protests began in the border town of Deraa to demand the release of 15 schoolchildren. They were jailed for daubing on walls slogans about freedom which they had heard beamed in from Egypt on satellite television.

The balance sheet so far is: two dictators have gone, in Tunisia and Egypt; another is under siege in Libya; yet another autocrat whose days in power seem numbered in Yemen; and a host of other Arab leaders whose thrones are beginning to wobble.

COMMON THEMES

What these states have in common is not just socio-economic profiles -- plus or minus the ruler's ability to offer oil cash to appease citizens. It is also that a common language and culture have helped foster a thirst for emulating successful revolutions in neighbouring states like Tunisia and Egypt.

Promises of prosperity have not deflected calls for change.

"It is not just about bread and butter or jobs. It is more than that. It is about freedom in society. It is about having a representative government. People want to be proud citizens. They want to have a say in the way their countries are governed and how their society is managed," Gerges said.

Young people -- typically one in two or three of these fast-growing Arab populations -- have thrown off traditions of deference to elders to spearhead a drive against an old, post-colonial order that is marked by tyranny and stagnation.

A generation or two ago, revolutions -- often military coups -- brought to power some of these men with promises of people power. Yet many ended up establishing their own dynasties, sharing out their nations' wealth among their families, clans, and loyalists in the military and business elites.

They held power through wholesale repression, exercised by ubiquitous secret police using torture, imprisonment without trial and, on occasion, massacres. Promises of prosperity and education for all translated into very little for the majority.

PRESSURE FOR CHANGE

Faced with the unprecedented protests, many Arab leaders have made concessions in recent weeks that they had never contemplated in decades of absolute power. Yet the wave of revolt keeps on building among populations who believe their countries will change only once the old order is pushed aside.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has joined the ranks of leaders facing challenges, made a rare public pledge to grant greater freedoms on Thursday after attacks by security forces on protesters in the southern city of Deraa that left 44 dead.

Yet Friday saw more and more widespread protests, and more killings, in a country at the heart of the Arab cultural world.

The LSE's Gerges said many leaders in trouble have failed to understand their people: "They have been throwing money around but I don't think they have grasped the depth or the longing of people for a more open society, more freedoms, more representation in the government. This is across the board."

For Khouri, changes will be deep and widespread: "Citizens have revolted against their system," he said. "Not every country wants to topple its ruler but everybody wants significant changes in the governance and the exercise of power, change in the role of the security forces and the rights of citizens."

Satellite television, mobile phones and social media have weakened leaders' ability to kill thousands without challenge, as for example Egypt's new deposed Hosni Mubarak did in the 1990s or Assad's father did against Islamists in Hama in 1982.

When the forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh killed 52 unarmed protesters in the Yemeni capital Sanaa last Friday, he lost the support of key figures in the elite.

Division at the top has become a feature of difficulties Arab leaders have found themselves in. Some believe Syria could follow a similar pattern. One analyst familiar with the country's power structures said the bloodshed in Deraa could show a rift between President Assad, who has spoken of cautious reform, and his brother Maher, who is seen as a hardliner.

"The killing in Deraa crosses a line which is very difficult to retract from. There is tremendous hate," the analyst said. "Will the iron fist be met with the iron will of rebellion, as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt, and now Yemen?

"If they continue killing people, they are in danger."

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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