Winter of Discontent: Arab Winter

Georgia Lewis

Image © The Advocacy Project

Image © The Advocacy Project

The picture of a woman in Cairo with her abaya torn away by men who do not deserve the respect of a soldier job title has gone global. With her face covered but her blue bra on display, her awful humiliation has gone global largely thanks to Twitter and Facebook, two tools which have played a massive role in disseminating information on the events of the Arab Spring.

She has not been identified but she has become an important symbol of the events in Egypt and the wider Arab world. The role of women, the role of powerful images and the role of social media cannot be underestimated and the blue bra photograph captures all this graphically and shockingly. The photograph also demonstrated that the military is not in any hurry to relinquish power so that the people of Egypt can enjoy a sane and functioning democracy. It also flies in the face of the tired myth that the Arab world is not ready for democracy. Egypt’s military may not be keen to give power to the people but nobody can deny the people want power and are prepared to fight hard for it. 

The woman in the photograph has not gone public but she must know of her faceless fame – we have an image of an observant Muslim woman fighting for democracy, a powerful statement that says women in the Arab world are not submissive and apolitical and that Islam and democracy can and should be able to co-exist.

It is indeed tragic that Egypt is set to see out 2011 without political stability in place but this one image has galvanised the people once more and sets the stage for further pressure on the military to stop the excessive force and reverse what has basically become a military dictatorship with a puppet Prime Minister.

Like Syria, the people of Egypt have the weight of international condemnation of the violence behind them but it remains to be seen whether pressure from the likes of Hilary Clinton will have any real impact.

In Syria, President Assad goes from bad to worse as if he is blissfully unaware that the rest of the world knows what he is up to. This week, reports from the north of Syria put the death toll at anywhere between 56 and 121, with the United Nations estimating 5,000 people have been killed since March. Assad is certainly aware of the power of the internet in exposing what is going on as he seeks to censor and block technology wherever he can. The events have all the hallmarks of a state that could easily fail in the new year.

Meanwhile, Tunisia has not received the same media attention but the nation’s own revolution has resulted in a government that was announced this week. The moderate Islamist Ennahda party won the election and a 41-member government has been established. Critics are saying this is too small and that exorbitant salaries will be paid to the new parliamentarians, something which is understandably offensive in a country where the government needs to rebuild the economy.

But at this stage, it seems Tunisia has so far had the most successful outcome from the Arab Spring. Libya’s National Transitional Council is still an unknown quantity – it is soon to face a big test of its credibility with its trial of Saif Al-Islam Khadafi. The killing of his father, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, has been criticised as a humans rights abuse and a fair trial would have been a better outcome rather than what effectively amounts to a political martyrdom. A fair and open trial of Saif Al-Islam – and a commitment by the nascent government to fairly share the oil wealth – are both essential if the new Libyan administration is to be taken seriously by the wider world.

The events of Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya are a stark contrast to the attempts at an Arab Spring in the Gulf States. While it has been pretty quiet in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, the events in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have been very telling about the people in power as well as the citizens.

Bahrain has lost more than a Grand Prix amid scenes of public violence, absurd arrests of doctors who treated the injured and no real indication as to the fate of many more prisoners. While life is pretty much going on in Bahrain for most locals and expats alike, the rivalry between Shia and Sunni Islam was horribly exposed and there is still plenty of anger, albeit with much of it now seen on Twitter rather than Pearl Square.

It is still a tense situation that was horribly underplayed by Bernie Ecclestone who seems to view Arab world protests as a fad, but then he does have plenty of money to make by backing the return of the Bahrain Grand Prix. If there is a 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix, it will be held against a backdrop of a country that is offering a veneer of stability. But with the ruling family part of a different sect to the majority of people living there, it is certainly a fragile situation as 2011 draws to a close.

The United Arab Emirates, a country where I lived for five years, dealt with any possible uprisings in a manner that I found unsurprising and tragi-comic. There were no Bahrain-like scenes of mass protest or horrendous violence. The most public event in the UAE’s mini Arab Spring was the arrest of five Emirati bloggers who urged political reforms such as free elections. There were reports of their mistreatment while they were remanded in custody, they went on a hunger strike and refused to appear in court because they were certain it would not be a fair trial.

Farcical scenes ensued when people gathered at the courthouse to call for harsh justice for the bloggers and to publicly display their support for the royal rulers. Ironically, freedom of assembly is illegal in the UAE yet apparently it is OK to assemble if you’re supporting the status quo.

Ever PR-savvy, Sheikh Khalifa, the UAE President pardoned the bloggers after they were sentenced to three years in jail. The pardon came just in time for the celebrations for UAE National Day and around this time, UAE’s Emirati civil servants were given massive payrises, in some cases as much as 100%. Given that the majority of employed Emiratis are civil servants, it’s easy to see how this gift from on high is a canny way to stop 2012 becoming a year of uprisings – even if it massively sets back plans to get more locals working in the private sector.

The only elections held in the UAE are for the Federal National Council (FNC), a toothless tiger that advises the government but cannot make laws. The first elections in 2006 had a big turnout, albeit among the people handpicked by the rulers to be eligible to run for office and vote. Enthusiasm was high, the first council had a higher proportion of women on board than the Australian parliament of the day and it seemed like an optimistic start for a country making baby steps towards democracy. This year’s FNC elections had a pitifully low turnout at 28%. Still, with a government that looks after its own very well, it’s easy see why the UAE hasn’t become the next Bahrain. Abu Dhabi still had a grand prix this year.

If nothing else, 2011 has shown that the Middle East is not a homogenous blur where every country is exactly the same. The Arab Spring shook up the region albeit in very different ways across very different countries. There have been Pyrrhic victories galore, especially in Egypt and reading over what I have just written, it is hard to be exceedingly optimistic. But the people across the region who are fighting for democracy will surely and rightly reject my pessimism. The stage is set for a very interesting 2012 for the Middle East indeed.


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