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COMMENTARY

A second Spring?

AT SOME point in the next year, Syria is likely to be readmitted to the Arab League, after an eight-year suspension. Gulf states are quietly rebuilding ties with the Assad regime and the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in December. The moves signal the consensus among the Arab states that Bashar al-Assad has successfully put down the revolt that shook his regime.

For those in the Arab world whose hopes for more open, accountable and democratic societies were raised by the Arab Spring of 2011, the outcome is one more disappointment. Of the countries where revolt seriously challenged the old order, Egypt has found itself under a military regime even more repressive than the one overthrown in 2011, Libya is torn by conflicts between rival armies, Yemen is being devastated by war and most of Syria is back under the control of President Assad. Only in Tunisia has a new democratic order been established and it remains fragile, stressed by the country's economic difficulties.

Nevertheless, the old order remains under challenge. Since the end of 2018, a new wave of popular movements in the Arab world has shaken long established regimes. The most prominent are in three countries.

In Jordan, opposition to a new tax bill introduced last June gave rise to renewed protests in Amman in December. They gained support and the protests became more political, condemning corruption and challenging the centralisation of power in the hands of the monarchy.

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In Sudan, widespread protests against the 30-year old regime of Omar al-Bashir have continued since December, despite over 50 people having been shot dead.

In Algeria, massive demonstrations greeted ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika's announcement on Feb 10 that he would seek a fifth term of office. After a month of protests, he issued a statement that he would not stand, but the public was no longer satisfied with that: now it demanded that he should resign. The army's chief of staff has lent his support to these calls and Mr Bouteflika's deposition looks imminent.

It is significant that these popular protests have come to the fore in countries that were not at the forefront of the Arab Spring revolts. Young people have played a leading role in each case. They are less fearful of their rulers than their elders and have not so far directly experienced the kind of repression that descended upon 2011's rebels.

While each of the new movements of protest in the Arab world has its particular causes within specific states, they can also be read as manifestations of a more general aspiration for change, which bursts through constraints wherever and whenever there is an opportunity. The desire for more open societies and accountable governments remains unquelled.

  • The writer is a Singapore-based freelance writer