Robert Nielsen reflects on months of turmoil in the Middle East

Chaos theory states that something as small as a butterfly flapping its wings could start a chain of reactions that could cause a hurricane. This could be applied to the Arab Spring which began on December 17 2010 when Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire out of frustration with life in Tunisia. This set off a series of ripples that has shaken the Arab world to its core and led to the collapse of three separate dictatorships.

Until 2011 the Middle East was a place of repressive dictators who lived in splendour while their people lived in dire poverty. Its leaders were senile and out of touch. The societies had stagnated, mind unemployment was enormous and food prices were high. A year later, a wave of popular protest has completely redrawn the map. Dictators have fled and those that remain are increasingly unsteady, with many promising reforms. No area has escaped criticism. There were protests in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen.

Bouazizi’s death was the spark for all of this. He set himself on fire in protest against a corrupt and oppressive regime that left its people with few opportunities. He had been robbed by the police for refusing to pay a bribe. This was a frustration that many Tunisians could relate to and inspired thousands to take to the streets in sympathy. These protests expanded to demand an end to the one party state with its lack of freedom and human rights abuses.

This provided inspiration to Egyptians and Libyans, who likewise were suffering under similarly despotic, corrupt and brutal dictators. A hundred thousand people crammed into Tahrir Square in the centre of Cairo, staying until the Egyptian dictator Mubarak ended his 30 year reign. However, the Libyan dictator Gaddafi sent security forces to attack protesters killing hundreds. This provoked an uprising and the country descended into civil war. NATO decided to come to the aid of the rebels and launch airstrikes on Gaddafi’s forces. For months there was fierce fighting before the capital was seized in August and Gaddafi was capture d and killed in October.

Not everywhere was as successful. Protests in Bahrain and Yemen led to oppression, arrests and round ups of those who didn’t agree with the government. Troops responded to protests by firing on marchers, killing scores and denying medical treatment to the wounded. In Syria tanks were sent to deal with protesters and artillery was fired on whole neighbourhoods. Some soldiers refused to attack unarmed protesters and mutinied. According to the United Nations over seven thousand people have been killed during the country’s descent into civil war.

It is unclear what will happen next. Free and democratic elections were recently held in Egypt and Tunisia. In both cases the Islamist party won the most votes, but not a majority. Many commentators have expressed concern at the support that the Islamist parties received. There are also questions about who will replace the dictators. There have been reports in Libya of the rebels’ summarily executing suspected opponents. The large number of armed militias is a significant threat to law and order. The government that replaced Gaddafi has been accused of corruption and incompetence. The Egyptian armed forces have clamped down on protesters, driving them from Tahrir Square, something not even Mubarak did.

This time last year, people across North Africa and the Middle East rose up and demanded freedom. Some successfully threw off the chains of oppression, while others still struggle against them. It remains to be seen what will happen next, but it is clear that all is changed, changed utterly.


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