December 27, 2011 – TUNISIA– It all began with a slap and a slur hurled at a poor vegetable seller by a policewoman in a provincial Tunisian city. Mohammad Bouazizi set himself alight in a protest that ignited a chain of fires across the Arab world. Twelve months after his death, he would scarcely recognize the region he knew. From the Atlantic coast to the shores of the Gulf, popular uprisings against entrenched autocrats swept the region, unleashing long pent-up yearning for change in a world that democracy had passed by. The balance sheet so far seemed inconceivable as 2011 got under way: four dictators gone, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen; another under siege in Syria; and nearly every other Arab leader feeling tremors under his throne. A new Middle East order is messily beginning to emerge captured dramatically in images scarcely imaginable a year ago. The revolutions have emboldened people across the region, impelled by a melange of sectarian, religious, ethnic, political and economic grievances but united in their demand for dignity, to rise up against decades of repression by autocratic leaders. Ironically, the Arab despots unseated in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen are being replaced through the ballot box by Islamists they sought throughout their rule to crush. The darker side to this still unfolding tale is the way historically-embedded sectarian hostilities – ostensibly suppressed by decades of pan-Arab nationalist ideology – were and are being stoked, leaving swathes of the region polarized between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
The day violence consumes itself: The violent re-emergence of these centuries-old divisions began in Iraq with the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, and the rise to power of a new Shiite ruling elite, unleashing sectarian carnage inside the country and a Sunni-Shiite struggle for power across the region, with Saudi Arabia facing off against non-Arab Shiite Iran. “Some of the older narratives are and will reassert themselves in the region whether in Bahrain or Iraq now. We will see, particularly around the Gulf, Lebanon, the Sunni-Shiite schism arise again,” said Salman Sheikh of the Brookings Institute in Doha. With 2011 dubbed “The Year of the Tyrants,” observers predict that 2012 will be Syrian President Bashar Assad’s final year in power while warning of the bloody cost and regional ramifications his demise might cause. “In Syria, the protesters are not going to back down. They have gone too far. And whatever Assad is suggesting in terms of unity government, reforms … no one is paying any attention to it,” Sheikh said. “2012 should definitelybe the year of Assad leaving.” Syrian experts doubt that the international community will intervene militarily at this stage in Syria, waiting instead for a bloodbath with spillover effects into politically sensitive neighboring countries – Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan – that might justify a United Nations mandate for military action. In the meantime, Syrians themselves appear desperate and divided in their belief whether Assad, defying nine months of a nationwide uprising, will step down or be forced out next year. “I wish I could stop everything and go back to before the revolution. We are tired of the dead on both sides and everyone knows that Assad will not step down unless by force or foreign interference and this is not what we want,” said Natasha, a government employee at the Agriculture Ministry. While the outcome in Syria hangs in the balance, the mood in those countries where dictators have already been overthrown is mixed. Popular euphoria and joy at their leaders’ departure has given way to frustration, grievance and fear. –Daily Star