CAIRO — Among the protest banners in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was a hand-drawn map of the Arab Spring with black target symbols covering each country hit by anti-government uprisings since the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt were ousted earlier this year.
But the bull’s-eyes could easily be replaced with question marks as the groundswell for change has splintered into scattered and indecisive conflicts that have left thousands dead and Western policymakers juggling roles from NATO airstrikes in Libya to worried bystanders in Syria and Yemen.
The stalemates could shift into a deeper holding pattern in August during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when the pace of daily life traditionally slows as the Islamic world observes a dawn-to-dusk fast and other customs such as temporary truces.
It’s a huge and traumatic undertaking to shove aside regimes with decades in power — and sway over nearly every decision down to who gets hired as street sweeper. Iran did it with the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the American-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein cleaned the slate for Iraq and ushered in years of near civil war.
But no such wholesale change appears in the pipeline with the present revolts. That has raised concern that even if the leaders fall, the pillars of the regimes could survive, as happened when military rulers took temporary control after Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
“Half revolution doesn’t work,” a headline last week in Egypt’s Al-Ahram Al-Massai newspaper said after demonstrators returned to Tahrir Square to press for swifter political reforms and bolder legal action against officials from Mubarak’s regime who were accused of corruption and killing protesters.
But even a halfway mark appears farther along than most of the rebellions against the Mideast’s old guard.
Cores of loyal security forces in Yemen and Syria keep the regimes hanging on despite relentless protests. In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi could face a moment of truth as rebels press closer to the capital Tripoli and NATO warplanes hammer military sites, yet the anti-Gadhafi militias have no clear leader to prevent possible power grabs to control the country’s oil riches if he is ousted.
The country where the Arab Spring began, Tunisia, has been shaken by unrest — including a rise in ultraconservative Islamists — ahead of planned elections in October to elect an assembly that will write a new constitution. Some political groups are urging further delays in the election to give new parties a chance to organize.
Egypt, meanwhile, is questioning when — or if — the ruling military council will surrender power. The caretaker rulers effectively announced a delay of the elections on Tuesday when they said preparations for the vote would start Sept. 30.
“Bring down the military junta,” chanted some of the 30,000 protesters Tuesday in Tahrir Square. Hours later, the military made clear its patience was wearing thin — with Maj. Gen. Mohsen el-Fangari wagging his finger and warning protesters against “harming national interests.”
Mubarak is under arrest and faces trial next month over the deaths of nearly 900 protesters in the uprising that ended his 29-year-rule in February. In a transcript of his interrogation published by two newspapers Thursday, he claimed to have had no control over security forces who attacked demonstrators.
“No one would have paid any attention to me or my orders,” he said when asked why he did not stop the violence. He claimed he gave clear orders that no force be used against the protesters, and blamed top aides for keeping him in the dark about the gravity of the protests that led to his downfall.
Only in tiny Bahrain have authorities apparently tipped the scales clearly in their favor. Security forces — aided by Saudi-led reinforcements — smothered an uprising by the kingdom’s majority Shiites seeking greater rights from the Sunni rulers. A so-called “national dialogue” began this month, but it’s unlikely that the 200-year-old ruling dynasty will give up any significant hold on power and may need a heavy hand to keep Shiite-led protests from reigniting.
“It’s not over, but we are in an ugly situation now,” said Christopher Davidson, a lecturer on Middle East and Gulf affairs at Britain’s Durham University.
That’s why the definition of the Arab Spring is increasingly being stretched. It’s both about the current showdowns and the long-term spillover. The upheavals — supercharged by the instant communications of the Web — have given the region a crash course in the clout of the streets. The view from the top is suddenly less comfortable.
Even monarchs have acted swiftly after relatively small-scale clamor. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said promised 50,000 new civil servant posts and allocated $2.6 billion for job programs. Jordan’s King Abdullah II has set in motion plans for an elected government in coming years.
In the tightly ruled United Arab Emirates, officials have opened the vaults to fund development programs in poorer regions outside Dubai and Abu Dhabi and plan to expand voting rights in September’s balloting for a federal advisory council. It’s been trumpeted as a “great leap” for democracy in a country that jailed five activists just for posting Internet appeals to form a true parliament.
“No matter what happens, countries gripped or just touched by the Arab Spring will never go back to what they were,” said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
That leads to the bigger question: How deep can the changes go?
Syrian protesters, for example, know that even if President Bashar Assad falls, the underpinnings such as the rank-and-file military and public works staff cannot be purged as well without sending the country into a tailspin.
Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the anti-Assad Local Coordination Committees, which track the protests in Syria, said the opposition has no plans to dissolve the army or even the ruling Baath Party if he is overthrown but will seek to weaken the powers of security agencies.
“At the beginning of the uprising when we chanted, ‘the people want to bring down the regime,’ we did not mean President Assad, but the security agencies that interfere in everything from a marriage certificate to the opening of a shop,” said Idilbi, who is based in Beirut.
Yemen’s president isn’t even in the country, yet his regime fights on. A blast last month sent Ali Abdullah Saleh to Saudi Arabia for extensive medical treatment, including more than eight operations. But his son, Ahmed, kept the regime’s crucial Republican Guards forces intact.
Washington believes no credible alternative exists for the current regime as an ally to fight Yemen’s al-Qaida affiliate, which has been declared a major threat to U.S. interests. But President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, has urged Saleh to accept a proposal that would transfer power to his vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution.