Arab Spring yields different outcomes in Bahrain, Egypt and Libya

December 20, 2011

At the dawn of the first winter after the Arab Spring, Bahrain is an island of sadness. Every few minutes, U.S.-made Apache helicopters buzz Rula al-Saffar’s suburban walled community, a collection of pleasant, sand-colored stucco houses that is home to teachers, engineers, nurses and other middle-class families. Black armored vehicles filled with commandos stand guard at checkpoints along quiet lanes.

On a bucolic December morning, sun-drenched and warm, Saffar steers her Mazda SUV past the evidence of last night’s confrontations — fresh graffiti denouncing the king; spent tear-gas canisters fired at the teenagers who take to the streets in protest each night.

Saffar, 49, is a petite nurse who spent 18 years working at a Dallas hospital and came home to Bahrain with more than a little Texas twang to her English. She wears a brave smile with her jeans and favorite Christmas shirt from Dallas, but any day now, the security police could show up to take her away. Her crimes, best she can tell, were to join multitudes of Bahrainis who demonstrated for democracy early this year and then to treat protesters injured by police and military forces.

The Arab Spring arrived in this island nation with picnics and parades. Saffar, who works at the country’s biggest hospital, reveled in “the beauty of the Pearl Roundabout,” a reference to those days in February and March when tens of thousands — young and old; rich, poor and in between — gathered at the vast traffic circle in the center of the capital, Manama, encouraged by their own crown prince, who had declared protests a worthy expression of democracy.

Nine months later, in a country only slightly bigger than the District of Columbia, hopes are dashed, the uprising is crushed, and the royal family is still in charge — though deeply damaged by its own crackdown. Trust has been vaporized.

In the Arab world this year, starting in Tunisia and flowering in Egypt, a movement of people frustrated by oppressive government, corrupt leaders and a lack of jobs suddenly felt safe to take to the streets. As with all revolutions, they would live days of euphoria followed by more sober times, when the burdens of history and reality weigh heavily against the prospect of change.

A journey to three countries where ordinary people risked everything to reach for a better future reveals three very different outcomes. In Libya, perhaps the least likely of uprisings has led not only to the ousting and killing of longtime ruler Moammar Gaddafi, but also to a fast-moving, well-organized push toward elective democracy. The fall of the government has kicked up tribal rivalries and exposed a vein of religious extremism, but there is a powerful sense of optimism on the streets of Tripoli, the whitewashed capital on the Mediterranean.

In Egypt, by far the largest of the Arab nations to experience a revolt, the despised Hosni Mubarak finds himself deposed and on trial. But despite a swift move to elections, power remains in the hands of the military and the oligarchs whose economic domination was one of the protesters’ chief grievances.

With its sparkling glass skyscrapers and broad modern highways, Bahrain looks peaceful and prosperous. It is a wealthy nation that refines much of the Persian Gulf region’s oil. But, like Tunisia, Egypt and the other Arab countries where people took to the streets this year, it is a place where the government is viewed as corrupt and distant, where in recent years the rich got richer, the poor grew poorer and the middle class increasingly lost its sense of possibility.

Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become a worldwide symbol of the power of ordinary people to bring down tyranny. Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout, by contrast, has been erased from the map — literally. The government brought in bulldozers to demolish it.

The revolt in Bahrain resulted not in elections or new leaders but in 3,000 arrests, an epidemic of torture and innumerable crushed souls. The Sunni-led government and private employers fired thousands of workers, nearly all of them Shiite Muslims. A people united in a spring of hope were by fall spurning friends who descended from a different sect.

In each country, revolution brought disparate groups together in a burst of people power organized through social media. But the second, slower phase of change has exposed and highlighted religious, ethnic and class differences. Young, secular liberals who were instrumental in the Arab Spring revolts have been pushed aside as Muslim groups long suppressed by secular autocrats won favor from voters who associated them with honesty and community service.

In Bahrain, the government and its media allies stoked sectarian conflict, stirring fears among the country’s Sunni elite of an Iranian-controlled Shiite takeover. Many Bahrainis grew up knowing little or nothing about the historical division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, but after the protests began, the government put out word that the mostly Shiite demonstrators — Bahrain’s population is about 70 percent Shiite — were acting on behalf of Iran, the much-feared neighbor across the Persian Gulf.

Just days after the demonstrations began, the country’s security police joined with masked thugs to break up the protests with metal batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot.

Saffar and her colleagues worked round-the-clock tending to injured protesters. But in the next days, dozens of doctors and nurses — nearly all of them Shiites — began to vanish from the hospital, taken away by masked security men. One day in March, Saffar got a call at home: Come to the police station for questioning or we will come get you. She dressed in a suit and heels and called her attorney. Change into jeans and a shirt, he told her.

When Saffar arrived at the police station, the nurse, like dozens of other medics who had treated injured demonstrators, was blindfolded, handcuffed and thrown into an ice-cold cell. For five hours, she was forced to stand ramrod straight, interrogated by people she could not see. A policewoman hit her about the face with her hands. A man slapped her, pulled her hair and poked at her with an electric prod. They called her a whore. They accused her of inciting hatred at a public gathering. They called her “filthy Shia.”

Guards threatened to rape Saffar. She was made to shout, “Long live the king and crown prince!”

The medics stood, blindfolded and cuffed, for three days without sleep, food or water. On the third day, the guards hung a sign on Saffar’s back that invited kicks and slaps. They walked her down a hallway where people in uniform accepted the invitation.

After seven days, the still-blindfolded Saffar was allowed to dictate a statement about what she had seen and done at the hospital during the uprising. Then her interrogator tore up the document and burned her hair with a cigarette lighter.

The blindfold ordeal lasted 15 days. When Saffar came home in August after 143 days in detention, she had lost nearly a third of her weight. She looked in the mirror “and I saw an old woman.” When she tried to return to work, she was told that she had been suspended — no reason given.

A military court sentenced her to 15 years in prison. An appeal is to be heard in criminal court next month.

At the bottom of the police summons that each arrested medic received from the Interior Ministry, a slogan in large type says, “With your cooperation we will achieve security and stability.”

An investigation by an international panel of jurists last month verified the accounts of torture and indiscriminate arrests. The king promised to hold those responsible to account and to restore the jobs of thousands. But the promises have yet to be met.

Saffar, who like many Bahrainis with money went to an English-language school as a teen, grew up not knowing whether she was Sunni or Shiite. She said her mother would tell her, “You’re a Muslim Bahraini, and that’s it.”

In fact, she is what Bahrainis call a “Su-Shi,” with a Sunni mother and Shiite father. Such intermarriages are common in Bahrain.

Just a few minutes’ drive from Saffar’s house, in a walled community where some of the country’s investment bankers and other beneficiaries of oil wealth live, four couples gather for dinner and a chance to see how far along their friends are in creating Plan B — their escape from the country they love.

These are not the kind of people who go to protests, but some were rooting for the demonstrators. Others around the table were put off by the protesters’ disruptive tactics, such as pouring motor oil on highways.

All of the couples have started planning their departures. If the kids miss a month of school because of disturbances, we’re out of here, one businessman says. If investment here continues to drop, we’ll have to move, another says.

They wonder how their country can climb down from the heated Sunni-Shiite confrontation: At their children’s school, a sixth-grader asked her friends not to talk to Shiite girls. In another grade, a child handing out invitations to his birthday party inquired whether his friends were Sunni or Shiite; only the Sunnis got invitations.

Some Sunnis understand the royal family’s decision to play hardball: Being across the gulf from Iran — which sponsored a coup attempt in Bahrain three decades ago — the king is spooked by the Shiite Islamist theocracy. But the independent commission found no evidence of involvement by Iran in Bahrain’s protests. Organizers of the uprising say that they may be Shiite but that they are committed to pluralism, secular rule and even the ruling family — if it grants the people a bigger voice.

Change is coming, says blogger and businessman Suhail Algosaibi, who is close to the royal family: “You don’t think the family has seen what’s happening in Egypt and Libya? They know they must reform or they won’t be here anymore. We’re not ready for full democracy; at this stage, we’d very likely have guys with big beards and big turbans and that would be very bad. But they will reform — they have to to survive.” (The Washington Post repeatedly sought interviews with Bahraini government ministers; despite promises that an official would be made available, none was.)

Back home with her husband, Saffar has taken out her Texas Christmas baubles and her porcelain cowboy boots. She will always be part of Texas, but “this is my home. I will never leave it,” she says. “The government created this conspiracy story about the Shia to scare the Sunni, making them believe Iran is planning a revolution here. But ours was never a revolution — it was an uprising to make Bahrain a better place for all of us.”

The morning paper, ever supportive of the royal family, announces that the king has moved to rehire all of the fired Shiite workers. But on a dusty parking lot across from the Labor Ministry building, no one has passed that word to hundreds of terminated workers holding a rally. Ministry officials stay inside the gates, watching from behind a billboard that displays portraits of the king, crown prince and prime minister. The text under their smiling faces reads, “Our full loyalty and allegiance is to our wise leadership.”

An hour or three away from Cairo, depending on the Egyptian capital’s world-class traffic jams, huge white letters in the style of California’s famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign spell out “DREAMLAND.” What Ahmed Bahgat built in the desert beyond the pyramids during the reign of Hosni Mubarak is a manufacturing, real estate and entertainment empire beyond the imagination of most Egyptians. It was the perfect target for a revolution in a country where four in 10 residents get by on $2 or less a day.

So when the revolution swiftly spread out from Tahrir Square in February, Bahgat’s dream darkened. The magnate says he spent the Arab Spring in shock as police vanished from the streets, his factory workers stayed home and his photo was carried by a major newspaper depicting him as the archetypal fat cat who prospered under Mubarak.

Bahgat had plenty to lose. Dreamland covers 150,000 acres and includes 5,000 villas and apartments. It houses office complexes for the Egyptian arms of Microsoft, IBM and other multinational companies. It has a Hilton and a Sheraton; a shopping mall; three schools; a golf course; the studios of Bahgat’s TV network, Dream TV; and an amusement park designed by the company that planned the Universal Studios theme park in California.

In those first weeks after Mubarak’s ouster, critics went to the state prosecutor and accused Bahgat of getting a sweetheart deal for the vast tract of desert he acquired in the early 1990s. In four court cases, debtors and prosecutors challenged his control of his empire.

Bahgat’s Dream Park is mostly empty these days. At his hotels, occupancy rates are half what they were before the revolution. The sales office for Dreamland’s sumptuous villas and apartments rarely gets even a nibble anymore, says Mohamed Fathy, the sales director. “No one wants to invest in real estate in a country whose future is so cloudy,” he says.

But as the first anniversary of the Tahrir Square protests approaches, Bahgat says he’s on the verge of winning back complete control of his empire.

The revolution was indeed televised, but after the cameras moved on, Egypt’s most powerful men remained very much in charge. Mubarak is gone, and Egyptians have come out in huge numbers in the first rounds of parliamentary elections, with about two-thirds of voters selecting Islamist parties, either the more-moderate Muslim Brotherhood or the fundamentalist Salafists. But from the poorest slums to the most luxurious of gated communities, Egyptians agree with Bahgat that very little has changed in their daily lives: The military still controls much of Egyptian life and shows few signs of ceding power, and the billionaires who made out like bandits under Mubarak are still doing splendidly — a reality no one expects will change anytime soon.

“For three months, everyone was shouting about thieves, meaning people with money,” Bahgat says. “But they will get tired of hating us. This is a wave, and we are nearing the end of the wave.”

At the birthplace of the revolution, it’s hard to argue with Bahgat’s view. A few tents remain in Tahrir Square, but the encampment of protesters no longer reflects a cross section of Egyptian society. On most days now, only a few fringe fundamentalist Muslim preachers manage to muster even a small crowd.

In Dreamland, the boss’s frontline managers see a similar desolation. “We used to have freedom, but not anymore,” says the general manager, Hefni Higazi, who misses Mubarak’s firm stand against Islamists. “Our last hope is that the army will protect our secular life. Otherwise, we’ll become another Iran. The core of our economy is tourism, and now we have people voting for Islamist parties that want to ban alcohol and bikinis on the beach. It’s just crazy.”

Bahgat liked Mubarak. It was Mubarak who personally appealed to Bahgat to move back to Egypt from a professorial stint in Atlanta. The two loved to think big. Mubarak was very good to the developers who built Cairo’s satellite cities over the past two decades.

But Bahgat’s relationship with the Mubarak family soured in the months before the revolution, especially after a popular talk-show host on Bahgat’s Dream TV dared to opine that the president’s son Gamal should not be allowed to succeed his aging father. Bahgat fired the host, but that did not mollify Mubarak. Two days after that show aired last year, Bahgat got a call from the presidential palace: He could sign over to the regime a big chunk of his assets, or he could find himself in jail. Bahgat signed.

So he was glad to see the Mubarak family fall in February. But Bahgat had no illusions that the revolution would bring about fundamental change. Neither do the customers at the tiny “Men 2000” barbershop in the cacophonous, congested, working-class Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba: “The rich still have their fingers in everything,” says Hisham Kamassim, who repairs air conditioners for a living.

A few blocks away, at the Church of the Virgin Mary, Father Sarabamon Abdo tries to calm his Coptic Christian parishioners, the more financially stable of whom are considering leaving Egypt because of attacks against churches by Salafists since the fall of the regime. “What has changed is that some Muslims now openly accuse us of being infidels even though Muslims and Christians have lived together here for 1,400 years,” the pastor says. “If the Muslims take over the government, will they apply their sharia law on me, a Christian? In the Koran, it says the Christians should be ruled by their own book, the Bible. So what do I do now? Do I trust you if you call me an infidel, or do I trust the Koran that respects us as a people of faith?”

Fifteen miles south, in a scruffy corner of the affluent Maadi neighborhood, Salafists shop for votes just blocks from a Nile River party boat that thumps dance tunes while Egyptian teens — boys and girls together — boogie on the deck.

The Salafists’ Nour party is drawing about 20 percent of the vote so far, thanks to campaigners such as Ali Muhammad, a 35-year-old with a trim beard, a master’s degree in Islamic history and a novel concept of democracy. When Islamists become the majority in the new parliament, he says, “those who do not like the laws we enforce will be contravening democracy because in democracy, the majority creates the law. Behavior opposed to the prophet’s words will be banned. The state will punish those who disobey. If a current emerges that is contradictory to the religious ideology, the people will rise up against this current.”

Islam is also central to Bahgat, a tall, lumpy engineer who was living in Atlanta when he got his start by inventing a digital alarm clock that alerts Muslims to their five daily prayer times. But he is adamant that mixing religion and government is a mistake his countrymen will come to regret.

“The Muslim Brotherhood tells the people: ‘Choose me and I will get you a car and money and medical help.’ Then the people will get nothing,” Bahgat says, “and they will see that these Islamists are not qualified to run the country.”

The revolution “has had a devastating impact on everything,” Bahgat says. The government confiscated most of his assets; he’s suing to get his money back. “Egyptians believe you cannot have money unless you stole it. Americans admire rich people and celebrities. In Egypt, they hate them.”

Still, Bahgat sees a return to normality on the horizon. Most of his companies — the real estate holdings, the TV manufacturer that is the largest in the Middle East, the plastics company that churns out parts for his home appliance enterprise — are showing improved numbers, and Bahgat is confident that what the world viewed as a revolution will soon be revealed as a passing fancy.

“Everything in Egypt will continue as is,” the magnate says.

Supplicants enter the grand marble Italian palazzo on one of Tripoli’s once-elegant squares, gingerly stepping into a lush lobby decorated with wooden cutouts from the Ottoman era. For 42 years, most Libyans entered such buildings only on command and with fear. Now, smiling men in suits invite them to wait on velvet thrones to meet with the man who as of a few weeks ago runs their city.

In moments, they are ushered into the huge corner office of Abdul Rezzaq Abuhajar, who until last spring sold bedsheets in a Tripoli shop.

Under Moammar Gaddafi, there was no local government; the dictator ran everything. Now, Abuhajar — a hero to many residents of the Libyan capital because he organized opposition to Gaddafi from exile in Egypt for many years — is head of the interim city council. That makes him responsible for the city’s trash, sewage and thousands of refugees, who fled towns destroyed in the battles between rebels and Gaddafi loyalists. “I have to open schools for the children who’ve come to the capital. I need shelters, a food supply. And I’ve got to get the police back on the streets,” he says.

Tripoli is still nursing its wounds and celebrating its liberation. Gaddafi’s palace, bombed into a concrete shell, has become a macabre playground for children. At major intersections, ragtag gangs of militiamen — teenagers with automatic weapons, really — hang out, supposedly protecting the people. Abuhajar has little, if any, sway over the boys in camos. But he is confident that the militias will come under civilian control soon, because money talks and Libya has it by the barrel.

Libya looks disorganized, but its small population is united — in their euphoria over the demise of Gaddafi, in their hunger for jobs and in a more wholehearted embrace of Islam than their dictator allowed.

“We are only 6 million people, and we have this oil and a 2,000-kilometer coastline,” Abuhajar says. “We can use the oil money to help people with their needs now, buying us time to build a government and create new sources of jobs and income.”

“We will be patriotic and efficient and open to the world,” he said, “like Europe and America. And Islam will keep people peaceful.”

Except that when night falls, gunfire pierces the calm along the Mediterranean shoreline. Salafist extremists conduct drive-by shootings on mosques that house tombs of much-admired Islamic scholars who died centuries ago — a tribute that the Salafists believe violates the faith’s ban on idolatry.

Abuhajar’s deputy, Hisham Krekshi, is dispatched to a 13th-century seaside mosque to see whether he can help. A banner outside the whitewashed stucco house of worship announces “Yes to National Unity, No to Religious Extremism.”

Krekshi assures the imam that his police forces will come by from time to time but adds that there’s not much more he can do — or wants to do. “I’m not so worried about these extremists,” he says. The deeper problem is that “there’s nothing here. We don’t have parking lots, we don’t have parks. We have such basic needs that we don’t have time for religious differences.”

Back at city hall, those needs keep Abuhajar’s aides streaming in and out of his office, directing visitor traffic, funneling documents to the boss. A man arrives to plead the case of an ailing relative who cannot be treated at Tripoli’s ill-equipped hospital. Abuhajar opens a drawer, takes out a stack of cash and peels off enough for the sick man to travel to Turkey for proper care.

Abuhajar is a respected elder now, but in a quiet moment, the 71-year-old recalls how he was arrested in 1973 and spent 18 months in prison, accused of having started an unauthorized Islamic organization. “They accused me because I have a beard and pray in a mosque,” Abuhajar says. “We never had any group. We talked about it but never did it.”

Day after day for more than a year, Abuhajar was interrogated, often while hanging upside down. When he finally saw a judge, his case was dismissed.

He’d had enough of Gaddafi’s Libya, so he moved his family to Cairo, where he sold furniture and helped organize an exile opposition group called the Seventh Front. In 1984, the group launched an assassination plot against Gaddafi, but the dictator’s security force discovered the scheme, killed some of its operatives and sent others to prison. Abuhajar turned to raising money for poor Libyans in Egypt.

In 1996, Abuhajar returned to Tripoli. There was no plot this time, just a deep and abiding homesickness. He was hauled in for questioning every few months, but in the last few years of the Gaddafi regime, they left him alone — an old man selling bedsheets didn’t seem much of a threat anymore.

Then, in February, in the eastern city of Benghazi, the first rumblings of an ­anti-Gaddafi uprising led Abuhajar to start raising money from Muslim Brotherhood allies in Tunisia and Europe, as well as from trusted friends in Libya. “I need medicine for my daughter,” Abuhajar would say on the phone, hoping Gaddafi’s secret police wouldn’t catch on to the code for “I need guns for the rebels.”

Now, he’s reading memos rather than running guns. An assistant leans over Abuhajar’s shoulder, whispers a few words and hands over a summary of a case he must adjudicate: Revolutionaries searching for Gaddafi loyalists found 1.4 million dinars — about $1.1 million — in one man’s house. Assuming it was ill-gained, the revolutionaries confiscated the money and now claim the 10 percent bounty that the new government offers to those who reclaim any of Gaddafi’s plunder. The council chief must decide what to do with the cash. He reads testimonials to the honesty of the man whose house was raided.

With a swift signature, Abuhajar returns the money to its owner. “He’s well respected, a good man,” Abuhajar says. “We only want to punish those who killed and tortured for Gaddafi. . . . The others, like this man, they are Libyans. If they were pro-Gaddafi, or they were bought by money, they are still our neighbors. Time heals. If we make enemies of our neighbors, we will get nowhere.”

Abuhajar stares down at his hands. There is so much to do, and so many years were wasted. Gaddafi, he says, “stole 40 years of my life.” It is a sentiment heard throughout the city.

In the old city’s warren of alleys lined with shops selling gold, copper and spices, Rashid Alhamadi sits in his open-air stall, bundled in sweater and coat, hunched over his manual typewriter. He is a scribe, serving customers who need someone to type up court documents or letters. Alhamadi, 59, has been here for three decades, ever since Gaddafi’s men had him imprisoned and tortured. His crime: As a high school teacher, he chastised Gaddafi’s son Mohammed for bringing to school a wooden device used to hang people by their feet. The teacher lost his job and house for daring to question the dictator’s son.

“We all lost something,” Alhamadi said. “Now, we start with a blank white page. We are thirsty for work and education. We can be like Europe or America; we can talk back and say this is good, this is bad. Like Watergate — we can take someone in power who has done wrong and change them out.”

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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