Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2011: The Year of the Arab Winter

by Mordechai Kedar

What happened this year?

This year six Arab countries experienced severe shocks that brought about the fall of some rulers or serious threat to their rule. The process began at the end of 2010, and continues until today.

The First: Tunisia

In the beginning of 2011 a wave of optimism washed over the Arab world, and a feeling of the dawning of a new day began to beat in the hearts of the people, among the simple folk, the intellectuals and the media as well. Tunisia, a country that is not usually at the center of the news, was in turmoil as a result of the tragic events that happened on December seventeenth 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed college graduate who supported himself by selling vegetables in the market of Sidi Bou Sa'id immolated himself because of an argument with a policewoman who subsequently slapped him in the face. When he went to complain about her to her superiors she called over to him scornfully: "Get lost". This event sparked a local demonstration, which the police broke up with characteristic violence. But then a wave of rage brought masses of Tunisians out into the streets with the cry "Get lost" against the corrupt president, Zin Abedine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia with an iron hand for 23 years and always "won" a majority of more than ninety percent (in elections). Ben Ali fought for his seat for almost a month at the cost of hundreds of dead, but on January 14 he was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia. And the whole Arab world cheered the Tunisians because for the first time in modern Arab history the Arab people proved themselves capable of removing a dictator by themselves. In the weeks after Boazizi's suicide 37 more people immolated themselves throughout the Arab and Islamic world as a protest against the political, social and economic situation in their countries. The elections that took place in Tunisia in October brought the Islamist movement "Al-Nahda" to power with more than forty percent of the seats of parliament, and new Tunisia - with at least twenty percent unemployed - is now trying to find its way between Islam and modernity.

In February, everyone cheered the heroism, strength, spirit and determination of the Tunisians and asked "who will be next in line?". Because it was clear to everyone that the president of Tunisia, his wife and cronies were not the only corrupt rulers who rule their citizens with cruelty and without a shred of legitimacy.

The Second: Egypt

The Egyptians were next in line: on the 25th of January thousands of secular, restless Egyptian youth arose (men and women together), and with a series of demonstrations under the heading "Get lost" they succeeded to cause the Minister of Defense, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, to join in and say to Mubarak: "Get lost", and he did "get lost" on February 11th.

The army suspended the constitution and gave the government six months, until August, to stabilize the country and to hand the power over to a council of selected citizens, but that "half year" was cut short. The army appointed a government of experts through whose hands the power was supposed to pass in an orderly way, to a democracy by means of elections for a parliament and president. These elections should be finished by June 2012, but until then the military rules with an iron fist, partly in order to ensure that the new constitution will leave its status intact, above civilian rule and not subordinate to it. But the results of the (relatively) free and fair elections bore out what many cautioned against: the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. By manipulating the elections, Mubarak made sure that the "Brotherhood" would not be able to reach the seat of power, even with a ten foot pole. The real surprise of the elections is the Salafis, those ardent fanatics, whose aim is to bring Egyptian Muslim society back to the seventh century, to the life-style characteristic of when Islam first emerged. Although this is the first time that their name appeared in the public arena, they won about one third of the seats in parliament. Undoubtedly, Egypt will find itself very far from the hopes of the youth of Al-Tahrir in January.

In 2011, tourism ceased and foreign investment in Egypt has totally stopped. Unemployment is rising and tens of millions of Egyptians are destitute. This situation is widespread and the pressure is evident in the demonstrations and in the violence that the military uses to disperse them.

The economic crisis in Egypt will force many Africans who are now in Egypt to cross Sinai, towards Israel.

The Third: Syria

On January 26th, one day after demonstrations broke out in Egypt, demonstrations began in Syria. During the first phase it was the mosque-goers who, after Friday prayers, joined the spontaneous demonstrations, which were broken up by the regime in a typically violent way. The funerals of those who were killed were held the next day, Saturday, and they too turned into protest demonstrations that were broken up forcefully. Things calmed down during the week, but flared up again on subsequent Fridays. During the first phase, the demonstrations were centered around the southern border city of Dar'a, a city whose Bedouin residents have connections to their brothers in Jordan, from whom they get the light arms that they need in order to defend themselves from Asad's armored tanks. Hundreds residents of Dar'a and its environs were killed, but the demonstrations only intensified and spread to the northern border towns of Adlab, Jisr Al-Shu'ara and the cave of Al-Na'aman, near Aleppo. Afterwards, the demonstrations came to the secondary cities - Homs, Latakia and Deira - Suhr -- and spread to the provincial towns that surround the capital, Damascus.

Thousands of Syrian refugees fled to Lebanon and Turkey, which watches the ongoing events in the back yard of its southern neighbor with great concern for several reasons: a.The Turkish Islamic regime cannot watch with equanimity as Alawites - who, according to Islam are infidels - slaughter Muslims. b. The Syrian turmoil might cause the country to disintegrate into separate parts, and Turkey will find itself trying to cope with another Kurdish country, this time built upon the ruins of Syria, in addition to the Kurdish problem that exists in Iraq. c. In recent months several events have occurred in Turkey where Muslims have murdered Alawites in revenge for what they are doing in Alawite Syria to the Muslims.

Erdogan doesn't want an internal religious Muslim-Alawite conflict on top of the internal Turkish-Kurdish ethnic conflict.

In order to "convince" Asad to stop slaughtering his Muslim citizens, Turkey concentrated its military forces on the southern border with Syria, but then Iran reacted and started sending messages to Turkey, that if Turkey dares to interfere in Syria, Iran will attack it. Apparently this threat worked, because up until now, the Turks have not done to Asad what they want so much to do to him.

Meanwhile, the Arab League has also awakened and in the month of September it began to threaten Asad with bringing the matter before the UN, with a clear reference to the Libyan scenario, which involved outside intervention. Three months of bloodshed passed until the solution was found that allows the Arab League to send overseers into Syria, and it's still not clear if they will truly be able to bring about peace between Asad and his opposition.

By the end of December the number of known fatalities has reached almost 6000, and to this number about sixty thousand prisoners must be added, and the fate of these prisoners is unknown.

The world must keep a very watchful eye on the Syrian military storehouses, so that weapons - especially chemical and biological weapons - will not find their way to terror organizations like Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The Fourth: Yemen

On the 27th of January, two days after the demonstrations broke out in Egypt, and one day after they broke out in Syria, large demonstrations began against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years. He and other members of his tribe make all of the decisions in Yemen. The military has split up between units that supported the president and those who opposed him, however there were never open hostilities between the two sides. Yemen experienced a year in which there was a long series of demonstrations, which the regime tried to break up very violently, and hundreds of people lost their lives in these demonstrations. In the beginning of June the palace of Saleh was attacked by missiles, Saleh was wounded and suffered moderate burns and went for about four months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. During these months the situation in the country calmed down somewhat, but the flames returrned to the city streets when Saleh returned to Yemen in late September.

The main objection to Saleh centered around the South of the country, in the cities of Taez, Ave and Aden, where many of the southern tribes want to re-establish the independent country that they used to have, South Yemen, until twenty years ago. A group of Gulf states intervened and suggested a compromise to Saleh to resign from his post without being held legally responsible for killing his citizens.

On the 21st of October the Security Council of the UN demanded that Saleh resign. On the 23rd of November he transferred authority to his deputy, however the situation did not ease. The South continued to demand independence, and the Sa'da area in the North, which is ruled by a group of Iranian-leaning Shi'ites also demands to secede from the country.

Many of Saleh's tribe continue to command military units and parts of the government, therefore it's very likely that the civil disquiet will continue.

The Fifth: Bahrain

Three days after Mubarak resigned, demonstrations began in the island of Bahrain, which is near the coast of Saudi Arabia. This island is populated mainly by a majority of Persian-speaking Shi'ites who are ruled by a minority of Sunni Arabs, the Al-Khalifa tribe, who emigrated from the continent to the island of Bahrain about two hundred years ago, and rule over it by the grace of the British, Americans and the Saudis until today. A series of demonstrations with tents in the central square of the capital Manama, "The Pearl Square", was dispersed violently, but the biggest change occurred when the Saudi military invaded Bahrain in the middle of March, conquered the country by the request of the King and did with it whatever was suitable in his eyes. The revolution in Bahrain failed, however the tension between the controlled Shi'ite majority and the Sunni minority that rules over them continues and from time to time breaks out as a street demonstration.

It's important to note that regarding Bahrain, the partially hidden player is Iran, which claims that the island of Bahrain belongs to it historically. Iran also claims that because the population is Shi'ite it is also responsible for their welfare and security. Claims such as these make the Saudis, the bitter rivals of the Iranians, shudder because the island of Bahrain is only 28 kilometers (about 17 miles) from the coast of Saudi Arabia, and if it falls into Iranian hands then Iran will be able to control of the Saudi coast and the many sources of oil in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Another important matter regarding Bahrain is the fact that the main port of the United States military is located on this Gulf, island and this is why it is strategically important in the balance of power for the Western forces stationed in the Gulf opposite Iran. This is what explains the international agreement and the Iranian rage about the conquering of Bahrain by Saudi Arabia.

The Sixth: Libya

Four days after Mubarak's resignation, on the 15th of February, demonstrations began against Qadhaffi, and he, as is his way, responded with great cruelty, killing thousands of citizens. The military disintegrated quickly into its tribal components, and whole units, with their heavy equipment and arms, turned their cannons and tanks on Qadhaffi. The world hesitated, stumbled, issued condemnations and finally interfered by means of aerial attacks on the Libyan forces, meaning the tribes, who continued to be loyal to Qadhaffi. The area of Cyrenaica and its capital Benghazi were the center of the revolution against Qadhaffi. There was an ethnic component here too, because Barbary tribes joined in the fight against the Libyan military. Qadhaffi was aided by African mercenaries from Sa'ad and Manizer as well as Syrian soldiers that Bishar Asad sent to help and fight alongside Qadhaffi's forces. But all of this could not stand against the European war machine that took advantage of the vague decision of the Security Council to defend the Libyan people in order to try to harm Qadhaffi personally. He survived until the 20th of October, when he was captured and executed by the rebels, but not before they abused him in the most humiliating way.

After this, his sons were captured as well, and control passed into the hands of the coalition of tribes that manage the country by force. Since Qadhaffi was overthrown many disputes have arisen between the tribes about the division of power among them. Weapons from the military storehouses, especially anti-aircraft missiles, have been scattered throughout the Middle East, and some of them have turned up in Gaza.

It's important to note that since the beginning of the year there have been large demonstrations in more of the countries in the area - Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran, which is not Arab - but they were taken care of by normative police action. These countries still operate as they operated before 2011. In Morocco the king introduced changes in the constitution so that now there are wide margins of legitimate political action in the kingdom.

Seeds of Destruction

These developments began in the Middle East in the previous decade: in April 2003 an international coalition headed by the United States overthrew the ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. Since the fall of his regime this important question has arisen in Arabic public discourse: "Why do we members of the Arab nation, need foreign forces in order to overthrow the dictators? Why don't we do what any society does when it's under oppression? Why do the Ukrainian, Czechoslovakian and Romanian masses go out into the streets in order to win their independence by their own hands while we behave like obedient sheep"? Since 2003 these questions have been exhaustively discussed in the Arab media and intensified the desire of many Arabs to free themselves from their rulers.

A second development occurred in January 2006 when the Hamas movement won the majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council in the first elections that they ever participated in. The next phase was in June of 2007, when the Hamas movement took control of Gaza by armed force, overthrew the security organization of the PA, killed and wounded many PA people and chased out its remaining members to Judea and Samaria. This was a living example of a civil Islamic movement, produced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which took over a parcel of land and set up a stable government. With this, Hamas set an example to be emulated, that encourages many in the Arab world to follow in their footsteps.

Islam Attains a Central Position

In a number of countries this year, Islamic movements attained a political status that it has never had in the past: in Tunisia the Islamic party won 41 percent of the seats in parliament, in Morocco the Islamic party won a position of seniority in parliament, and in Egypt a historical triumph is emerging of the religious parties that will control more than 70 percent of the Egyptian parliament. In Libya the head of the National Council announced that Libya will be an Islamic country and Shari'a will be the basis of its legal system. And indeed, the new regime in Libya cancelled Qadhaffi's prohibition on polygamy.

In addition to these countries, the Gaza Strip must be added as a country that conducts itself as an Islamic country since June 2007 with massive Iranian support.

Islam has come to power by democratic means, despite the fact that democracy is not a form of government that is consistent with Islam, because the Islamic tradition doesn't easily accept some of the important components of democracy like equality between the sexes, rights of religious minorities, freedom of expression, the rule of law, separation of powers, freedom of religion, freedom from religion and regime change by means of the ballot box.

We have not yet experienced the situation in which an Islamic party loses the majority in parliament, and therefore it's difficult to know how a party such as this will behave if it does lose an election; will it yield power or hold onto it indefinitely?

Regarding political Islam, it's important to remember what happened in Iran, which began the Islamic Revolution in the beginning of 1979. This allowed Hizbullah to take control of Lebanon in gradual steps.

There are researchers who claim that the Muslim Brotherhood represents pragmatic, moderate Islam, open to and accepting modernity with its many societal and political components and therefore there is no reason to be concerned about the Islamic wave that's sweeping the Arab world. And opposing them, there is a group of researchers who claim that the Muslim Brotherhood can perhaps be pragmatic, but they do not take action against groups much more radical than they are, and allow them to act against the "enemies of Islam" almost freely. They say that Islamic terror organizations grew out of different places within the ideological platform of movements like the Muslim Brotherhood.

The true test of the political Islamic movements that come to power is not one of slogans, but rather of implementation: do they relate to the population and its distress in a fair way?

Will they stand by their international commitments made by previous governments? Regarding Egypt - will the next regime honor the peace agreement with Israel?

An additional problem that stems from the Islamic political victory relates to the future of the modernistic, liberal, secular movements within the Arab world: will the Islamic victory cause them feelings of demoralization, loss and discouragement, or perhaps it represents a challenge that, in order to overcome it, they will redouble their activities, become better organized and improve their tactics so that they might win the public trust when the time comes.

The answers to these questions and others related to political Islam will become clear in the next few years.

Tribal Awakening

In a number of countries where the society still has a traditional character, the tribal component, which is deeply rooted in Middle Eastern society, plays a key role.The political problems of Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and the Palestinian Authority are a political expression of tribal, ethnic, religious and sectarian factionalism, which characterizes many societies in the Middle East. It's clear that the standard conglomerate Arab country, which tried to base its legitimacy upon a shared national consciousness among all of the citizens in the country, failed in the experiment to settle in the hearts of the population and to uproot the traditional loyalties to the tribe, the ethnic group (for example: Kurds, Turkmen, Armenians), the religious framework (Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, etc.), or the sectarian (Sunni, Shi'ite).

Upon this background there is a growing tendency to the break up the conglomerate as it was demarcated by the colonialists, and divide it up according to a homogeneous basis:

Sudan has already split into two countries in July 2011, and it's reasonable to assume that its partitions (Darfur, Kordofan) will continue to demand independence and that Northern, Arabic-Islamic Sudan will thus split into tribal units.

Iraq has already actually split into two countries: Kurdistan and Iraq. The autonomous Kurdish section enjoys its own government, its own parliament and many symbols of independent governance: a strong military, effective police, legislature, legal system, administration and economy. In recent months, and on the background of the dysfunctional Baghdad government, some of the areas (=tribes) in Arabic Iraq have declared themselves to be a "climate", i.e. an entity that conducts its life according to broad autonomy, as a sort of "state" (like New Jersey and Utah).

In Libya the tribes succeeded in overthrowing Qadhaffi, and now they are fighting each other over the distribution of power between them.

In Yemen, many demonstrations in the cities of the South - Aden, Taez, Ave - are held in order to promote the public demand to split Yemen and renew the independence that South Yemen had until twenty years ago.

The Palestinian Authority is divided culturally and politically into Gaza and something that may, perhaps, arise in the future in Judea and Samaria .

Also in Syria, against the background of widespread rebellion against the Asad regime, there are signs that the country will disintegrate into a number of homogeneous units.

Modern Communications

We mustn't ignore the role that satellite communications played in the changes that occurred during the last year. The Al-Jazeera television channel led the fire of revolution from place to place, following 15 years of wild and blunt incitement against the Arab rulers, especially against the United States and Israel and against the West in General.

The oppressed masses couldn't organize demonstrations by means of newspapers, radio or television in their countries, therefore the social networking sites played a central role, by allowing the "Revolutionary Youth" to organize huge activities against the regime, no matter where they were.

Video uploading sites like YouTube helped the rebels to publicize the oppressive actions against the demonstrators to the world. This is most prominent in Syria and Egypt, where a battle against the military is carried out almost as a live broadcast. They also broadcast the oppressive actions of the regime. The modern Arab ruler can no longer hide his actions from the world. He is exposed and therefore he is vulnerable, because world opinion is aroused by the bloodshed in the streets and causes politicians to act.

The Arab League

In the first decade of the current century, and especially on the background of the Arab failure to act against Israel during the second intifada, there were many who wrote the obituary for the Arab League, so much so that one of the prominent newspapers in Egypt called it "the dead body in the morgue that no one has the courage to declare as dead".

The League failed in its attempts to get Iraq out of Kuwait in 1990, failed to convince Syria to stop supporting Iran against Iraq during the years of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), failed to halt the genocide in Darfur, which was carried out by the central Sudanese regime, and failed to represent the Arab collective on the international arena.

The weakness of the League caused other, multinational bodies to arise in the Arab world: the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization of North African States, as well as others.

During the past year, the League received "artificial respiration" from Europe, because of the seriousness with which NATO took the Arab League's appeal to the Security Council of the UN to defend the citizens of Libya from the oppressive steps of the regime. NATO translated this request into an all-out war against Qadhaffi that caused his ultimate downfall.

These days there are attempts to replay this scenario regarding Syria: the request of the Arab League to the Security Council will give international cover to foreign interference in Syria. The Arab League cannot do anything practical against an Arab ruler who is slaughtering his own citizens. And it is precisely this weakness which allows it to turn to strong international bodies for help in fighting the bloodthirsty Arab dictators.

Qatar - The Rising Power

We cannot ignore the central role that the Principality of Qatar filled during the last decade, especially during the last year. Qatar, and the Al-Jazeera channel, which Qatar operates, succeeded to undermine the regime of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Qadhaffi in Libya, Saleh in Yemen, Asad in Syria and many more rulers of Arab countries. Al Jazeera waged a "media war" against them without anyone lifting a finger against Qatar. As a result, the Emir of Qatar has become the strongest man in the Arab world.

During the past year, Qatar was also involved in the military attack against Qadhaffi, when Qatari Air Force jets bombed Libyan military targets, and supplied weapons and ammunition to the rebels. Qatar participates - together with Turkey - in training deserters from the Syrian military so that on their return to Syria they will be able to fight against the Syrian army and Asad's regime.

Qatar hosts, on its territory, the main air force base of the United States in the Gulf, and it's clear to all that if there is American action against Iran, it may originate from this base, which is located at a distance of five minutes flight from the Iranian coast.

The Emir of Qatar and its minister of Foreign Affairs are pressuring Asad with clear threats to turn to the Security Council of the UN if he continues to kill his citizens. The verbal attacks on Qatar in the Syrian media clearly express the official Syrian rage towards the Qatari Principality, which behaves as if it were a superpower.


During the past year Iran has watched the events in the Arab world with much concern.The regime in Syria is rocky, and if Asad falls, Iran will lose its base in that country. Hamas has turned into a governmental organization and has suspended the Jihad against Israel, and even Hizbullah has run into ever-increasing internal Lebanese conflicts as Asad's situation continues to deteriorate.

Iran is now trying to pull Iraq into the Iranian hegemony, and the American withdrawal from Iraq in December has accelerated this process. Therefore, there is now a possibility that Iraq will return to the Eastern front. Israel must take this into account in all plans related to the future of the Jordan Valley.

Iran is committed to its nuclear project and translates that into military strength, to discourage all who plan to do evil against the regime of the Ayatollahs, and to regain its regional hegemony. Iran also aspires to bring the Gulf under its influence and neutralize Turkish and Israeli power.


Turkey, which built its foreign policy in the previous decade on the principle "Zero Conflicts" is involved today in a number of complex problems. It is involved in Syria, threatened by Iran, in contention with Israel because of the flotilla and the gas that was recently found under the Mediterranean Sea, angry with France regarding recognition of the Armenian genocide and was at odds with the United States and Europe, because of its support of Qadhaffi.

The Turkish quickly-developing economy is still the engine from which it derives its political power, mainly because of the economic problems that the European Union and the United States are facing. However, an economic slowdown in Europe might pull Turkey down too, and cause many of its unemployed nationals to return from Germany, which is very worrying to the heads of the government.

In Summary

The year 2011 was a stormy year throughout the Middle East. Its character changes quickly, and sinks into the swamp of internal conflicts within each country. The economy stumbles from one failure to another, and many hopes shatter on the hard ground of reality and its problems. The "Arab Spring" is looking more and more like an "Islamic and Tribal Winter", and the forecasts of observers and Western journalists who spoke of "democracy in the Arab world" seem far from the bitter reality.

Israel appears in this whole scenario as an Island of sanity, stability and prosperity, and we must guard ourselves from the storm waves that rock the world around us.


Dr. Mordechai Kedar
( is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the
Syrian domestic arena.

Translated from Hebrew by Sally.

Links to Dr. Kedar's previous articles on this blog:

Source: The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


Anonymous said...

Good article. Seems a typo in first paragraph of Tunisia: "tens of unemployed" "tens of thousands"?

Sally Zahav said...

Thanks - I fixed it.

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