The swift toppling of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, in rapid succession, has been followed by months of deepening bloodshed and brutality across the Arab world, underscoring the power that autocrats still wield after decades of dictatorship.
“We’re rapidly coming to a fork in the road, where one path leads to change and reform and the other leads to retrenchment and repression,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “It’s going to be a long and bloody haul, and it could take us over a number of years.”
The tiny kingdom of Bahrain has been the first to point the way to a different outcome, having decisively crushed its popular uprising with the help of Saudi troops. Now, human rights groups say, authorities there are engaged in a systematic persecution of the mostly Shiite majority that dominated the demonstrations earlier this year.
In Syria, the government headed by President Bashar al-Assad is pursuing a remorseless effort to quell a pro-democracy movement, using tanks and artillery to pound neighborhoods that had participated in demonstrations, and detaining by the thousands whole communities of young men. A crucial test could come Friday, the usual day of protests, as authorities watch to see whether the extraordinary repression of the past week will finally succeed in suppressing the revolt.
In Libya, where Moammar Gaddafi was the first to unleash the full force of the state against his citizens, an all-out war is raging in which NATO fighter jets are taking the lead. In Yemen, a bloody stalemate continues to regularly claim the lives of demonstrators seeking the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is stubbornly resisting multiple efforts to persuade him to leave.
In Egypt, deadly sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims in Cairo have come as a sobering reminder that negative as well as positive forces may be unleashed by the removal of dictatorial governments. And even in little Tunisia, which first heralded possibility of change when its president was forced to flee in January, elections promised for July are in doubt and street protests have continued as frustrations build because of the slow pace of change.
Yet, although governments may succeed in the short term in holding on to power, few think it likely or even possible for the region to revert to its former self.
“Things cannot go back to the way they were before,” said Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi. “We’ve seen a fundamental shift. People have seen freedom, and there is no turning back.”