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The International Writers Magazine: Arab Autumn

A shaking Arab Spring
Marwan Asmar
It started in Tunisia with the removal of Zein Al Abedin Ben Ali, swept Mubarak off his feet, clung at Gaddafi's throat and forced Yemen's ruler to step down. Now the world is watching the fate of Syria's Bashar Al Assad. What has happened to the Arab world?


Lions and tigers

Four down, one to go. The winds of change is hitting the Middle East with vengeance and storm. It is the domino, slow but sure, leaders tumbling not quite like a pack of cards but as paper tigers and roaring lions forced from the limelight of stardom.

Kicking and screaming they are being pulled down by history. The Arab Spring started with Tunisia in December of 2010, moved on to Egypt and flared up in Yemen, torched in Libya and is being put down in Syria and a host of other Arab countries. The year 2011 will be remembered as bloody for the Arab world.

Agreeing to step down

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh giving the Arab Spring a new meaning its flared torch has been dimmed. 

After backing tracking on three previous agreements, Saleh finally signs the terms of the Gulf Initiative as an honorable exit to step down, which ensures him immunity from prosecution for the hundreds killed by his security men since during the Yemeni Revolution started in late January 2011 calling for his removal from power.


Unless he is playing Realpolitik, Saleh is the latest of a group of Arab leaders to step down beginning with Tunisia's Zein Al Abedin Ben Ali who was the first to relinquish power back in early January followed by Egypt's Husni Mubarak one month later.

However, Saleh's stepping down comes much later, no doubt persuaded by the fate of Libya's Moammar Qadaffi who was finally captured and shot by revolutionaries back in late August after bloody battles resulting in the killing of up to 50,000 people in eight months. 

Under the 23 November 2011 agreement, Saleh hands power after 33 years as president to his deputy Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi who rules for a period of three months in a coalition of alliances of other opposition parties before elections and presidential polls can be held.

Honorary president

Till then Saleh, 69, will still act as an honorary president but with no effective powers. After the signing in Riyadh, under the auspices of the Saudi government, Mr Saleh was supposed to leave for New York to receive further treatment for a bloody injury after an explosion in his presidential mosque last June when he refused, for the third time, an agreement to step down.

Although some opposition parties, including the youth movement which triggered the revolution back in late January, and has been daily demonstrating on the streets in their thousands of the capital Sanaa and other towns and cities in Yemen, Saleh's acceptance of the Gulf Initiative is seen as a major breakthrough for political reform in that country.

Saudi's exit strategy

Saudi King Abdullah sees the signing as historic for the Yemeni people. Although Saudi Arabia hosted Saleh since he was badly injured in June till his return back to Yemen in September, the Saudis have been privately looking for an exit strategy of collateral damage.

Like to the United States, Saleh is a strong Saudi ally who is seen as a bulwark against Al Qaeda operations not only in Yemen but throughout the  Arabian Peninsula including Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and all the way up to Iraq.

A man with an appetite for political power and playing one tribe against another, his  departure is likely to send jitters not only in Saudi Arabia but to the United States who has been waging a private global war against Al Qaeda  after the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

US War against Al Qaeda

Both countries are being pushed in a corner. Despite the US air drone attack in Yemen of Anwar Awlaki, an Al Qaeda operative, also an American citizen, both countries realized Saleh, in power since 1978 and took over in mysterious circumstances, and continued after 1991 after Yemen became one state, must go because of the mass popular opposition to his rule that continued for the past nine months.

New alliances

Understanding that there has to be a democratic process in line with peoples' wishes, what they will try to do is build new alliances in line with a new prospective era. That includes playing on the new-old structure lead by clans and families  and the army which has been subject to splits and divisions. 

Both these institutions effectively feed on each other despite the fact that some army factions sided with the popular masses on the streets and even protecting the youths, women and civil society elements from pro-Saleh security forces and the Presidential Guard lead by Ahmad Saleh, the son of the beleaguered Yemeni President.

It's a complicated structure of state, bureaucracy, tribe, civil society institutions, army, and police and security forces that in turn have their own relationships and alliances which include with outside powers like Saudi Arabia and the United States and to a certain extent observers say Iran because of the country's Houthi's question, a Shiite religious sect calling for autonomy and waging war on Sanaa since at least the beginning of the decade.


Strategically, the situation is shaky as the geo-strategic political map changes in the Middle East.  Pro-conservative, pro-American regimes are becoming muted, as revolutionary fervor grips the region and despite the outward U.S., stances of the need for democracy and respect for human rights, the changes are upsetting which are likely to bring instability in vision.

While it maybe be the same for Saudi Arabia, helping the Yemeni Revolution to reach stable conclusions could be seen as a good thing in terms of popular perceptions at home.

While the Arab Spring hasn't been as fierce in the Saudi Kingdom as it has been in others, nevertheless, it is well known there is discontent in the country and there has been murmurings of protests throughout its lands which total around 2 million kilometers from its south bordering Yemen and Oman to its north to Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait. 

And so when the Saudi government is seen as the harbinger of change and reform in a neighboring country like Yemen, it will placate its vast and scattered domestic constituency—Saudi population estimated at 27 million—and give a more positive picture of a country that its willing to entertain change in the area which the world will look on objectively.

Have we seen the back of Saleh?

Despite his agreeing to step down, Yemenis, and no doubt the international community are still afraid and say the Yemeni president could well backtrack on his word.

They will not be completely satisfied until the three months are up, elections are held and the former Yemeni president is seen sitting in his home, or whatever home he chooses. Then many will say yes, they have really seen the back of Ali Abdallah Saleh, a man who once sought to introduce legislation to make himself president for life.

A tattered Arab Spring!

And so has the Arab Spring been a real one? Much changed has happened in the Arab world in 2011. In some cases leaders have gone, and still likely to go and new governments have been installed.

But there has been much recriminations. Tunisia is argued to be doing well, making headways in its constitutional assembly, Libya is just starting under a new government but many are seeing the tugging-and-pulling in Egypt as a source of disappointments.

Ten months later, many people are going back to Liberation Square to demonstrate for action on real political reform. It seems that the Military Council which continued to rule in the post-Mubarak era is going for a retrenchment strategy of keeping themselves in power.

And of course there is Syria whose government has been using its iron-fist to stay in power ever since March when protests erupted in the country with daily killings on the streets in spite of international outcries to stop.

Other than more killing there doesn't seem to be any let up there except for mayhem, and that has mainly to do with Syria's strategic location in the Middle East and its role in international great power politics of America and Europe on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other.

So it has been a "shaking Arab Spring" one filled with changes, possible reforms as with countries like Jordan, Morocco, and possibly Saudi Arabia and a general period of anxiety.

Existing leaders who have long been in power are now at the very least questioning themselves and saying Is this really the best way to lead? 

A version of this article can be seen on by the same author.
© Marwan Asmar Nov 26th 2011

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