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Outlook for Democracy Dims Across Much of the Middle East

by Hannah Allam and Mohannad Sabry

CAIRO, Egypt — A poster depicting 15 Middle Eastern heads of state stood out among the other signs hoisted in the air Saturday by hundreds of protesters at a rally outside the Arab League meeting in Cairo.

Protesters shout anti-Gaddafi slogans outside the Arab League headquarters in Cairo Saturday, March 12, 2011, during an emergency meeting the League's foreign ministers. The Tunisian and Egyptian presidents were crossed out, and question marks hung over the faces of the Libyan, Bahraini and Yemeni leaders. The other rulers - including those of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Sudan - appeared in their tailored suits and flowing headdresses next to an Arabic inscription: "Silent. Stagnant. Until when? Until when? Until when?"

The poster was a stark illustration of the struggle faced by hundreds of thousands of would-be revolutionaries after a recent series of setbacks to the uprisings throughout the region.

The Arab world's much-heralded collective push toward democracy is now in jeopardy, activists and analysts say, as autocrats fight back with lethal force that's turned the evening news into a montage of mangled and bloodied bodies.

Over the weekend, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi reclaimed territory from outgunned rebels through a vicious offensive of air strikes and tank fire. Saudi Arabia flooded its streets with so many security forces that much-anticipated demonstrations never even materialized. And Yemen's president came back Saturday with snipers and riot forces even after record crowds had gathered for the "Friday of no return."

As it becomes apparent that some of the most unpopular regimes will survive the wave of revolt, activists are focusing more on long-term goals for reform. Even if the current movement founders, they said, their efforts would still force leaders to share power and at least listen to their constituents' concerns in the future.

"The regimes might withstand these pressures and remain, but they'll never be the same," said Mohammad al Qahtani, president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. "Now, the status quo can't be maintained anywhere in the Middle East."

When Egypt's revolutionaries toppled Hosni Mubarak, they provided thousands of other Arab protesters a much-needed morale boost - proof that regime change could lay just beyond the curtain of tear gas and bullets.

A month later, nearly every Arab nation is facing some form of domestic rebellion, and protesters are struggling to stay motivated, especially now that international attention has shifted from their cause to the devastating earthquake in Japan. Even on al Jazeera, the satellite channel whose Middle East coverage is bar none, Japanese rescue efforts overshadowed news that the Arab League had called a closed emergency session Saturday to debate a no-fly zone over Libya, or that Yemeni security forces killed a 14-year-old boy.

The Arab League issued a statement Saturday saying that the Gadhafi regime had "lost its sovereignty" and asked the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone to prevent further air strikes against civilians. Still, no U.N. action is imminent. The 22-member Arab League also agreed to open talks with the National Libyan Council, the rebels' fledgling interim government.

The modest crowds that picketed outside the Arab League complex included exiles from Yemen and Libya, along with dozens of their Egyptian sympathizers. They made rosy projections for a transformed Middle East, but privately lamented the blows of the past week.

Nagmat al Ola, a Libyan from Benghazi who lives in Cairo, said her optimism for her home country evaporated when nations such as Syria and Algeria announced their support for Gadhafi in recent days. Dejected, she listed how Arab leaders clinging to power have all responded to protesters' calls for reforms with private militias, live ammunition and media crackdowns. Others have tried to buy off their seething populations.

"It seems like all the Arab governments don't learn or look around. They're all the same: same attitude and same dictatorship," al Ola said. "We're not sheep. We're humans. It's not a matter of money and oil and villas. We have to be treated as humans and have some democracy."

Demonstrations staged last week in Syria and Saudi Arabia were touted as crucial tests to show whether the protest movement was powerful enough to challenge two of the region's most heavy-handed regimes. In both instances, the state won.

In Syria, dozens of "prisoners of conscience" went on a hunger strike and 12 human rights groups issued a statement calling for "the amendment of all laws that prevent human rights organizations from working openly and freely."

But the Syrian government was able to stop large crowds from gathering, and the Arabic press made little mention of the attempted demonstrations. President Bashar al Assad further infuriated Arab protesters by pledging support for Libya's Gadhafi, who's said to be receiving weapons from Syria to use against the rebels.

The outcome in the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a stalwart U.S. ally, was similarly dismal for the protesters. Witnesses said riot police were bumper-to-bumper in Riyadh, the capital. Protesters couldn't pierce the security cordon to walk to agreed-upon demonstrations sites, and the roads were blocked from all sides.

The only protests that gathered steam were in the majority-Shiite Muslim east, and even those were quickly put down. The combination of low protester turnout and the aggressive reaction of security forces left many activists worried about Saudi Arabia's potential for reform.

"What happens now in Libya and Yemen will definitely affect the Saudi government's attitude," said Alia al Farid, a Saudi human rights activist who's been jailed in the past for her work. "As long as the government keeps ignoring the demands, I don't know how far the protest can go and how negative the situation will become."

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