The slogan of the 2011 Arab Spring popular uprisings, "Ash-shab yurid isqat al-nizam," resonated across West Asia and North Africa. This cry, meaning, "The people want to topple the regime," originally raised in Tunisia, echoed through the streets and squares of Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria and Yemen. However, Tunisia is the only country where a popular revolt against entrenched autocrats has brought democracy.
Elsewhere, Arabs who brought down or challenged their rulers, demanding "Bread, Freedom and Justice," have become victims of brutal repression or warfare supported or sponsored by the Western-allied autocrats of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf for whom democracy is anathema.
Egypt set the trend by reverting to autocracy: military rule, the model adopted since Gamal Abdel Nasser and his "young officers" overthrew the monarchy in 1952. The military assumed power after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, who was president for 30 years, and experimented briefly with democracy, opening the door to a power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's only mass, well-organised political movement. The Brotherhood, abhorred by the Saudis and Emiratis, packed the administration, the judiciary and key institutions with its members, but did not address the demands of the people and was ousted in July 2013 by the military, following popular demonstrations. Elected president in 2014, army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has since stifled all dissent.
In Bahrain, Shias, who form the majority of citizens, protested against the rule of the Sunni royal family and demanded fair representation in government. Demonstrations were brutally put down and Sunni Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates dispatched troops to bolster the kingdom's forces, recruited largely from Pakistan. Bahrain has deepened repression and punished Shias by destroying their mosques and jailing their leaders.
Protesters in Jordan called for reform rather than the ouster of the regime, a hereditary monarchy. King Abdullah promised an end to corruption and reform, but did not deliver. Jordanians discontinued protests because they feared the chaos afflicting neighbouring countries; their silence-out-of-fear has given the Saudi-Gulf-allied regime a free hand to do whatever it likes.
Egypt, Bahrain, and Jordan depend on Saudi and Emirati financial aid to prevent economic collapse and maintain stability.
The Arab Spring unrest plunged Syria and Yemen into wars drawing in Saudi and Sunni Gulf autocrats who sought regime change in these countries on the pretext that they are allied to Shia Iran, portrayed as the regional rival of the Sunni autocrats.
They have failed in Syria, a secular republic ruled for 47 years by the Assad family. In 2011, Syria cracked down harshly on protests, gunmen fought with security forces, and external intervention precipitated a six-and-a-half-year conflict. This became a proxy war involving Russia and Iran on the government's side and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the West on the insurgents' side. President Bashar al-Assad has survived but tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed, half the population has either been displaced within the country or driven into exile. Cities, towns and villages have become battlegrounds.
Conflict also overtook Yemen where a longstanding autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was ousted in 2012, but he joined forces with Shia Houthi tribesmen with the aim of returning to power by overthrowing a Saudi-backed government. Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened militarily in 2015, devastating the country and causing the world's worst humanitarian disaster but not winning the war.
On November 4, Lebanon became the Saudi autocrats' latest victim when Prime Minister Saad Hariri, speaking from Riyadh, announced his resignation, plunging the country into a fresh political crisis. Hariri is a dual Saudi-Lebanese citizen whose fortune was made in construction in the kingdom and whose Lebanese Future Party relies on Saudi financial support.
To make matters worse, autocratic Saudi Arabia has suffered a coup by ultra-autocrats. Until King Salman ascended to the throne in January 2015, the Saudi regime ruled by power-sharing among branches of the family of the kingdom's founder Abdel Aziz ibn Saud. Since taking over, Salman, 82, has systematically eliminated senior princes appointed to succeed him and handed power to his favourite son, 32-year-old Muhammad bin Salman.
While interfering in the affairs of Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan and now Lebanon and waging war in Syria and Yemen, the impetuous and ambitious crown prince has cracked down on critics and the kingdom's deeply conservative clerical establishment, a pillar of the regime. On the day Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh, the prince ordered the detention on corruption charges of 11 princes, four serving ministers and nearly 200 businessmen and civil servants, with the intention of ensuring his own accession and perpetuating the reign of King Salman's line.
So far, the crown prince's autocratic bid to oust familial autocrats has succeeded, but at the expense of the future of the kingdom he seeks to dominate. Having sown instability elsewhere in West Asia, he is now creating instability at home.