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Sun 30 Oct 2011 05:19 PM

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Winter is descending on the Arab Spring

Doubts remain as to whether the Arab world will cling to the hard-fought gains won by revolts

Winter is descending on the Arab Spring
Rebel fighters celebrate in the eastern coastal city of Sirte following news of Gaddafis death

As we are still touched with the euphoria of the Arab
Spring, the Arab winter has crept up all but unnoticed, beyond the forecasts of
experts and the calculations of governments. It was only this month, after all,
when Libya’s civil strife was cut off by the death in a ditch of Muammar
Gaddafi: however regrettable the nature of his end, it removes the main focus
of a future fight back. It was only this month, after all, when Tunisia held
fair and free and peaceful elections, in which a moderate Islamist party came
first. It will, after all, be next month when the three rounds of voting for
the Egyptian parliamentary elections begin. Why talk of a failure?

Because if there was a revolution in spring – in fact, a
series of quite distinct revolts, animated by something of a common spirit –
there is now a counterrevolution. Or rather, once more, a series of distinct
efforts to push back, or at least control and turn to group advantage, the
gains made by the demonstrators. Power is not won simply by revolt: it is won,
and secured, by those interested in the exercise of power, prepared to grasp
and hold it.

In Egypt, which provided to the international gaze the most
stirring movement and the least ambiguous, largely peaceful, victory in the
resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, power is still grasped by the
organization which has been the deep structure of power for more than half a
century: the military. Both its will to rule and its desire to retain privilege
appear to be as high as ever: and there are signs that both the Muslim
Brotherhood – the only well organized political force – and the regional chiefs
are coming to quiet understandings with the military leadership on how the
country is to be governed.

Stability – if they can achieve it – would be welcomed by
most: the economy and employment have suffered badly, and the promises from the
US, Saudi Arabia, the World Bank and the IMF of grants, soft loans and debt forgiveness
amounting to some $15bn could stabilize the economy – if a government emerges
which both understands how to use the money and how to run the state. But the
euphoria of liberation, already dissipated, will not return: that was a moment
only.

The strength of the Islamists is growing, and will grow
further. The al-Nahda party became the largest in Tunisia’s new parliament,
with over 40 percent of the vote and 90 of the parliament’s 217 seats. It’s in
talks with the leftist Congress for the Republic, which came second with 30
seats: but since the first is firmly religious and the second is firmly
secular, these are likely to be hard – though, if successful, they will be an
early indication of how hard line, or accommodating, 2010’s political Islamism
is likely to be.

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libya deposed its dictator in
blood – ultimately, his own. And though the rebels have expressed their
gratitude to NATO and their desire for freedom to every passing camera, they
come to power as a disparate set of armed groups with quite different
backgrounds, tribal affiliations and aims. From their ranks is likely to come
an administration which must restore a semi-ruined economy and end Gaddafi’s
self imposed isolation from and enmity with most of the rest of the Arab world
(the reason why, unprecedentedly, the Arab League called on NATO to help depose
his regime).

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Libya’s National Transitional Council, led by Mustafa Abdul
Jalil, faces a task as momentous as deposing the former dictator. The Interim
Prime Minister, Ali Tarhouni, has a month to name a caretaker government –
which in turn has eight months to schedule elections. The tribal and party
differences in a country from which most manifestations of civil society – and
thus the habit of social and political compromise – were banned, are wide and
deep and likely to be bitter. Already, the Islamists have succeeded in forcing
the first interim premier, Mahmoud Jibril, a secular intellectual, to step
down. His successor announced that a Gaddafi-era law requiring men to ask a
first wife for leave to marry a second would be repealed, saying that “this is
not in our Koran: we take the Koran as the first source for our constitution.”

As for Syria, the fighting goes on, with Bashar Assad
showing little sign of relenting to pressure, from wherever it may come. Even
if he does, and the opposition forces his resignation or defeats his forces,
the divisions in a country where independence of organization and thought was
little tolerated will make a post-victory settlement a hugely complex and
dangerous operation – one reason why western states have done no more than
exhort, with no thought of intervention.

In a starkly pessimistic piece in the New York Review of
Books, the former Bill Clinton adviser on Arab-Israeli affairs Robert Malley
and the Oxford scholar Hussein Agha wrote that “revolutions devour their
children. The spoils go to the resolute, the patient, who know what they are
pursuing and how to achieve it…the young activists who first rush onto the
streets tend to lose out in the skirmishes that follow…the usual condition of a
revolutionary is to be tossed aside.”

That is what happening now, in different ways, at different
tempos. But a likely common outcome will be some form of stability: how much
more blood must be shed to win that, how repressive that will be, how far it
breaks some of the old moulds, will be the thing to watch. And to watch as well
- how far a fuse has been lit for real democratization, which may burn away,
largely underground, before a more extensive liberation… some way down the
road.

(John Lloyd co-founded
the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford,
where he is Director of Journalism. The opinions expressed are his own.)