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The Arab Spring: ten years on

A decade ago, the Arab Spring shook the Arab World. Today, Syria, Libya and Yemen remain embroiled in brutal civil wars while Egypt is under military autocracy. Thousands have been killed and millions have become refugees, extremists such as ISIS have seen a rise, and even Tunisia touted as a ‘success story’, is suffering from bureaucratic gridlock and facing dire economic hardship. 10 years from its start, it is time to examine the contents of this Pandora’s box; what caused it to be opened, and whether there remains any hope. 

Living in Morocco in 2011, months before the Arab Spring erupted there, I was painfully aware of the authoritarian grip and high level of corruption in the country. Police corruption was blatantly obvious, fabricating law infringements to collect fines and accepting bribes to turn a blind eye to numerous crimes. State welfare provision was severely limited, the education system a complete farce, and some village schools hadn’t seen a single teacher for a whole year. Public healthcare was limited to the cities, and even then, it was dismal. A third of all workers were unemployed with limited welfare benefits, meaning that many had to beg or take seasonal work in Europe to live. Similar and even worse patterns of corruption, authoritarianism and dire socio-economic conditions were common throughout North Africa and much of the Middle East. With such a combination of circumstances, it was only a matter of time before people stopped passively acquiescing to these conditions, and when they did, there would be a violent chain reaction throughout the Arab world.

On the 17th December 2010, the spark came following the self-immolation of a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, outside the Governor’s office in Sidi Bouzidi, Tunisia, in protest against government corruption, becoming the martyr figurehead of the Jasmine Revolution and igniting revolution across North Africa and the Middle East. Inspired by the apparent success in Tunisia, mass demonstrations and violent protests saw the overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt, after 30 years of authoritarian rule. The call for “Freedom, justice and bread” echoed through Tahrir square, encapsulating the demands of the protestors across the Arab world. Dissent spread rapidly and protests erupted in Libya, Yemen and Syria, rapidly turning violent and undermining their authoritarian regimes.

While countries such as Morocco and Bahrain did see some unrest during the Arab Spring, this remained isolated to the cities, and even there did not attract the scale of support seen across Syria and Tunisia. Morocco was plagued with equally dire economic conditions, high unemployment rising oil and food prices, an ever-growing wealth inequality gap and high poverty rates. The state was hardly less autocratic, the King had absolute power and high levels of government corruption sparked mass outrage. How then did King Muhammad remain standing amid the toppling dictators?

In stark contrast to many of the Arab leaders, the Moroccan monarchy’s stability is anchored by its traditional integration into the culture. King Mohammad VI’s lineage can be traced back more than three centuries, causing his legitimacy to be unquestioned. Children pray for the monarch every morning in school and all houses have a photo of the king. The idea of usurping the monarch was and remains unfathomable. Whereas other authoritarian rulers had been politicians who expanded their own powers and created dictatorships, in Morocco, the monarch’s authoritarianism culturally embedded. This ensured that while there remains a high level of corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency, the institution of the monarchy remains highly integrated and thus much more stable. 

Further, while other dictators had been consolidating their own power and restricting the people, in Morocco the government had already been gradually introducing reforms to liberalise the country. In Egypt, Mubarak had ruled for 30 years, while in Libya Gadaffi had been in power for 43 years, and both had sought to implement reforms to secure their positions. Since his ascension, Muhammad VI had been gradually giving greater rights to women, increasing decentralisation and introduced an independent commission to handle claims of human rights violations. Both he and King Hamad of Bahrain had been gradually introducing reforms to turn their respective countries into constitutional monarchies. Rather than calling for a complete overthrow of the system as had been the case in many Arab countries, therefore, the people called for increased democratisation of the existing regime. As a consequence, protests were reformative in nature, ensuring the smooth transition of the Moroccan state to a constitutional monarchy and therefore preventing violent clashes and power struggles. 

In countries where the revolutions posed a real threat to the governments, there was a great disparity of outcomes. In Libya, the government repeatedly opened fire on unarmed civilians with live ammunition, or attacked protesters with warplanes and armed helicopters, while in Syria, Assad used chemical weapons, causing over 1,400 casualties. This power struggle and extensive use of force seem to be one of the main contributors to the deterioration into civil war. Taking advantage of the unrest, rebel groups and extremists rose to prominence, fragmenting the fighting, which then deteriorated into a brutal civil war that still rages on to this day. Greater success was achieved when the autocrats were overthrown with minimal struggle. Tunisia is heralded as the success story of the Arab Spring, having overthrown their President, Ben Ali, with a relative lack of force. They were then successful in implementing democracy, drafting a new constitution and holding free elections within the year. This decisive overthrow and quick imposition of a new government before divisions could turn into a civil war seem to be one of the major reasons for Tunisia’s success. The prolonged power struggle in the other Arab countries led to the fragmentation of the conflict and foreign intervention, obscuring the intention of the revolution and causing them to drag on. 

Conflicts were further exacerbated by protesters’ failure to recognise that while the removal of an authoritarian regime is the first step in democratisation, it is merely the precursor to a much greater struggle; implementing and ensuring maintained support for a stable democratic system. After the fall of any leader, let alone an authoritarian one, there is a power vacuum that requires strong and decisive leadership to fill. In the wake of the Arab Spring, such decisiveness was impossible. Authoritarians desperately defending their position of power, rival rebel groups, extremists and foreign intervention all exacerbated the conflict, convoluting it and preventing a smooth transition to new leadership. In Egypt, the power and decisiveness of the military meant that they could step in during the instability while implementing a new democracy, thereby crushing it and effectively reinstating a new authoritarian regime. Tunisia, however, had a rapid transition; overthrowing Ben Ali without prolonged struggle, in under a month, implementing an interim government almost immediately and holding free elections within a year. This rapid progression prevented growing unrest and reduced instability, therefore, ensuring that a smoother transition to democracy.

Technology played a vital role in the spread of dissent. In Libya, the revolutionary leaders set up satellite dishes and live-streamed messages throughout the country. Social media was used extensively to organise protests and publicise government atrocities, catalysing the revolutions. This was especially powerful due to severe levels of censorship and control of the media, allowing the scale of unrest to be recognised and messages of the protestors to spread rapidly. While this did have an impact within the country, internet access was limited, with only 65% of all Egyptians having access to social media. It was, however, essential in communicating the progression of the conflict to the outside world. Due to high levels of government control over the media, social media was the only accessible platform from which revolutionaries could freely relay the events of the conflict.

Foreign powers were severely detrimental to the course of the civil wars, convoluting the conflict and obscuring the aims. While many powers entered the wars on the grounds of combatting the atrocities enacted by the government, it has become increasingly clear this is not their sole motivation. In 2018, Trump removed all troops from Syria, leaving only a base near the large gas fields in northern Syria. In Libya, the highly contested oil fields at Al-Sharara remain the centre of the conflict. Control over the crude oil supply has a serious impact on the international oil market and hence on global economies, giving foreign powers significant incentive to interfere. 

Further, it allowed global powers to promote their national image and values by engaging in indirect conflict with one another. Foreign interference thus led to proxy wars being fought in Syria, Yemen and Libya allowing the US, Russia and other global powers to use existing conflicts as a ground to indirectly thrash out their differences. Supporting opposing sides allowed them to have a power struggle without coming into direct conflict. This has led to their own political agendas undermining the objectives of the war at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives. Thus, conflicts that were already convoluted, owing to fragmented rebel factions, were further complicated, causing them to drag on without a foreseeable solution. 

The legacy of the Arab Spring is devastating. In Libya, the last 10 years have seen massacres, abductions, Jihadist occupation – and for what? The country remains embroiled in civil war, with no clear leader and no constitution, making it the perfect climate for trafficking, smuggling and piracy. Massacres and abductions by Jihadist forces and airstrikes from foreign forces are commonplace. The economy has completely collapsed, resulting in high levels of unemployment, while the few who are employed are left without their salary due to major cash flow problems. Multiple attempts to maintain peace have all fallen through largely due to internal divisions among different factions within Libya, and the UN is currently intervening to instate an interim government.

In Yemen, crumbling supply chains and infrastructure along with brutal civil war led to the worst famine globally in a century, with the UN estimating that in 2016, almost three-quarters of the Yemeni population lacked potable water and sanitation and a half lacked food. Almost 16 million were on the brink of starvation, with children dying of preventable causes every 10 minutes. Since then, Egypt has remained under military rule with over 60,000 political prisoners and a debt of over 125 billion dollars. Voices of dissent are immediately silenced, leaving Egypt remaining an incredibly oppressive country, which ranked in 2020 as 117 out of 160 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, a clear demonstration that the demands made in Tahrir Square are far from being met. 

While in contrast the Tunisian revolution appeared initially successful, the parliament in Tunisia is characterised by inefficiency and stagnation, leading to high levels of dissatisfaction. Many now claim that the objectives of democratisation have not been met, causing them to support other more decisive and radical movements such as extremists, the military or even the previous regime. Despite this, Tunisia is considered by Freedom House as the only free country in the Arab world. While the state is unstable, however, it has already come a long way in achieving the aims of the revolution. There remains hope that if it can withstand current discontent, the regime can reform and strengthen.

Following 10 tumultuous years, it is hard to see any hope for these war-scarred countries. The deep-rooted divisions and dire economic conditions in the aftermath of severe civil wars and military rule are enough to make even a strong, established democracy shudder. Are these the birthing pains of democracy or merely the long drawn out stifling of anti-authoritarian insurgency? The Arab Spring is far from over; voices still call for “Freedom, justice and bread”. The tragic reality is that these voices are gradually being suffocated. With millions displaced throughout the world and hundreds of thousands dead, the cost is hardly justified by any gains that have been made. A decade after the start of the Arab Spring, countries find themselves in a far worse situation, with little hope of the longed-for democracy and losing the energy to keep fighting. 

Image Credit: Maghrebia via Flickr & Creative Commons (License: CC BY 2.0).

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