Thu March 17, 2011

Libya Shifts Momentum Of Arab World Protests

When demonstrations against Moammar Gadhafi began last month, many pundits thought the Libyan leader would easily topple — as did his counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia.

But Gadhafi held on, and that may be having an effect on popular uprisings in other countries across the region.

A month ago, there was a collective euphoria spreading over much of the Arab world. Popular protests had not only brought down Tunisia's longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali but had also toppled Egypt's hard-line President Hosni Mubarak.

But the long march for democracy in Libya has quickly ground to a halt — and is threatened in places such as Yemen and Bahrain.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, says that's been disappointing. But Hamid says protesters throughout the Arab world were overly optimistic following the quick demise of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.

"Wherever there are revolutions, counterrevolutions aren't far behind," Hamid says. "And we've seen a series of counterrevolutions, not just in Libya but throughout the region, where autocratic regimes are growing more confident and certainly more confident that they can stay in power."

Hamid says other regimes in the region are taking a cue from Gadhafi, who launched vicious counterassaults against anti-government rebels.

"What's happened in Libya has certainly emboldened autocrats for a number of reasons," he says. "And the Gadhafi example tells us that if you fight, you actually stand a chance of staying in power. And if you fight long enough maybe the momentum will shift in your direction."

Several key countries are increasingly using force to quell the demonstrations. In Yemen, security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire on protesters. Last week, Saudi police opened fire on demonstrators in the eastern part of the desert nation. Bahrain declared a state of emergency, as Saudi troops were called into help quell weeks of protests there.

Michele Dunne, a mideast specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the leaders may feel emboldened to use force — that if they look at what happened in Libya, they know there very likely won't be any backlash from the international community.

"If other Arab leaders see that the international community, in effect, stood by and did nothing while the Libyan leader came in and not only retook the rebel areas but there's certainly a very strong risk of him extracting revenge on all those who turned against him ... if the international community stands by and lets that happen, that's going to be an encouraging message for authoritarian leaders," she says.

Dunne says it will also send a discouraging signal to the pro-democracy protesters.

Still, Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor at the University of Maryland, says it's naive for anyone to think that demonstrations would turn into a successful revolution in every country across the Arab world. He says it takes more than just bringing together thousands of people in a square. And that events have unfolded so fast that both the governments and the demonstrators are still trying to figure out how to proceed.

"There's no question, from the beginning it was clear that there will be adjustments on both sides, the public and the governments, each one is going to try to draw its own conclusions, and governments are now experimenting with different kinds of reactions to see whether this will save them," he says.

Telhami says some Arab governments, such as Morocco and Oman, have started to make some small concessions to their public. Telhami says he doesn't sense despair among the protesters — that the basic driving force of empowerment and political change is still strong — despite the setbacks in Libya and elsewhere. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.