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National Security / NATIONAL SECURITY

Arab Spring Meets the Summer of Discontent

Protests continue in Egypt, where activists contend the transition governments has continued the policies of the country's deposed leaders.(Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

June 1, 2011

Less than six months ago, an unemployed street vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire to protest police harassment, setting off a historical wave of protests across North Africa and the Middle East against repressive government regimes.

The protest movement quickly became known as the Arab Spring; activists and ordinary people in Tunisia and Egypt saw their stubborn dictators suddenly quit, encouraging others in Arab countries to rise up.

But as spring now moves into summer, revolts in countries such as Libya, Yemen, and Syria have bogged down into bloody quagmires.


Perhaps more than anything else, countries going through revolutions are grappling with the hard realities of making lasting, democratic change, said Heather Hurlburt, director of the National Security Network, a nonprofit think tank in Washington.

“There are no fairy tales in politics,” Hurlburt said. “We’re at risk of being blasé about the good things happening in Egypt and Tunisia because we got used to things happening so fast.”

The ultimate success of the Arab Spring will be measured by the daily gains made in key countries. In the list below, National Journal looks at recent developments and dynamics in countries in turmoil since last December.


The revolt in Libya began bloody and remains so. Whatever hopes there were for a short-lived foreign military intervention, there has been little success in ousting strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi or brokering a deal for him to leave power.

Talks to end the violence failed again this week following the visit of South African President Jacob Zuma, who failed to broker peace negotiations with Qaddafi. The U.S. military campaign in Libya reached its 60-day mark on May 20, and NATO announced on Wednesday that it would extend the mission for another 90 days. NATO on Thursday continued to bombard the capital; the Associated Press reported that air strikes blasted military vehicle and ammunition depots, a surface-to-air missile launcher, and a fire-control radar system.

On a recent visit to Washington, interim prime minister of the Libyan opposition government Mahmoud Jibril estimated that more than 11,000 Libyans have already been killed in the fighting. Jibril met with Obama administration officials and key lawmakers to press his case for unfreezing $34 billion in Qaddafi-linked assets the administration seized in February.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., is drafting legislation to free up some of the cash for the rebels. While the United States hasn’t announced how much of those funds will go to the rebels, Jibril said the sum expected to be unfrozen will be “around $180 million,” although the rebels say they need about $3 billion for weapons and supplies like gasoline, food, and salaries.


It’s looking more and more like civil war in Yemen, as the fragmented opposition squares off against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s troops to retain key positions. The security situation is extremely volatile: firefights in Sana’a forced the closure of Yemen’s main international airport on Thursday, AP reported.

Early last week, Saleh refused for the third time to sign an agreement that would lead to his resignation, which would have brought to an end weeks of mediation by the six-state Gulf Cooperation Council. His continued defiance spurred a renewed wave of violence between government troops and opposition tribesmen. The head of the country’s most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid, joined the fight. Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Saleh’s top general who defected in March to protect the protesters, deployed about 1,000 troops late on Wednesday to support opposition forces, The Wall Street Journal reported.

For his part, Saleh deployed elite U.S.-funded counterterrorism troops against political opponents for the first time on Wednesday, The Journal reported. The move virtually certain to inflame tensions between Sana'a and Washington, where the administration has been urging an end to the violence.  “We have not received evidence that counterterrorism assistance has been used against demonstrators or political opponents during the current unrest,” said Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. “We consistently monitor our counterterrorism assistance to Yemen and take allegations of misuse seriously.” 

The U.S. has long condemned violence in the country, but has stopped short of publicly calling for Saleh to step down. It's tricky ground for Washington, which had supported Saleh in his attempts to rout al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula from Yemen. The administration recently upped its public rhetoric, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton saying on May 21 that Saleh must “follow through on his commitment to transfer power” to “address the legitimate will of the people.”

When asked if the U.S. government will pressure Saleh to step down, State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Tuesday would only say that the Yemeni leader should accept the offer put forward by the Gulf Cooperation Council. “This is a situation where there’s a path forward, and President Saleh just needs to live up to commitments he’s made to accept the GCC’s agreement … and to move Yemen forward,” Toner said.


The nationwide protests in Syria are in their 12th week. Despite increased rhetoric, there is little sign that a cohesive alternative political organization is developing here as it did in Libya, where a breakaway government structure made up of former government officials and well-established activists quickly formed to manage the revolt. 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a general amnesty on Tuesday, which opposition groups said was too little, too late. Assad nominally lifted the country’s 48-year state of emergency, but continued his brutal crackdown on protesters. Human-rights activists estimate that more than 1,000 protesters have been killed and another 10,000 arrested in recent weeks. To that end, European countries are circulating a draft resolution asking the U.N. Security Council to condemn Syria.

The State Department's Toner said on Tuesday that the legitimacy of Assad’s government “is indeed fading,” adding the U.S. government would support a U.N. resolution.

“Obviously he's said a lot of things in recent weeks and months, but we've seen very little concrete action by President Assad,” Toner said. “And so, again, it just underscores the fact that he needs to take steps—concrete steps, not rhetoric—to address what's going on in the country.”


The struggles in Egypt have moved off the front pages of the world’s newspapers, but the country is still struggling to make a true political transition.

Egypt has been hit especially hard by economic problems, including high inflation, rampant unemployment, and a loss of tourism. On Monday, the G-8 nations promised to provide billions of dollars in aid to Egypt over the next two years, which will be loaned by multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The Egyptian military continues to control the government and is showing signs of intimidating public discourse. Activists and journalists have complained in recent weeks that military officials continue to commit human-rights abuses and arrest critics of the government.

Military rulers decided on Tuesday to bring deposed President Hosni Mubarak and his sons before court proceedings over the killing of protesters and other charges in early August.


The revolt in Tunisia was the spark that led to upheavals across the Arab world. Yet perhaps no country has fallen further off the radar than Tunisia has since its uprising in December, which sent President Zine el Abidine ben Ali packing.

Like Egypt, Tunisia has been hard-hit by economic problems, including high inflation and unemployment. It is also suffering because of the war in neighboring Libya.

The G-8 nations on Monday also promised to provide billions of dollars in aid to Tunisia over the next two years, also in the form of loans from the World Bank, IMF, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

For now, Tunisia has an interim government that continues to face protests by various factions in the country. The government has scheduled elections for July 24, although an election commission this week proposed delaying them for three more months in order to ensure that all Tunisians can vote.

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