At the end of 2010, a street vendor by the name of Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest of his treatment by police when they seized his food stand. This individual act was the spark that set the fuel that was Arab discontent in the region alight. Spurring on the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia and eventually the Arab spring across the region. Changes were made, regimes were overthrown and dictators were killed, but what has happened to this transnational movement that pushed for, both successfully and unsuccessfully, changes across so many countries?
The Arab Spring was located primarily in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Oman and Bahrain. However, the extent to which the uprisings had any effect differed significantly from country to country. Some were successful in overthrowing decades long authoritarian regimes and others were shut down before they could make any real impact. And some saw the issues that spurred on the uprisings like high unemployment, high inflation, corruption and a lack of political freedoms change for the better and sometimes the worse.
The uprisings called for more democracy, greater transparency and the end of the brutality of aging Arab dictatorships. In Tunisia, where the protests began against the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, there was a significant amount of success in improving the lives of many Tunisians from a Human Rights perspective after the resignation Ben Ali in January of 2011.
Democracy was relatively quickly implemented and Moncef Marzouki was elected as Prime Minister 10 months after the old dictator’s resignation. However, it wasn’t smooth sailing from there, the Tunisian government saw multiple assassinations of high ranking politicians and public officials within 2 years of its new democratic system coming into effect. Also, there was a crackdown on a number of freedoms the movement was pushing to achieve, such as freedom of association and religious freedom.
In Libya, we saw the overthrow of Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi, who was commonly known as Colonel Gaddafi. His governments collapse and his brutal death in the streets in Sirte, Libya also didn’t bring about the changes many had hoped for. Libya quickly fell into a state of chaos and eventually a civil war emerged with multiple sides competing for control of the country. These included militias supported by the United Nations as well as groups with links to Islamic State (IS).
This state of chaos allowed many groups who had previously been controlled and even banned from the country to gain support and move in capturing vast swathes of Libyan territory. A situation similar to Islamic States takeover of much of Iraq. Libya is still, to this day, suffering from a civil war that isn’t showing any signs of slowing down in the near future.
Egypt was different, or so it seemed, as protests throughout the capital in Cairo and the country emerged and calls for a real democracy started to get louder. Eventually, after killing protestors in their hundreds and clamping down on social media sites that allowed protestors to organise protests, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s dictator, stepped down on February the 11th, 2011. This historic event showed the world that sacrifices and civilian protests could topple a decades long dictatorship, although at great cost.
Egypt quickly went about picking up the pieces of a country that had suffered greatly over the last several months. On the 24th of June 2012, arguably the first true democratic election took place and saw the election of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhoods candidate, who won by a small margin.
He didn’t last long though, in 2014 after 2 years of economic instability Morsi was overthrown and the constitution was suspended. A new constitution was established that outlined future elections and on the 28th of May 2014, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected as Egypt’s newest President. Just prior to Sisi’s election, its estimated that up to 20,000 dissidents and activists were arrested by the government set up after Morsi’s overthrow. The rise of Sisi is feared by many to merely be the rise of another dictator and many of his opponents have already begun labelling him as such.
In Syria, as many would well know, the protests there that were a part of the Arab spring began a civil war that’s lasted almost 7 years and will most likely continue into the near future. Syria’s civil war, for the most part, has become a proxy war between rival powers in the region and its geopolitical importance is becoming increasingly obvious as rival regional powers, mainly Turkey, Russia and Iran, compete by supporting one group over another for control over Syria. Syria is, as of late, unfortunately not a success story of the Arab spring.
In Yemen, a situation similar to that of Syria emerged with protests against the government being clamped down on and a civil war emerging as a result of the oppression. Economic instability, corruption, authoritarianism, poverty and unemployment all contributed to the eventual protests and civil war in 2011 against long-time President and dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh however, resigned in 2012 and handed power over to his Vice-President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. This unfortunately didn’t lead to a major shift in Yemen’s political structure or human rights as a civil war, as well as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has engulfed the country causing a famine affecting an estimated 17 million.
In Oman, Bahrain and several other Arab countries the Arab spring didn’t amount to much as the governments were quick to learn from the examples found in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Some changes were made, although they tended to be minor political rearrangements.
The Arab spring started out with an amazing amount of potential and promise. The protestors chant’s for more democracy and less corruption saw the rest of the world look on with extreme interest at what seemed to be the start of a total transformation of the Middle East.
However, the protests brought on civil war in Libya, Syria and Yemen and led to the birth of what looks to be a dictatorship in Egypt. This isn’t to argue that the protestors were responsible for what happened, more so that the political institutions, role of the military and fundamental cultural aspects need to change before any major political shifts occur in the region.
Basically, the Middle East doesn’t appear to be in a better position now than it did prior to the Arab spring, even if Tunisia is slightly better off. Before the Middle East and Arab world shift in a democratic direction fundamental tenets within those societies will have to transform or cease to exist in order for proper, lasting change to ensue.