When spontaneous uprisings broke out in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2011, they seemed destined to usher in a new era of freedom, economic prosperity, and democracy in the region. These protests came to be known in the Western media as the ‘Arab Spring’ – an apparent misnomer since the movement was neither exclusively ‘Arab’ in character nor simple enough to serve as an analogy of the European ‘Springs’ of 1848, 1968 and 1989.
Over two and a half years later, these uprisings and revolutions are still threatening to transform the political and social dynamics of several states; though not necessarily in the way that was originally intended by the generation of tech-savvy youth who launched them.
This inevitably begs the question: What went wrong?
It all began in Tunisia, the birthplace of the movement, where a young Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze after his fruit cart was confiscated by local Tunisian officials. His mistreatment and subsequent self-immolation on December 17, 2010 triggered a series of spontaneous protests in Tunisia that quickly spread to the rest of the Arab world. In reality, while Bouazizi’s inadvertent spark of the Arab protest movement was invaluable to the changes in the region today, social tensions between state and citizen had simmered on the surface of many Arab states for years, waiting for an opportune time to erupt.
Tunisia remains the most promising catalyst for democratic change in the Arab world. After all, the country prides itself on pioneering the wave of Arab uprisings that sprung up at the end of 2010 – uprisings that uprooted the old authoritarian order of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisia has thus been perceived in the West as a potential liberal-democratic model that other Arab states might follow. Although the Islamist Ennahda party garnered the most votes in the 2011 Constituent Assembly elections (37 percent vs. only 8 percent for the runner-up Al-Mottamar party gaining), it was forced to form a coalition with opposition parties to govern the country. Moreover, it pledged to retain Tunisia’s secular tradition by not making Sharia the principal source of law in the new constitution.
The assassination of Chokri Belaid, a leftist opposition leader and outspoken critic of religious radicalism, dealt a major blow to Tunisia’s democratic experiment. Divisions between Islamists and secular liberals multiplied following the incident. Consequently, the prime minister announced the replacement of his Islamist-led coalition by an interim cabinet composed of technocrats who will rule Tunisia until the next election (scheduled for late 2013). Today, democracy in Tunisia remains fragile. Poor economic conditions, the main spark of the Tunisian Revolution, continue to plague the country’s development. Moreover, internal struggles between ultra-conservative Salafists, moderate Islamists, and secular liberals continue to complicate the process.
Egyptians, influenced by the turmoil in Tunisia, launched their own demonstrations against poor living conditions and emergency rule in what many Egyptian Arabs call the Thawrat al-Horeya (or ‘Freedom Revolution’). Hundreds of demonstrators were killed before the popular uprising eventually ousted Washington’s compliant caretaker and ally, Hosni Mubarak. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces declared an end to the Mubarak era, vowing to protect the people’s interests from both foreign influence and internal despotism. But in reality, the ruling generals would not relinquish their role in Egypt’s political affairs, instead deciding to reserve power for years to come.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, and its strong performance in both the parliamentary and presidential elections was a shock to some and a gratification to others. Previously, the party had pledged not to seek a parliamentary majority and to refrain from fielding its own presidential candidate, though it ended up competing and ultimately emerged victorious in both elections.
Egypt’s first truly democratic elections were a remarkable achievement, not for their outcome but for the relatively free and fair process in which they were conducted. Initially, the Brotherhood’s electoral gains were challenged by the Supreme Constitutional Court, which ruled that the 2011-12 parliamentary elections were unconstitutional, leading to the dissolution of Parliament by a military decree. Upon his election, Morsi challenged both the judiciary and the military leadership by reinstating the dissolved Parliament and sacking high-ranking generals, and forcing others to retire. About a year into his presidency, millions of people took to the streets to demand Morsi’s resignation. After issuing an ultimatum that went unheeded, the Egyptian Army ousted Morsi in a popular coup on July 3 and arrested several Muslim Brotherhood leaders for incitement, indicating a clear anti-Islamist clampdown by the state. By all estimates, Egypt’s democratic experiment has been plagued by deep ideological divisions, a politically activist army that seeks to vigorously maintain its independence, and increasingly dire economic conditions.
To the west of Egypt, Libya’s own rebellion had taken shape in the eastern city of Benghazi, where resentment toward Gaddafi’s rule had always existed at one time or another. On March 17, 2011, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1973, authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s wrath. However, once it became clear that Libya’s opposition National Transitional Council was unable to overthrow Gaddafi by its own efforts, NATO – in charge of enforcing the no-fly zone – used the mandate offensively in order to push for regime change. The post-war transition has been difficult, as armed militias, tribal divisions and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists have consistently derailed the process and weakened state authority.
What began in early 2011 as protests against poor living conditions evolved into a full-fledged uprising against the Assad family’s 40-year rule. Events took a turn for the worse when the conflict became a low-level civil war with dangerous sectarian undertones. Unlike in Libya, prospects for a no-fly zone were complicated by Russian and Chinese vetoes at the U.N. Security Council. Moreover, throughout the years, the Assads have strategically positioned Alawites in key positions within the military-security establishment to ensure loyalty.
The international response to the Syrian conflict is divided along typical political fault lines. On one side is a group of Western-allied states that seeks the overthrow of Assad, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. These countries have provided both weapons and funding to the rebels. Balancing against these interests is the pro-Assad camp of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Russia maintains a strategic Soviet-era naval base in Tartus, which grants it crucial access to the Mediterranean. Its ties to the Ba’athist government in Damascus stretch back to the Cold War era. Iran and Syria became unlikely allies in 1979. At the time, both shared similar foreign policy objectives including the containment of Saddam Hussein’s regional ambitions and the creation of a regional axis against Israel. For Hezbollah, Syria acts as a crucial transit hub for Iranian weapons being shipped to the Shia militant group. Hezbollah’s crucial assistance of roughly 15,000 troops to aid the Syrian Arab Army, along with the purported sale of S-300 missile defence system from Russia, have both helped tip the war’s strategic balance in favour of Assad.
However, both Assad and the rebel opposition seem poised to fight to a stalemate. Assad is incapable of completely crushing the rebellion and the rebels won’t be able to secure victory without some sort of military intervention from abroad – something the West currently has no appetite for. Under these circumstances, a political settlement that involves all the major actors remains the most viable and realistic resolution to the crisis.
In Yemen, the poorest state in the Arab world, the long-serving President Ali Abdullah Saleh – unable to remain in power through a mixture of cooption and repression – eventually agreed to an agreement that paved the way for his resignation after 22 years in power. Despite Saleh’s departure, the security apparatus and the old order remain intact. In addition, the state has been embroiled in a conflict against al-Qaeda-linked extremists in the south and a Shia insurgency in the north. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), through its larger political coalition Ansar al-Sharia, managed to fill a power vacuum in a few governorates left by retreating security forces that were redeployed to protect the capital Sana’a. On March 31, 2011, the group declared that its main stronghold, the southern province of Abyan, was now an Islamic Emirate.
All of the Arab monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula have managed to remain in power. Resiliently, they have either avoided an uprising by offering economic incentives and introducing political reforms to appease the population (as in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait) or they have crushed the rebellion altogether. In Bahrain, the Shia majority grew disillusioned with the ruling Sunni King Hamad al bin Isa Al Khalifa, who hails from a dynasty that has ruled Bahrain for nearly 230 years. Saudi Arabia sent its troops to help crush the rebellion. Unlike in Libya and Syria, Washington kept silent about the crackdown, mainly because Bahrain’s strategic importance as a base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet make it an indispensable ally whose misdeeds could be tolerated. The ruling Arab monarchs blamed the demonstrations on Iranian agitation of Arab Shia protestors, giving them a pretext for their crackdown. Moreover, they have used these geopolitical rivalries to further consolidate their power at home. The U.S. in this case seems content with the preservation of the regional status quo.
Why the Pessimism?
Several reasons explain the general feeling of disappointment toward the progress of the Arab uprisings. First, the growing role of political Islam in the transition phase has caused many to worry since the presumption in the West was that the initial protests were a secular liberal movement. The most expansive and active Islamist group in the Arab world is the Muslim Brotherhood. Nearly each Arab country has its own variation of the movement. Under the iron-fisted reign of their secular rulers, the various Brotherhoods were suppressed for decades, but they quickly became the main beneficiaries of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. This was largely because they were the most established and organized of all the other political groups. Even Salafists groups, who for years denounced democracy and demanded the establishment of Islamic states, used the electoral system to make significant political gains. On the other hand, disunity and division plagued the liberal, secularist and leftist forces in the immediate post-revolution phase, leading to vote splitting in elections. The truth is that the Muslim Brotherhood had an extensive political tradition and a vast social network upon which they could campaign on, whereas the secular liberals/leftists had much less experience and were largely unprepared for the post-revolution phase. As a result, many view the Arab Spring as a victory for Islamists and, thus, an overall regression.
The transitional phase in Libya and the ongoing civil war in Syria have also added to a feeling of disappointment. In Libya, after NATO forces helped end Gaddafi’s 42-year reign, post-war expectations were very high. The NATO coalition helped tip the balance in the rebel opposition’s favour, but it did so by sabotaging the essence of a UN mandate whose purpose was defensive in nature (Resolution 1973 was meant to protect civilians, not actively engage in aerial strikes for the purpose of regime change). This damaged the spontaneity of the Arab uprisings because it presumed that without stretching the meaning of the no-fly zone, the Libyan people were incapable of toppling their leader on their own.
While Libya today is free from the clutches of an autocratic leader, it has drifted into anarchy. More than 300 armed militia groups roam Libyan districts without any regard for the authority of the central government. Quarrels between Tripoli and the eastern provinces threaten to fragment Libya into pieces. In June, tribal leaders and militia commanders in eastern Libya declared that Cyrenaica (‘Barqa’ in Arabic) was now a semi-autonomous region with Benghazi as its capital. Although national elections last July surprisingly did not produce Islamist victories (Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood only garnered 10 percent of the vote), radicalism reared its ugly head when the U.S. Ambassador to Libya was killed in an assault by pro-al-Qaeda extremists in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.
In the case of Syria, the resilience of Bashar al-Assad’s rule dealt a blow to the domino effect that ousted Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, and Libya’s Gaddafi in relatively quick succession. Unlike those rulers, Assad had a vast security network of loyalists that hailed mainly from his own Alawite sect, whom he used to his advantage. Moreover, foreign assistance from loyal friends, notably Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, salvaged his regime. Thus, the Syrian uprising has devolved into a civil war and more broadly into an international proxy war that is undeniably political and sectarian in nature. Russia and the United States, former Cold War rivals, have tried to use their diplomatic leverage to produce an outcome that is favourable to their respective interests. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are also to blame for the continuation of hostilities as they have armed rebel groups, which include jihadists, and provided them training, funding and (in the case of Turkey) a safe haven. For Turkey, which neighbours Syria to the north, the main dimension is stability and security; for Saudi Arabia, the collapse of the Syrian regime would weaken the regional influence of its archrival Iran; and the tiny oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar is trying to punch above its weight. All three have helped turn an uprising into a proxy war. A stalemate is likely the most realistic outcome, as neither side seems able to tip the balance of power too strongly in their favour. Unfortunately, neither side is taking seriously the most viable and realistic resolution: a political settlement.
The last point of grievance is that the Arab uprisings have not completely transformed the social and political dynamics of the region. For the most part, the old authoritarian orders persist even after more than two years of upheaval. In places where secular despotism has vanished, Islamist governance has filled the void – a reality that is anathema to the West’s vision of a liberal democratic Arab world. In addition, economic conditions have actually gotten worse. The demand for subsidies and salaries for public workers have increased, even as state revenues have declined and budget deficits skyrocketed. The economic structures of several Arab states remain rigid and unsustainable. Moreover, the countries that have successfully toppled their leader still lack a clear and coherent vision of their economic future.
Yet political transformations of such a tall order take years, even decades, to run their course. They happen in incremental steps. Along the way, the transition process may derail, but the major political actors must all make a commitment to compromise. The new forces must not allow conditions to become so deplorable that a sense of nostalgia for the old order becomes standard. The fall of iron-fisted rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, was only one part of a complex process. The hardest part will be to compose a viable road map for governance that is inclusive and open to all aspiring political groups. It has been stated repeatedly, but the cliché rings more true each time: democracies are not produced overnight. Moreover, elections alone do not define democracies. Among other things, they include respect for human and minority rights, inclusiveness, and a commitment to the rule of law. In turn, the success of these transitions will not be measured by how long they take to complete but rather how well the political actors deal with obstacles and work together to overcome them.