Tensions Simmering 1 Year After Arab Spring

The nations that were touched by that movement are still struggling with uncertainty — from the violence in Syria, to confusion in Yemen and unease with Egypt's elections. Host Michel Martin and Al Jazeera Washington bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara discuss those issues, and rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it's been just over a year since Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution ousted the country's longtime leader. That's considered the dramatic start to what's become known as the Arab Spring. In just a few minutes we will hear from the son of a prominent Iranian dissident. He'll talk about his father's letter to Tunisians warning of the lessons of the Iranian revolution lesson.

That's in just a few minutes but first we want to check in on some of the pressing stories throughout the Middle East and the surrounding region. A year after the start of the Arab Spring, Syria's government continues to cling to power using violence to suppress protests there. In Egypt, a prominent moderate has dropped out of its presidential race and increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran are putting the whole region on edge. Joining us to talk about these issues once again is Abderrahim Foukara.

He is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al Jazeera International. He's a frequent guest on this program for conversations about the Middle East. Thank you so much for joining us once again. And Happy New Year to you.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Same to you.

MARTIN: Let's talk first about Syria. It's been ten months since protests began there. Demonstrators and their sympathizers are still being attacked and killed by government troops. Now, it's hard to know exactly how many because news reports are so heavily restricted. But this weekend, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used some very strong language and I'm quoting here. He said, "I say again to President Assad of Syria: stop the violence, stop killing your people." Is there any evidence that he's listening?

FOUKARA: Yes and no. I mean, he knows that the pressure has been compounding and obviously he's been counting on the Russians and the Chinese to help him out and I think what Ban Ki-moon was saying there; he was talking as much to Bashar as he was talking to the Security Council, and he wants the Security Council to act in unison in terms of, you know, the killing that's happening about - that's happening in Syria. And now we're talking about over 5,000 people killed in Syria over the last ten months. And we don't even know how accurate that number is.

But there are signs that he's listening, Bashar is listening. But there are also signs that he still feels that he can deal with the situation with these security measures and bring it to an end.

MARTIN: Now, let's go to Egypt there. In Egypt, a high-profile candidate has dropped out of the running for the presidency there. This is a person I think many people in the West - a name they will know, Mohamed ElBaradei. He won the Nobel Prize for his work with the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005. He said that the people running the country are holdovers from the Hosni Mubarak regime. What do you think it means that he dropped out of the race and what does that suggest for the upcoming presidential election?

FOUKARA: Well, I mean, first of all, ElBaradei has always been looked at by Egyptians in two different ways. One way is that they've always been proud of him, that he's the face of Egypt internationally. He was the head of the International Atomic Agency. Very proud that an Egyptian was in that position. But there was also the other way of looking at him, which is that he's an outsider and he came from overseas.

And many Egyptians thought that he came overseas with, if not an outsider agenda, then at least a foreign perspective on Egyptian politics. So, when he dropped out a lot of people thought - that in Egypt felt - that he was sending a clear message that the transition is not happening the way it should have been happening, that the military are intent on clinging to power. But a lot of them thought, who does he think he is?

He comes from outside and then he wants to run against Islamist movements that are well entrenched in the country that have always been present. They were repressed under the previous regime, and who were very active socially in terms of providing health and education. But I think overall it says regardless of how he's moved to drop out of the race, I think it sends a serious message that something has gone seriously wrong since the so-called revolution that started a year ago.

MARTIN: At least in terms of the diversity of political perspectives that are to be part of the immediate next future of Egypt.

FOUKARA: Absolutely, I mean, there was in the initial stages of the revolution lead by young people who did not particularly subscribe to any particular ideology, the hope was that the Islamist parties, if they were a free and fair election, would get 25 to 30 percent of the vote, and we have seen that they went well beyond that. We're talking about 65 to 70 percent of the vote.

Not just to the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties, whereas the liberals, such as ElBaradei and others have not actually done so well. But this is a process, obviously; the people in the region feel that this is a process, the end of which we do not know how it's going to actually be.

MARTIN: And finally, another conflict which we've seen open at the moment: these increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran over the Straits of Hormuz, where Iran is threatening to close it. You know, I think a fifth of the world's daily trade of oil passes through there everyday. How serious a situation is this, or is this one of the episodic wars of words that seems to erupt between these two countries every now and again?

FOUKARA: There are a lot of people in the region who were seriously worried about the rhetoric, the current rhetoric between the United States and Iran, particularly in places such as Saudi Arabia. There's been a sort of cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There's a lot of fear in Israel. Among the Arabs there's a feeling that maybe the war, the ratcheting up of the rhetoric is to put pressure on the Iranians because that's what the Israeli's want. But there are so many people who want that.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. Abderrahim, thank you so much for joining us once again. He is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al Jazeera International. So many important stories, so little time. And he was here with us in Washington, D.C.

FOUKARA: It's good to be with you.

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