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Arab spring turns chill

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus   |   Feb. 28, 2011 at 5:51 AM   |   Comments

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PARIS, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- It took a while but it is becoming ever more clear that the North African revolutions are unlikely to unfold like a morality play in which good defeats evil, not like a fairy tale in which all live happily ever after.

Moammar Gadhafi's threat of civil war seems to be coming true in Libya, although it might be more accurate to call it an attempt at fight off revolution by Gadhafi's loyalists and mercenaries.

Three died in clashes in Tunisia Saturday after 100,000 protesters marched Friday demanding the resignation of the interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and his government of national unity. The main complaint seems to be that he hasn't delivered jobs, democracy and prosperity for all in the six weeks since the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Meanwhile in Egypt, the military used baton charges, tear gas and stun guns Saturday against demonstrators demanding the last colleagues of former President Hosni Mubarak be purged from the current interim government of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. They also wanted the immediate release of all remaining "political" prisoners and the issuing of a general amnesty.

There were contradictory reports of the names of those they sought to free but some were believed to include Islamic militants who had been charged with violent offenses against Western tourists.

A confused situation developed on the Tunisian border with Libya Sunday, where Libyan guards held up Tunisian Islamists who wanted to enter the country with donations of medical supplies.

The World Food Program says the food supply chain in Libya "is at risk of collapsing". The Red Cross has launched an appeal for more than $6 million for medical assistance.

This is an unhappy mix, with Libya's food supplies starting to run out as the pro- and anti-Gadhafi forces brace for a showdown, Islamists become steadily more prominent, while the instability continues in both Tunisia and Egypt.

The U.N. Security Council has made clear its dislike of the Gadhafi regime and its ruthless way with its foes. But by freezing their assets and imposing travel bans on Gadhafi and his closest loyalists the United Nations may have made it more likely that Gadhafi stays to fight it out. The Chinese sage Sun Tzu said it was always wise to provide one's enemy with a golden bridge to help him retreat. The United Nations has cut off Gadhafi's possible retreats.

At the same time, the United Nations declined to impose a no-fly ban on Libyan airspace that might have deterred his air force loyalists and mercenary pilots.

So having forced Gadhafi to stay and fight for his life, the United Nations left him with his air power and the combat helicopters that make it easier for him to prevail. This doesn't seem sensible but the Security Council was evidently too intent on congratulating itself for reaching a unanimous vote to notice the real implication of its decisions.

That heady early talk of an Arab spring and a democratic flowering across the Arab world now seems distinctly premature. It is going to be much more difficult, and much more complicated, as the Europeans found when they started turning back thousands of Tunisians looking for jobs and opportunities in Europe rather than staying home to enjoy the new freedoms.

Beyond the unpleasant endgame of the Gadhafi regime, there are three predictable crises yet to come in North Africa. The first will be the question of food shortages and subsidies in Egypt, where the price of bread has been kept artificially low for decades at a cost of more than $3 billion a year. (The Mubarak government spent more on its various subsidies than it did on health and education.)

Egypt's new government faces a tough dilemma. It cannot afford the subsidies but nor can it afford the popular outrage among the poor if it tried to end them.

The second crisis will come when business returns to normal and 30 percent of Egyptians and Tunisians in their 20s remain unemployed and a new class of graduates emerges to join them. They will demand government jobs. The government will try to comply but the government has no money. Money will be borrowed and printed. Inflation will result.

The third crisis will be more a problem of U.S. domestic politics but it will have grave implications for Egypt. It concerns Israel. The new Egyptian government, whatever its politics, will find it difficult to be quite as accommodating to Israel as Mubarak used to be. In particular, it will find it politically very unpopular to maintain the siege of Gaza.

As goods start to flow, Egypt will find itself being blamed by the pro-Israel lobby for helping to "strengthen Hamas" in Gaza. The usual congressmen will make the usual Washington speeches about supporting Israel and questioning whether Egypt is still a reliable partner for peace and asking how to cut back on the U.S. subsidies for Egypt. This is predictable. And it is the way friends can turn into enemies.

The United States doesn't have sufficient goodwill in the Arab and Islamic worlds to navigate such crises easily. It is rather short of money to help see the new Egyptian government through its bread subsidy crisis. And the Europeans are unlikely to ease the pressure of youth unemployment by accepting more immigrants.

Those concerned that the "Arab Spring" isn't turning out quite as happily as hoped should brace themselves. It can get a great deal worse.

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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