Ten years ago, in an act of protest and rejection at being humiliated, an impoverished Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire outside a government office in his small hometown of Sidi Bouazid. Within days, Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, was dead, but his deed sparked the winds of change throughout the Middle East.
Tunisia became the birthplace of what was called the “Arab Spring,” as hundreds of thousands of people, fed up with decades of authoritarian rule and living in poverty, packed the streets of their capitals in surreal scenes, chanting as one: “The people want to topple the regime.”
That chant became an emblem uniting millions of Arabs throughout the region as they demanded an end to rampant corruption and called for freedom of expression and a fair share of their respective countries’ wealth.
As the protests spread throughout the Arab world, they delivered a blow to many people’s view of Arabs as apathetic, and resigned to their destiny of being ruled by authoritarian, autocratic dictatorships.
Dr. Tarek Cherkaoui, a manager at the Istanbul-based TRT World Research Centre, told The Media Line he was not surprised by the unfolding events.
“The Arab world is the only region that has been sidestepped by the democratization wave which followed the fall of the Berlin Wall [in 1989]. Decades of repression, human rights abuses and exploitation have invigorated the Arab public sphere, which became much more conscious of the need for change,” Cherkaoui said.
Osama al-Sharif, a veteran Jordanian journalist and political commentator, told The Media Line the widespread protests presented a serious challenge for the Arab governments.
“I think it was the first test of the deep state that created a ‘post-rule environment’ in the region. It was grassroots, youth-driven and seeking social justice, genuine political reform,” Sharif said.
Within weeks, thousands of Tunisians packing the streets of their capital, Tunis, forced President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, in power for 23 years, to flee to Saudi Arabia where he died in exile last year.
The events in Tunisia proved contagious. In neighboring Libya, violent protests overthrew longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi. In Egypt, demonstrations erupted in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011, soon toppling Hosni Mubarak from power after 30 years as president.
Similar demonstrations rattled other Arab countries, in places where the regimes had been thought to be untouchable, such as Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain and Yemen, with one thing on the minds of the millions on the streets: free and democratic rule.
But hope for change was shattered by a merciless, iron-fisted response from many of these governments, transforming peaceful demonstrations into bloody civil wars, and turning countries into battlefields for regional and global powers to settle scores.
“Iran, which is supposed to be diametrically opposed to the UAE/Saudi axis, was also fully engaged in crushing the forces of change in the Arab world. If we add other international forces to the mix, such as the Western powers and Russia, it becomes very clear that the Arab Spring 1.0 had little chance of achieving its objectives in the short run,” Cherkaoui said.
Some argue that countries touched by the Arab Spring are better off now than they were before. Others disagree.
Dr. Ammar Kahf, executive director of the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies and a member of the board of the Syrian Forum consortium of non-profit organizations, told The Media Line that “better off” was not the correct term. “‘Less worse’ or ‘more worse’ is more accurate,” he said.
“The Arabs did not have a dignified and honorable life. They were deprived of basic human rights for decades that added to mounting layers of systematic non-development. Nothing is worse than the condition was 10 years ago. Are we in a better place? Perhaps not yet,” Kahf said.
Ten years later, hope for change has fizzled, and many Arabs yearn for the days preceding the Arab Spring.
Daoud Kuttab, a prominent Amman-based Palestinian journalist, writer and analyst, told The Media Line the different national outcomes could be attributed to whether the countries had experience with democracy in the past.
“I think the biggest reason for the differences in results is the differences in the democratic environment in different countries. For example, Tunisia has had a good environment for unions and that has allowed for a more successful protest and longevity of the results,” he said.
The events produced only one relatively successful story, Tunisia. The aspiration for social and economic reform remains unrealized, giving way to repressive military rule in Egypt, and years of bloody civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen that led to millions of innocent civilian casualties, and even more internally displaced persons and refugees, with no end in sight.
“People realize that reform takes a much longer time and needs to have mature leaders who think of the day after, and that democracy and reform are not limited to electoral democracy,” said Kuttab.
Marina Ottaway, a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, told The Media Line that “even in Tunisia, which is considered the most successful in countries [touched by the Arab Spring], they fell far short of expectations.”
Ottaway argues that popular movements do not produce a great deal of success quickly. She gives the example of the feminist movement in the United States.
“The women’s suffrage [movement], the civil rights movement – 10 years of marches and demonstrations, they took a long time before they produced results. I’m not surprised that these movements have not been successful. What I’m more concerned about is I don’t see that these movements have shown an understanding about how popular movements are successful,” she said.
Ottaway advocates dialogue between the demonstrators and officials, saying that “it is important for protesters at some point to engage with the government.”
People realize that reform takes a much longer time and needs to have mature leaders who think of the day after, and that democracy and reform are not limited to electoral democracy
But many, if not all, of Middle East governments do not think major changes are needed. And they unanimously have accused protesters of being a tool of outsiders, falsely describing many as foreign agents in an attempt to demonize and discredit them.
“I recognize that it’s difficult to engage with many of these Middle East governments, but until that happens, I don’t think we’ll see a great deal of change,” she said.
To force government to accept change, Ottaway concedes that protests may have to continue.
“I think the way they can get to that point [of change] is by continuing the demonstrations, by changing their tactics somewhat at different times,” she added. “Little by little they can convince the government that they are never going to stop unless there’s real change.”
On whether there were any key moments that may have altered the outcome in at least one country, Kahf quickly responds.
“Yes, the chemical weapon attack in the Damascus suburb in 2014 and the JCPOA [2015 nuclear] deal with Iran were two pivotal moments. This is where regional and international countries were sold out and had to shift agendas to save their security and preserve their economies and societies. These were moments that affected North African countries as well as Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. These were dark moments that moved the anti-revolutionary regimes to come back again and resurge in their effort to push back on any change,” he said.
The cradle of the Arab Spring. Protests in the North African nation inspired the entire Middle East. Waves of thousands of Tunisians thirsting for freedom were replicated throughout the region.
A decade later, Tunisia has emerged from the Arab Spring as the only success story. It has a fragile democracy, with few social, economic or political reforms. Cherkaoui says it was able to stave off plunging into violence.
“Tunisia has been considered a successful model for its democratic transition. Whereas other Arab Spring countries were trapped in a downward spiral of civil war or military dictatorship, the political forces in Tunisia chose dialogue and cooperation instead, forming a secular-Islamist coalition government in 2011 and approving a constitution by near unanimity in 2014,” he said.
Prof. Safwan M. Masri, executive vice president for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University and the author of “Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly,” told The Media Line that despite long being ruled by an autocrat, Tunisians were not strangers to democracy.
“It worked in Tunisia for a number of reasons. It had an apolitical army. You contrast Tunisia with Egypt, for example; in Tunisia you had a very small army, a very large civil society rooted in a long, illustrious history of labor unionism, which played a big role in the national struggle for independence from French colonialism and continued to thrive under [president from 1957-1987, Habib] Bourguiba and then Bin Ali,” he said.
The country held elections last year, but political disputes continue to see it sinking deeper into economic misfortune, contributing to the latest round of protests in recent weeks across Tunisia’s poorer southern towns.
The next country to catch fire was Egypt. Signs of a successful revolution emerged after dictator Hosni Mubarak was forced out, and the first democratic election was held in June 2012. Mohamed Morsi became the country’s first democratically elected civilian president.
His election placed Washington in an awkward position; the US administration had championed free and democratic elections, only to be confronted with an Islamist as the new president.
On the streets, Morsi’s victory was immediately contested, and the US was accused of having helped the Islamists “steal the election” by not having opposed him and so betraying the democratic hopes of the Egyptian people.
A year later, Egypt’s military overthrew the elected president, and then Gen. Abdel Fatah el-Sisi became president.
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Supported by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Sisi still rules over a repressive regime. He crushed opposition, led a bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and, during the last seven years, freedoms and civil liberties have deteriorated.
Sharif says the Obama Administration played a confusing role regarding the events in Egypt.
“It will always be an interesting dilemma regarding how the Obama Administration responded to the building up of the Arab Spring. We have seen examples where the Obama Administration backed the Muslim Brotherhood rise [to power], like in Egypt for a while, only to abandon that and accept new realities with a military regime that has taken over,” he said.
A close ally of the United States, Cairo receives some $1.3 billion a year in American military aid, but that may be in jeopardy as President-elect Joe Biden’s administration is expected to hold Sisi’s government more accountable regarding human rights.
Next door in Libya, another drama was violently unfolding after protests against long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi erupted in February 2011. Ten years after the bloody overthrow of Gaddafi, the oil-rich desert nation is scarred by conflict and divided by civil war.
General Khalifa Haftar, based in the eastern city of Tobruk, is supported by Russia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Tripoli is held by the forces of the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), which receives crucial support from Turkey and Qatar.
Since the overthrow and killing of dictator Gaddafi during a NATO-backed uprising in 2011, Libya has been dominated by numerous armed groups, and divided between the two bitterly opposed administrations.
And after a decade of conflict, a cease-fire agreement was reached in October.
Protests erupted in Syria on March 15, 2011. They met with a brutal crackdown from President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, and the nation fell into chaos.
The conflict in Syria began when a group of teenage boys painted “The people demand the fall of the regime” on buildings in the southern city of Deraa.
In the ensuing decade, Assad employed an iron fist to defend the rule of his Alawite minority and to crush the opposition. More than 500,000 Syrians died and more than 5 million out of a population of 22 million fled the country.
Compounding the tragedy, Syria’s civil war has involved many global and regional players. Russia and Iran back the Assad government, while the United States and Europe back the rebels.
Meanwhile, the brutal so-called Islamic State organization, ISIS, seized control of a large swath of Syrian land to create a caliphate – a state ruled by extreme Islamic law.
It appears that Assad will remain in power with the help of Russia, Iran and the latter’s Lebanese proxy, Hizbullah.
The Arab Spring shook many countries around the region but, with the exception of Bahrain, the oil-rich Gulf monarchies escaped unscathed.
“Bahrain was challenged and it crushed the protesters. It did that violently and with the help of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain was able to successfully contain the protests and suppressed the movement, but the issues that brought people to the streets are still there and the kingdom did not introduce any reforms,” Masri said.
Some observers argue that the events over the last decades have weakened traditionally strong Arab states like Egypt and Syria and given rise to Gulf states, emboldening the likes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“Unfortunately, the initial successes encountered in some Arab Spring countries triggered heavy-handed reactions from the Gulf’s autocratic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which felt threatened by the democratic advance in some countries,” such as Tunisia and Egypt, Cherkaoui said.
Masri argues that other Gulf states managed to avoid political upheaval by buying off their citizens.
“Saudi Arabia was able to escape the events of the Arab Spring because of rentierism, which always has been the mainstay of oil-rich Gulf countries,” he said.
A rentier state is a country which derives all or a substantial portion of its national revenues from the rent paid by foreign individuals, businesses or governments.
Saudi Arabia immediately reached into its treasury to provide a large and much-needed financial incentive to its citizens, in anticipation of similar demonstrations in the desert kingdom, Masri says.
“[It] provided greater subsidies to its people, and that was a useful tool that they used. But unlike other monarchies, they were very tough and used violence in dealing with protesters in the Eastern Province,” where many members of the Shiite minority live, according to Masri.
Ottaway says that, feeling the heat, the Gulf monarchy accelerated its social and economic reforms, opening Saudi society to appease the young population.
“The governments in the Gulf realized that they are vulnerable and protest could happen there as well. A lot of the steps that [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman is taking, like opening up the country to more entertainment such as concerts and sports events, may be an attempt to buy off the dissatisfaction of the people and make sure there’s no uprising. I’m not sure he is going to succeed,” Ottaway said.
“I don’t think that there is any country or government left in the Middle East where they really believe this couldn’t happen to them,” she said.
As the Arab Spring spread across the region, the kingdom weathered the turmoil, avoiding a duplication of events in neighboring countries.
Jordan navigated its way “incredibly well” and remained more stable than many other Arab countries, Masri says.
“What we saw in these two countries [Jordan and Morocco] was a quick adaptation, [rapid] introductions of reforms, greater political participation, changes that were made in governments,” he said.
“In monarchies you have that kind of agility, many layers; you have the king and then you have the government and other institutions, where you can make changes in them; there is enough there to take the punch,” according to Masri. “Whereas in a place like Egypt or Syria or Libya, it’s all concentrated around the one leader, the president.”
Sharif says that in Jordan, the monarchy was able to offset the first wave of the Arab Spring by introducing some political reforms.
“When it comes to Jordan, I think the monarchy was wise enough not to suppress the grassroots revolt against the status quo. It introduced some fundamental constitutional reforms, only unfortunately reverting to the old status quo after a while,” he said.
Kuttab says Amman was not sincere about reform but was able to avoid many scenarios by buying time.
“Jordan weathered the Arab Spring storm by suggesting a gradual reform process which was not serious. It was enough to give the government time to manage things, and at the same time it produced no meaningful strategic changes toward genuine reform,” he said.