Published January 13, 2015
On a recent blustery night, with a sandstorm kicking up, Kuwait's own Arab Spring was playing out on a quiet road of villas and tall palms.
There a group of protesters gathered to recite a speech — one after the other, word for word — that accused Kuwait's ruler, of suppressing dissent. The speech had been delivered last year by Musallam al-Barrack, then a parliament member, and had earned him a five-year prison sentence for supposedly insulting the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah.
In previous times, that might have been the end of the affair. But 57-year-old al-Barrack's supporters were determined to demonstrate that the Arab Spring stops for no one, and this week they won a partial victory when a court reversed the sentence and gave Barrack a chance to continue his principled dissent.
The drama sums up the latest and perhaps most important and enduring phase of the Arab Spring, at least in the Gulf region: Instead of more violence, explosions and crackdowns, the scenario now envisioned by many experts is a revolution transformed into nonviolent give-and-take between rulers and the ruled.
In this phase, the hereditary monarchs would keep their jobs but gradually surrender at least a share of power under a system of laws.
The revolution that steamrolled from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond in 2011 remains locked in horrific seesawing battles in Syria and simmering unrest in Bahrain. But the days of broad, falling-domino rebellions have likely run their course. If Syrian President Bashar Assad goes, he will be the fifth ruler to be toppled, but elsewhere the demands appear to be aiming lower and the resulting changes look more incremental.
"The Arab Spring is moving into, let's say, a more mature phase," says Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Gulf Affairs. "There is Syria, of course. But the rest of the region is moving into a slow burn now. Voices are speaking up against corruption and political arrogance in the Gulf, but also in places like Egypt and Tunisia that went through their revolutions and are still undergoing a political shakeout."
The Western-backed Arab royals are a close-knit alliance of sheiks, kings and emirs ruling more than 40 million citizens from Kuwait to Oman. The kings of Jordan and Morocco rule some 40 million more. All face various pressures seeking to chip away at their powers and privileges. The demands remain generally too weak and disjointed to seriously threaten their rule, but they still carry significance.
Each concession by the sheiks and monarchs is an acknowledgment that they cannot insulate themselves from the Arab Spring, and that for their long-term survival they will have to give the public greater say in everything from their freedoms to their ties to Washington.
Meanwhile, other subplots are likely to sharpen in places where revolution has swept through — whether it's ultraconservative Islamists pressing to expand their voice in Tunisia, or liberals in Egypt trying to gain ground from the newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood.
"The end of silence and submission is what the Arab Spring has brought," al-Ahmed said. "This is the first tipping point for all regimes in the Middle East. Bigger tipping points may come later. But all leaders know you can't bottle up an idea."
That doesn't stop them from trying. Some of the most important battle lines to come may not be on the streets but in courtrooms and cyberspace. Authorities are becoming gatekeepers, allowing some reforms while blocking any serious challenges with tougher media laws, social media monitoring and heavy-handed political pressures.
In Abu Dhabi, 94 suspects from the United Arab Emirates, including scholars, lawyers and even a member of a ruling family, are on trial, accused of being part of an Islamist-inspired plot to overthrow the government. International rights groups call the evidence weak, mostly based on emails and alleged conversations about ways to open up a system that bans political parties as well as almost all public dissent. A verdict is expected July 2.
Across the Gulf states, meanwhile, dozens have been arrested for Twitter posts and other social media messages deemed insulting to leaders. They include a Qatari poet facing 15 years in prison for writing verses inspired by the Arab Spring.
In Jordan, King Abdullah II has agreed to step-by-step reforms, including ending the practice of hand-picking the prime minister and transferring the task to the elected parliament. Media freedom groups have opposed codes that require news websites to pay a registration fee and be responsible for all comments posted by readers.
All these civil liberties issues have implications for Washington, whose alliances in the Gulf are bulwarks against Iranian influence. The 5th Fleet, the Pentagon's main counterweight against Iranian military expansion, is based in Bahrain, and the U.S. is unlikely to roll back any of its Gulf ties, but could face uncomfortable questions from rights groups.
"Authorities believe they can frighten people into silence and obedience. It has the exact opposite effect. Look at what happened when they arrest someone for a Twitter post. One crackdown spawns dozens more posts talking about it," said Ahmed Mansoor, a Dubai-based rights activist. "They try to stop the unstoppable."
To buy off dissent, the governments that can afford it have spent heavily to create civil service jobs and other opportunities. Oman has a $180 million fund to help fund small businesses. Saudi Arabia has earmarked more than $100 billion, and despite its vast wealth, is so worried about unemployment and poverty that it is deporting undocumented foreign workers to open up jobs for its own citizens.
Gulf security officials have rewired the region for greater intelligence-sharing and mutual aid, such as the Saudi-led force dispatched to Bahrain in early 2011 as its rebellion swelled. Their alliance has even broadened to include the other monarchy in the neighborhood, Jordan, which has been increasingly brought into the Gulf fold.
They are buying time," said Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi. "In different ways, but they are buying time."
However, there are warning signs.
In mid-May, newspapers in Saudi Arabia reported that a man in the capital, Riyadh, set himself ablaze and died after police confiscated his vegetable stand. It was a similar act in Tunisia that touched off the Arab Spring.
Bahrain is the only country in the region with ongoing violent confrontations. More than 60 people have died since February 2011, and tensions remain acute. In late May thousands staged a "day of loyalty" in solidarity with the island's highest-ranking Shiite cleric, who has strongly backed the uprising against the Sunni-led monarchy.
Through history, rebellions against autocratic rule rarely have had simple outcomes. Decades after America's own revolution, political forces and ideologies were still jockeying for the upper hand. The Arab Spring is no exception.
Islamists, such as the fringe Salafists in Tunisia or the governing Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, now have political space that was long restricted. Liberals and moderates have to choose whether to stand their ground or give way to Islamists and other newly empowered factions. Meanwhile, Arabs under 30, who are more than a third of the population, are seeing little gain from the Arab Spring fallout.
A ballot-style placard at Cairo University featured portraits of all the new leaders brought in by the Arab Spring, from Mohammed Morsi in Egypt to Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The box checked below was for None of the Above.
"Going forward, the movements inspired by the Arab Spring and the fallout from the revolutions may be less dramatic and more subtle," said Ehsan Ahrari, a Virginia-based strategic affairs analyst, "but that doesn't mean they are less important about shaping how the future will look to the next generation."
This is still a "petri dish of democracy," said Salman Shaikh, director of The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
"You don't impose democracy. You develop it," he said. "Indian democracy is not exactly European democracy and that's not exactly American democracy. The type of democracy that will eventually come from the Arab Spring will take shape over years, maybe decades. You can't rush it."
At an Arab media conference in Dubai this month, a recurring theme was summed up by Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian political satirist, in an oft-heard punch line: Freedom is messy, but people still crave the mess.
The forum then looked ahead with cautious predictions for the Gulf — perhaps soft-pedaled a bit because Dubai officials were on hand — that nonetheless saw authorities being forced to open up their political systems even more or put everything at risk.
"It's really all about legitimacy, isn't it?" said Khalid al-Firm, a professor of political media at Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University in Saudi Arabia. "The legacy of the Arab Spring is essential in this message: Why should you be in power? Why should we trust you? What is your legitimacy? That is powerful."
"Lies," he told the gathering, "are no longer marketable."
Associated Press writer Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.