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What Happened To The Arab Spring?

Toys are seen among the rubble of damaged shops in the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo.
Toys are seen among the rubble of damaged shops in the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo.
It was a difficult year for the Arab Spring.

Egypt is in the throes of its worst political crisis since mass street protests ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

And in Syria, the civil war worsens daily.

Those realities, plus problems in many other Arab states, contrast dramatically with the optimism that surrounded the Arab Spring in 2011.

The optimism came with the ousting of four dictators in the greatest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

But if the 2011 revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen were largely bloodless victories, they were clouded by the civil war in Libya and fears that building new democratic states could prove more difficult than toppling dictators.

In 2012, those fears came true.

In Egypt, the secularists and Islamists who united to topple Mubarak fell out over a perceived power grab by new Islamist President Muhammad Morsi, leading to deadly violence between supporters of the two camps.

"It is unacceptable that every president in Egypt interferes in drafting the constitution," said protester Ezz Abdel Aziz, voicing his grievances. "A democratically elected president should not interfere in the constitution at all; he should only supervise the performance of the Constitutional Committee, that is it."

Secularists say the Islamist-dominated Constitutional Committee rushed through the constitution, which they say fails to protect women and minority groups. The new constitution was approved in what Morsi described as a "totally transparent" two-round public referendum in December.

'Divide Has Always Been There'

In Tunisia, the country that set off the region's wave of pro-democracy movements in December 2010, secularists and Islamists are also at odds.

The Islamist-led transitional government writing a new constitution says it does not intend to introduce Islamic law. But secularist groups fear that could change before the constitution is finalized sometime early in 2013.

Badges showing an image of President Muhammad Morsi and the words "Yes To Constitution" are displayed at a street stall in Cairo.
Badges showing an image of President Muhammad Morsi and the words "Yes To Constitution" are displayed at a street stall in Cairo.
Maha Azzam of London-based Chatham House says splits between secularists and Islamists are nothing new in the Arab world. But they have widened with the Arab Spring.

"The divide has always been there. What we are seeing with the opening of the political process [is that] that divide becomes more apparent as you have different political forces vying for power and for influence," Azzam says. "I think there is something of a danger in societies where economic development is so important and a degree of stability is so important to the initial stages of democracy that there isn't some kind of consensus over, for example, the writing of the constitution, over some basic areas of government."

Azzam says the question for 2013 is whether the post-Arab Spring countries will normalize or remain politically unstable. But whatever happens, she believes the drive for democracy is irreversible.

"Societies in the Arab world that have experienced the Arab Spring have moved so far towards asserting their demands for a freer society, for greater accountability, that it is very difficult to see that being reversed," she says.

Challenges In Saudi Arabia

In Syria, consumed by war, the challenge is different. There, the question for 2013 is whether the rebel forces can defeat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without outside intervention. International debate will continue to focus on whether and how intervention can occur when it is opposed by Assad allies Russia and China.

Even in the Gulf region, where the Arab Spring has yet to arrive except in Bahrain, the future looks uncertain.

Caroline Bain of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit says the oil-rich Gulf states have kept the tide of change at bay by ramping up social spending. But there is no guarantee that this is more than a stopgap.

"Within the Gulf, I think Saudi Arabia is probably the key country which is facing a challenge in keeping its people happy with the prevailing regime," Bain says. "And certainly one of the big features of the Arab Spring was the growth of social media, and even a closed country like Saudi Arabia is struggling to keep the wave of social media out."