In late 2010, almost ten years ago, a Tunisian street vendor who went by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire as a response to state officials harassing him in an attempt to shut down his business with no valid reason. This hopeless act of one individual, set off a domino effect across the Middle East that consisted of fed up and oppressed youth taking on the streets.
The protests against government corruption started in Tunisia in December 2010, with the goal of reforming the political system headed at the time by Zine el-Abidine, who was in power for 23 years. This was the spark needed for a revolution that spread across North Africa and the Middle East. A combination of political subjugation and poor economies led to the spread of the protests to 19 out of the 22 Arab nations.
Why did it start?
All these countries had a common factor, their unique version of a dictator who ruled the country with an iron fist for at least over a decade. The countries’ intelligence services suppressed the people in addition to being subjected to martial law in most cases. We saw this with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya, Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and so on. The combination of these two factors lead to a strictly controlled population that suffers from injustice and lack of freedom. Dr. Ayman Shaheen, who lectures at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said that this combination led to the “loss of liberties, democracy and the most basic rights.”
Dr. Shaheen continued, “losing the middle class leads to an unstable society”, this is another key reason to why the Arab Spring started. Even though most Arab countries’ GDPs were on the rise, the rich only got richer and the poor got poorer, this led to the elimination of the middle class. The Arab population suffered from unemployment rates that reached 30% and severe inequality in wealth distribution. This is why it was the disappearing middle class that started the protests and later on the remaining population joined in.
The final reason is the technological revolution. Not so long ago the only source of information that the citizens in the Middle East received was from their government owned TV, radio and newspapers. However, now the regular Arab citizen has access to international media, they can see how other people are living, what rights they have and so on. This encouraged the Arab public to demand similar rights and freedoms, thus leading to the protests. In addition to this, mass protests, especially in Egypt, were organised using social media as they were led by the diminishing middle class who have access to the internet.
So how did it go?
In short, not so well. Good news anywhere is hard to find, in contrast to the entire world, levels of extreme poverty and civilian fatalities have increased in the Arab countries. Dr. Vincent Durac, who lectures on Middle Eastern politics in University College Dublin, agrees that the Arab Spring has done more harm than good to most of the Arab population, at least so far.
The Arab Spring seemed to be a great success at the beginning, the power of the people pulled through and many governments gave up power. However, the troubles came soon after. After being ruled with an iron fist for decades and suddenly that regime falling, it leaves a huge void in power that needs to be filled. Unfortunately, the organisations that capitalised on this vacuum were exactly like previous regimes, they did not give their populations any form of political freedom or economic growth. There are a number of specific examples of this:
Dr. Durac said, “Egypt is under even more repressive rule than was the case under Mubarak or Sadat”, so what went so wrong?
After 18 days of persistent demonstrations in Cairo, Mubarak stepped down after 30 years in office, this ushered in an era of political chaos and instability in the country. In June 2012, Mohamed Morsi was elected as Egypt’s president and the Egyptian public could not be more proud of their uprising, however that did not last for long. In June 2013, a military coup took place led by Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who since then has been the Egyptian president. Security forces under El-Sisi massacred 1,000 protesters in a single day weeks after he gained power, it signalled the return to the iron fist days.
Libya, Syria & Yemen
At least Egypt has a functioning government. Libya, Syria and Yemen are considered to be ‘Failed states’; they failed to establish a single governing unit that can impose control over the whole nation and its citizens. For the past 10 years since Gaddafi, in Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Yemen, were toppled off, Libya and Yemen have been in chaos.
However in Syria, Russian backed president, Al-Assad, is still holding onto power after eradicating 5 million Syrians from their country whilst fighting American backed Syrian opposition army. Yemen is being used as a battleground by the Saudis and the Emirates against Iran. The Iraniains are supporting the Houthi rebels while the opposition is supporting the Yemeni government. This proxy war is leaving over 20 million Yemenis suffering from severe hunger, “Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” according to UNICEF.
Finally, Libya is set back hundreds of years as slave trading is now common practice, hundreds of armed militias roam the country claiming land. Turkey has recently intervened in Libya to try and take control of key untouched oil reserves as well as the last port for refugees before crossing the Mediterranean into Europe. Expectedly, the Turks clashed with Khalifa Hafter’s forces backed by the Russians and the Emirates who have similar interests in the region, this head to head battle has only cost Libyans more loss of civilian lives. Dr. Durac stated that an “instrumental pursuit of regime security is the thread underpinning much of this”.
Tunisia is the glimpse of hope that has followed from the Arab Spring. Following a month of persistent protests, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down from power and since then Tunisians have exercised their democratic rights freely electing three presidents.
The secret to Tunisia’s success is the fact that they are the most mature Arab population, and this is thanks to the first regime led by Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba and Ben Ali gave Tunisians all freedoms par political ones, creating a civil and open society.
However, towards the end of Ben Ali’s term, the wealth disparity started to become significant and therefore the middle class started to disappear thus triggering the “Jasmine revolution” in 2010. Although the country has still significant economic and political issues to overcome, Dr. Durac said, “the mere survival of a more plural political system is a success.”
What are the consequences?
A direct result of the Arab spring has been the rise and relative fall of the Muslim Brotherhood which is a transnational organisation that formed political parties in many Arab nations. In 2012, Morsi won the Egyptian elections starting the Muslim Brotherhood rule in the country.
Morsi’s party, Freedom and Justice, decided to make extreme changes in a short period of time. The constitution was re-written reversing the decision to contest the presidency, courting Salafis instead of the secular opposition and bills were passed that made many Egyptians feel that the country is being “Islamised”.
Outside powers such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and EU opposed the Muslim Brotherhood and thus made it hard for them to succeed. Dr. Durac mentioned that the Muslim Brotherhood are in no way out of the picture, they are behind an number of political and religious groups such as Hamas in Palestine, Al-Islah in Yemen and Al-Nahda in Tunisia. Tunisia’s Al-Nahda party learned the lesson from Egypt’s Morsi and decided to take a more open and slow approach, thus its relative popularity amongst Tunisians.
Dr. Durac continued by saying that “there are aspects of the uprisings that have not fully played out yet”. These include a more educated and aware Arab population that wants their rights. We are slowly seeing this play out in the so-called “Arab Spring 2.0” over the last two years, during which we are seeing persistent protests in economically and politically oppressed countries such as Iraq and Lebanon. As a direct result of that we have what Dr. Shaheen describes as “Arab leaders that began to realise that economic growth and keeping their people happy is the way to stay in power”. This is demonstrated by El-Sisi’s ambitious infrastructure projects.
In retrospect, the Arab Spring has definitely given rise to many calamities amongst the populations that started it, however political and ideological change is happening, regardless of how slow. Dr. Shaheen sees it as a “continuous struggle”. It will take decades for a full political reform that gives rise to complete political freedom. For democracy to succeed, there must be a decent economic system in place, meaning an evident majority of the middle class. Otherwise, wealth disparity will allow politicians to buy the votes of the disadvantaged people who are looking for the basic necessities.
Ahmed Jouda – Politics Writer