As winter turned to spring in 2010-2011, a revolutionary wave spread infectiously across North Africa and the Middle East in events compared by many to the wave of revolutions that spread across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. The revolutions in Eastern Europe, mostly peaceful and from the lenses of the present day successful, took much longer than five years to reap benefits. However this sense of a time-lag unfortunately seems unlikely to apply to the nations of the Arab Spring who, at best, remain stable and at worst have disintegrated into all-out civil war, adding to the already frustratingly long list of failed states in the region. Five years on, the prospects of the Middle East and North Africa look far from rosy. Indeed previously suppressed grievances have been exposed and now threaten both regional but global stability.
It is thus necessary, now that the dust has cleared (to an extent) to briefly look at the nations involved in the wave of revolutions that provided such hope but were to ultimately bring, in some cases, only misery and chaos. Out of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen and Libya only Tunisia provides cause for hope while the latter three look destined to collapse into increasing chaos.
Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring with demonstrations as early as December 2010 against long-serving President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. By mid-January, after over 300 deaths, Mr Ben Ali was forced to flee.
Tunisia is the example to the rest of the revolting nations of 2011. It is not quite a shining one, growth has been steady but unremarkable – in 2014 it only clocked up a disappointing 2.2% growth in GDP and unemployment remains above the pre-revolution level, standing at 15.2% compared to around 13% at the end of 2010 when the revolution began. An attack by Jihadists in March 2015 on the Bardo museum in Tunis killed over 20, severely shaking the confidence of the young democracy and highlighting the immense security problems Tunisia faces with bordering Libya. It is a democracy, however. Elections have been free and fair and the country has adopted a relatively liberal constitution that guarantees religious freedom and equality between the sexes. Islamist movements have been important in the Arab Spring and the leaders of the Islamist movement in Tunisia, Nahda, are moderate and pragmatic. In late 2013, when post-revolutionary politics appeared close to collapse after the murder of two opposition politicians, Nahda agreed to dissolve the three-party government it led to make way for a cabinet of technocrats.
Many may look for Tunisia as a beacon of hope in the Arab and North African world and potentially as a blueprint. Unfortunately it is unlikely to provide many solutions to the problems in other nations. Tunisia was one of the most westernised countries before the revolution and the revolution was far less bloody and drawn-out compared to that of Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen meaning it was, as a result, less divisive. It is also far more homogenous, not suffering from the toxic Sunni-Shia divide which is responsible in part for the descent of Syria into chaos. Neither is it tainted by the curse of oil which has been so damaging to efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution in Libya. In essence, Tunisia had the circumstances necessary for a successful revolution. This wasn’t the case elsewhere.
Although short, Egypt’s revolution was much bloodier than Tunisia’s. Its ultimate power beneficiaries following the revolution were the Muslim Brotherhood. The key problem in Egypt in 2011 was that its political structure was not that of a classic dictatorship with a single all-powerful boss; an attribute better ascribed to Tunisia. Instead it had an immensely powerful bureaucracy with an army which often pulled the strings, although this is not to say that Mubarak was merely a figurehead.
The revolution, initially an outstanding example of unity, soon saw cracks develop. The opposition to Mubarak divided into nationalist and anti-Islamist groups encompassing non-state, non-Islamist parties and organisations including religious minorities on the one hand and Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike Nahda, the Muslim Brotherhood lacked international connections and some of the moderate pragmatism of Nahda.
The Muslim Brotherhood gained power with Mohamed Morsi as president in 2012. Enthusiasm for an Islamist government quickly evaporated. Mr Morsi began to Islamise the political structures of the country while failing to deliver election promises on jobs and inequality. Mr Morsi, who had been elected promising to represent all Egyptians fairly began praising the police and the army while toughening his Islamist stance. The Muslim Brotherhood embarked on a conscious attempt to infiltrate the state apparatus. But the army and most of the state institutions resisted these overtures and became increasingly concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood intended not to govern but to rule. The army and public opinion thus rallied against Islamist government leading once again to mass demonstrations and the overthrow of Mr Morsi and the crackdown of the Brotherhood by the army.
Egypt, then, saw its initial unity against Hosni Mubarak descend into an increasingly hostile confrontation between the Islamist government on the one hand and the state, the army and much of society, concerned at increasingly sectarian developments, on the other hand. Egypt has essentially come full circle. The new calm under President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi as come with an increase in repression however with economic growth returning and Egyptians worn out after four years of instability it is clear that the goals of the Arab Spring in Egypt have failed. Unlike Tunisia which united in its drive towards democracy, Egypt descended into further division and turmoil with the army now seemingly the only way to ensure order.
Although it seemed that the West had lost its appetite for military intervention after Iraq and Afghanistan, with Colonel Muammar Qaddafi on the doorstep of Benghazi imminent and genocide an increasingly likely scenario, the West reluctantly intervened. Like in Egypt, the Libyans generally united in their effort to depose Qaddafi. Western-backing through the imposition of a no-fly zone and airstrikes ensured that the rebels were successful.
However it was not long before the rebels – from not one faction but many – turned their guns on each other after Qaddafi was killed in October 2011. Initially there was a smooth handover of power to the General National Congress (GNC) from the National Transitional Council (NTC). However the new Libyan government was unable to reign in the militias. There were significant divisions between those groups where the fighting had started – Benghazi – where the fighting was at its worst – Misrata – and those who took the capital – Tripoli. Each believed they had a strong claim to the leadership and the spoils of the revolution as a result.
Libya is currently split between two governments: Libya Dawn in the west and Dignity in the east, both claiming the right to govern. In this political vacuum jihadists claiming allegiance to Islamic State (IS) have begun taking over parts of the country. The West has effectively washed its hands of the situation. Thus Libya, previously stable under Qaddafi, has emerged out of the Arab Spring a failed state. Tribal rivalries, previously suppressed, are now leading to an increasingly deteriorating situation with little end in sight.
Libya’s problems look almost pale in comparison to Syria where chaos rules and hundreds of thousands have been killed. Initially the demands from protesters in early-2011 were predominantly for democratic reforms, release of political prisoners and abolition of emergency law. Although Syrian president Bashar Assad did make hints towards reform as the protests gained momentum he answered with growing repression. A vicious circle ensured with demonstrators becoming increasingly more determined and now calling for the complete toppling of the regime with Mr Assad responding in kind with greater and greater aggression.
Unlike Mr Mubarak, Mr Ben Ali and Colonel Qaddafi, Mr Assad has been able to keep hold of power, albeit dwindling both in scope and in territory, thanks in part to strict army loyalty and support from allies in Lebanon, Russia and Iran. He also has to give credit to the divided mess that is the opposition. With IS now controlling large swathes of territory the Syrian rebels are faced with two fronts. The rebels themselves contain enough jihadists to deter significant Western backing, although the West have increased support for rebels deemed moderate.
There is no end in sight. Mr Assad for his part has little reason to join in the fight against IS who he sees as providing the justification for his continued rule. In the first years of the civil war Mr Assad’s denouncements of the rebels as terrorists lacked all legitimacy but in the face of IS the West is now more reluctant to push for his downfall, despite the atrocities committed by his forces which include the use of chemical weapons on civilians. There is therefore deadlock between the rebels, the government forces and IS. Hundreds of thousands have died already and there is little to no prospect of Syria stabilising in the coming years. Syria has thus joined Libya as yet another failed state in the region.
Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya, Yemen was far from stable before the Arab Spring. Like in Syria, protests in Yemen in early 2011 were initially against unemployment, economic conditions and the like but were to escalate into calls for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen was one of the poorest countries in the Arab world on the eve of the Arab Spring and had been in the midst of a conflict with al-Qaeda and secessionists in southern Yemen.
Demonstrations grew throughout 2011 and the Yemeni security services responded with heavy repression including the killing of protestors. The standoff between Mr Saleh and his army against a coalition including the youth, secular opposition parties, Islamists and defecting chunks of the national army. After a long stand-off it appeared that a resolution might be in reach after the departure of Mr Saleh was agreed in early 2012.
However, the situation within the country has seriously deteriorated. Al-Qaeda is resurgent, able to take advantage of the power vacuum. A sectarian rift opened up between Sunni and Shia Islam. This was exacerbated by Saudi Arabia and Iran egging-on and in the case of the former intervening militarily after Houthi rebels seized the capital and large swathes of territory to back their respective sides. Yemen is now moving quickly towards a Syrian-like situation where divisions and sectarianism lead to all-out civil war where it is not always necessarily clear who is fighting who.
And the rest…
The unsung heroes of the Arab Spring are probably those nations where governments responded quickly to demands for reform without resorting to the violence and repression seen in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and so on. Bahrain, where over one hundred protestors were killed and there were signs it might be heading towards full-blown revolution, has stabilised and the Sunni ruling minority has opened up dialogue with the Shia majority. There has, however been little in the way of reform.
Other countries which witnessed protests, such as Kuwait, Morocco, Jordan and Oman enacted reforms and made governmental changes which mostly satisfied demonstrators. These nations were by-and-large much wealthier than Yemen, Libya, Egypt and Syria and as a result protests were less pronounced. Governmental changes and economic concessions were much easier to make and therefore demonstrations did not escalate.
The Islamic world and democracy: incompatible?
Tunisia has shown that democracy can successfully take hold in the Islamic world, indeed democracy has taken root in a number of Islamic countries across the globe – such as in Indonesia and Turkey. However the nature of the Middle East and North Africa which is mostly relatively poor and infected by sectarianism and corrupt governance means that Tunisia is currently the exception and is likely to remain so. Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen all have divisions too deep and too unresolvable for democracy, which requires pragmatism and cool-heads, to take root. Tunisia, a highly homogenous country in comparison to the other revolting nations, was able to unite behind the goals of the revolutionaries.
Five years on the Arab world is a much more dangerous place than before the Arab Spring. Despots may have gone but they have been replaced with sectarian conflict, militant Islam and all-out civil war. There is no end in sight.