The Arab Spring – 5 Years On13 min read

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Five years ago, a series of unprecedented uprisings and demonstrations broke out in countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Protesters took to their streets to demonstrate against their governments, in what came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’. It began in Tunisia in December 2010 when a young Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a suicide protest over unemployment and police harassment. What followed was to forever shake up the Arab world. The subsequent collapse of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak acted as a catalyst for regime change in other countries. Within weeks, uprisings and demonstrations began to spread across the region. Most demonstrators had sought to voice their grievances, primarily against inequality and repression.

It became increasingly apparent that there were two main scenarios that could unfold; either a continuous fall of remaining Arab governments, or the stark possibility of chaos and civil war. At first, many anticipated that the former would play out. It was believed that the “Arab Spring” could potentially bring an end to long-term regimes in the region and bring in a new era of fresh government that would deliver even more political reform, social justice and economic growth. Fast forward five years, and rather than a process of an organic democratic transition, the Arab world is engulfed in turmoil, war and conflict, entrenched authoritarianism and the worst refugee crisis of our generation. Below I take a look at the main countries involved in the Arab Spring and how they each fare five years on.

Tunisia

The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia unleashed the beginning of protests and revolts that was to shake up the Middle East and North Africa. On January 14th 2011 protesters forced Zein al Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s ruler since 1987, from office as he fled to Saudi Arabia. The fall of Ben Ali took the French-speaking world by surprise. Prior to this, the rest of the world showed limited interest in countries in North Africa as headlines centred on countries in the Middle East.

Despite Ben Ali’s departure, violence and looting continue in cities. Three interim governments took place before the first democratic elections. On 23rd October 2011, for the first time since the uprising, Tunisians were able to vote genuine democratic fashion. The election appointed members to a Constituent Assembly charged with the responsibility of rewriting Tunisia’s Constitution. The formerly banned Islamic party Ennahda won with 41% of the total vote. The Ennahda went into coalition with left wing socialists from the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol parties. Nidaa Tounes, a secularist political party, now rules the country after having won a plurality of seats in the October 2014 parliamentary election.

In 2015, Tunisia became the first Arab state ever to be considered fully “free” by Freedom House, an American monitor of civil liberties. (Although what American NGOs considers to be correct conduct doesn’t necessarily align with the reality on the ground: consider Freedom House’s assessment of Israel, for example). Additionally, Tunisia moved up a record 32 places among countries vetted by the Vienna-based Democracy Ranking Association, which is received with generally more credibility amongst many Arabs than Freedom House. Despite positive strides, three major attacks last year by Islamist militants in a Sousse beach resort and a suicide bombing in the capital proved to be setbacks that hit the tourist industry, a key source of revenue for Tunisia.

Nonetheless, five years on from the uprisings that ousted Ben Ali’s regime, the country has managed to avoid the bloody civil wars that are fragmenting other Arab countries. Thus, Tunisia’s story has come to represent a successful symbol of regime change in the region.

Egypt

After Tunisia, the government of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt became the target of demonstrations and violent clashes between protesters and security forces as people demanded greater democracy through economic, political and constitutional reforms. After eighteen days of protest, Mubarak resigned on 11th February 2011.

Following Mubarak’s departure, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was elected president. However, during his year in power, Egyptians remained dissatisfied as Morsi seemed to be more concerned with establishing his political control as opposed to dealing with the economic and social problems that had been the cause of Mubarak’s fall. After a long term ban on the group, this was Morsi’s one chance to show the world that the Muslim Brotherhood could successfully rule in Egypt, but Morsi proved to be a political failure. On 3rd July 2013, the military deposed President Morsi in a coup d’état led by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

Having passed a new constitution, Sisi resigned from his military position and won the presidential election with 97% of the vote. Whilst the figure seems unrealistically high for a true democratic election, none of the main opposition parties formally contested the result (whether or not this was their complete choice is unclear). Politically, Sisi’s regime means more of the same for Egyptians. He continues to clamp down on journalists in an attempt at preventing dissent and government criticism. He has banned thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and allegedly arrested thousands of its supporters. However, in comparison to other countries in the region, the Egyptians may find themselves lucky to not experience the chaos and bloodshed of some other countries engulfed in the Arab Spring.

The events in Tunisia and Egypt undoubtedly inspired protesters in other Arab countries to take to the streets and voice their own grievances. By then, many had come to the position that, if the people’s protests in these two countries could remove their long-term rulers, the same could be true for other regimes.

Libya

Within a matter of months, clashes broke out in Libya between forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and those who were seeking to oust his government. On 18th February, security forces withdrew from Benghazi after being overwhelmed by protesters leading to some security personnel eventually joining the protesters. The protests spread across the country as anti-Gaddafi forces established a provisional government in Benghazi, called the National Transitional Council (NTC), with the aim of overthrowing Gaddafi’s government. On 19th March 2011, some NATO members launched a military operation against the Libyan regime. By October, Gaddafi’s regime had fallen and he had been captured and killed in his native town of Sirte. Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project listed 6,109 fatalities from 15th February to 23rd October 2011, of which 1,319 died prior to NATO intervention.

The inability of Libya’s rival governments, the Tripoli-based General National Council and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives to cooperate on security concerns has hampered Libya’s ability to tackle the wave of Islamist extremism that soon swept Libya. Five years after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya is engulfed by instability, civil war and the rise of Daesh. A political and security vacuum in the country has allowed Daesh to grow and establish a strong base in Sirte, on the shores of the Mediterranean coast. Outside of Syria and Iraq, Libya is the only country in which Daesh actively controls territory. As anti-IS forces are fighting in Iraq and Syria, Daesh’s branch in Sirte has been mostly spared; Daesh in Libya were, however, forced out of Derna earlier this year. The UN-backed government of Sarraj must now find a way to address the growth of Daesh that plagues the nation if he is to gain some trust among many sceptical Libyans.

Yemen

Former-President Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled Yemen from 1990 to 2012, having ruled North Yemen since 1978. The first official protest took place in Sana’a, with over 16,000 demonstrators in 2011. Saleh’s call for reform was rejected and it was demanded that he resign immediately. Protests continued and began to increase in violence. After thirty-three years in power, Saleh stepped down in February 2012. During his time in power, Saleh was well known for suppressing southern Yemenis with his bureaucracy. He imposed tight restrictions on freedom of speech and was financially corrupt. Despite Yemen being the poorest Arab country, Saleh’s estimated worth is $60bn, making him amongst the richest rulers in modern history. President Mansur Hadi took over from Saleh as chaos of civil war erupted.

Hadi faced bitter political divisions as his government failed to bring security and address the rising sectarian tensions. Aside from dealing with Al-Qaeda in the South, President Hadi had to deal with the Houthis – a Zaydi Shia revivalist movement in the North. The Houthis eventually swept in and took control of the capital Sanaa in 2014, overthrowing the internationally-backed president Hadi. This triggered a military response from Saudi Arabia who believed Iran played a role in enabling the Houthis to gain control. Saudi Arabia began a bombing campaign with the aim of reinstating President Hadi and containing the Shia Houthi rebels who drove him out. According to the head of the International Red Cross, the destruction of Yemen is now similar to that seen in Syria, although this particular comparison has been met with some scepticism. According to the UN, one year after Saudi intervention, the death toll in Yemen has reached over 8,000; the Houthis still continue to control most of Yemen.

Bahrain

By February 2011, demonstrations had commenced in the city of Manama, the capital of Bahrain. However, unlike the other protests across the region, the protests in Bahrain had an extra sectarian dimension to them. With a population of around 1.3 million, Bahrain’s Shia majority constitute about 65-75% of the total population. They demanded economic and political freedom from the Saudi backed Al-Khalifa ruling family. Similar to its neighbouring country Saudi Arabia, the Al-Khalifa regime has a remarkable reputation of actively and systematically discriminating against Shias.

On 17th February 2011, protesters at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama were met with Bahraini security forces who launched a predawn raid using tear gas and firing birdshots upon protesters who had camped there. Over 300 people were injured as the day came to be known as Bahrain’s Bloody Thursday. Despite the clampdowns, uprisings grew and, on 14th March 2011, 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and 500 troops from UAE were deployed as Bahrain crushed more uprisings. To an extent, the regime’s efforts succeeded in breaking up large gatherings, as numerous notable human rights activists, such as Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab, were arrested, while others were tortured, detained and had their nationalities revoked. According to various reports, as of 2014, the uprisings had resulted in about 160 deaths and over 2,500 injuries.

Unlike other countries in the region, Bahrain received barely any media coverage. One reason for this was that many journalists were banned from entering the country and were faced with severe restrictions. However, another perspective is the reported bias of outlets such Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya due to their strategic relationships with the Saudi and Qatari governments who are strong allies of the Khalifa regime.

Five years on and not much has changed as Bahrain remains enmeshed in a political and human rights crisis. According Amnesty International, the monarchy continues to silence any demonstrators by using unnecessary force, arresting and torturing detainees and jailing protesters and political opposition leaders such as Ali Salman, the head of the official opposition party Al Wefaq. Whilst the government claim to have a commitment to reform, serious violations continue to occur on an extensive scale. As close Bahraini allies, the West and Britain, who continue to sell arms to Bahrain, have generally refrained from criticising the Bahraini monarchy. The state of human rights and politics in Bahrain remains dire as little has changed in practice.

Syria

26th January 2011 marked the day that many Syrians took to their streets to start demonstrating against President Bashar Al Assad. The protests escalated until the first mass protest took place on 15th March 2011, and continued to grow nationwide. State security forces reacted towards anti-government protesters by firing upon the civilians. Calls for reforms eventually turned into calls for regime change and, within a few months, a civil uprising transformed into a full blown civil war amongst Assad’s regime and various groups seeking to overthrow it. Like other countries involved in the Arab Spring, protesters insisted on the resignation of President Assad, whose family has been in power in Syria since 1971. Within a few months, the confrontations escalated to an armed insurgency as the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia supported both sides of the conflict by means of weapons and finance. Headed by Obama and Cameron, the West threatened to pursue military action in response to allegations of Assad using chemical weapons against civilians. However, MPs in the House of Commons voted against Britain’s involvement in military intervention as US congressional support seemed uncertain. This was a turning point in the Syrian Civil War as it became clear that the West would not intervene – much to the disapproval of the Saudi and Qatari governments.

According to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, around 470,000 people have since died. Amnesty International reports that more than 4.5 million Syrian refugees are spread across Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The UN estimates that 6.6 million people are internally displaced as 13.5 million people inside Syria are in need of assistance. The rise of the Nusra Front and IS, or Daesh, further complicates the picture. Daesh seized control over the Raqqa province and made its city its de facto capital. Meanwhile, President Assad, with support from Russia and Iran, has persistently argued that he is fighting terrorism.

On 27th February 2016, the US and Russia concocted a partial ceasefire which applied to Assad’s forces and those of “moderate” rebel groups fighting them, thereby excluding Daesh and the Nusra Front, amongst others. On 15th March 2016, Russia announced it would withdraw its troops from Syria, claiming that they had largely accomplished their objectives. Assad’s forces currently control Damascus, parts of southern Syria, Aleppo, Deir Az Zor, the northwestern coastal region, and most of area near the Syrian-Lebanese border. However, much of the country is now in ruins as millions of Syrians have either fled the country or are internally displaced, living through a savage civil war.

Conclusion

Aside from the situation in Tunisia, the hopes raised by the Arab Spring are a far cry from the reality of the status quo. Most of the civilians’ initial hopes and dreams for change in the region have long been demolished. Rather, the situation for most prior to the Arab Spring was arguably much better, at least for the foreseeable future. Aside from the death toll, other civilians, mostly from Syria, are either internally displaced or in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. As many as 10 million people across the region are living in areas controlled by Daesh who have cultivated the seeds of barbarism and violence, and amplified the strong sense of sectarianism amongst Arab. Hence, five years after the beginning of the Arab Spring phenomena, the MENA region as a whole is arguably far more violent, polarised and destabilised – but it is unclear whether any long-term benefits may emerge that could outweigh the heavy price Arabs are paying in the short-term.