On a cold wintry day in December 2010, an ordinary street vender, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a small town named Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. He personified the desperation and deprivation of ordinary Tunisian, but by his singular act of self-immolation, he unleashed a powerful moment known as the Arab Spring that convulsed the entire Arab world. Its echoes reverberated across the Middle East from Tunisia to the Gulf States, inspiring and unshackling the repressed yearnings for freedom and democracy. In Tunisia itself, huge demonstrations erupted against the authoritarian president Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali and within weeks, in January 2011, he was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia.
The movement soon spread to Egypt and other Arab countries. The world witnessed spectacular sights in Tahrir Square in Cairo, as young men and women peacefully protested the oppressive regime of the aging autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Their youthful enthusiasm and infectious passion captivated the world’s attention. After a 30-year rule, the Mubarak regime that had looked so well entrenched only months ago was toppled in February 2011. It was eventually replaced by the first democratically elected president in Egyptian history, Mohammad Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
However, Morsi’s one-year rule was marred by agitation and turbulence, resulting in his overthrow in a military coup. President Morsi was imprisoned, denied all medical care, and eventually died in captivity. Thus, Egypt, the most influential and powerful country in the Arab world, reverted after a brief interlude to authoritarian rule. The country has since 2014 been ruled by the military strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and has experienced more repression than in the days of Hosni Mubarak. A ghostly silence has descended now on Tahrir Square that was once the embodiment of so many romantic aspirations during the Arab Spring.
The freedom movement rocked Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, in most cases sweeping away antiquated dictators. The Libyan despot, Muammar Gaddafi, an unstable and flamboyant character, who had ruled the country for almost four decades and had acquired a cult of personality, was overthrown, captured, and brutally killed in August 2011. However, ever since his overthrow, Libya has been plunged into a perennial and destructive civil war. Similarly, a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen continues to generate large-scale human disasters.
In Bahrain, a tiny, oil-rich Sheikhdom on the Persian Guld, the Shia majority is ruled by a Sunni dynasty. The Shia population erupted in 2011 against the ruling family. The uprising was brutally suppressed by troops supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as they were concerned about their own survival. The suppression of the popular uprising against the Assad regime in Syria was particularly bloody and egregious. Here, the situation was the reverse of that prevailing in Bahrain. The ruling family, as well as much of the elite, especially the military, belonged to the minority Alawite community, ruling over a majority Sunni population.
After a brutal civil war, the Assad regime eventually prevailed with the help of Iran and Russia. Yet, a large segment of the Syrian population was displaced, with an estimated 5 million refugees registered with the UN. Worst, the disastrous war spawned terrorist, extremist outfits, such as the murderous Islamic State (ISIS) or Daesh, that brought desolation to large swaths of both Syria and Iraq, driving millions of refugees to Turkey and Europe.
The tenth anniversary of the Arab uprising has not gone unrecognized. Some major newspapers in the US and England have published special articles to commemorate the momentous event, and it has evoked lively discussions in academic forums. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now possible to retrospectively examine the successes and failures of this movement. The Arab masses, particularly the youth, paid a high price for participation in the uprising, many losing their lives or suffering serious body injuries. Except for Tunisia, where a fledgling but functioning democracy survives, the Arab autocracies and monarchies appear safe and securely in place. Sadly, a transformational movement that started with so much promise and fanfare proved only an ephemeral phenomenon.
Now, the region is showing one of the highest unemployment rates in the world among the youth, climbing from 33% in 2012 to 36.5% in 2020, according to the International Labor Organization. Writing in the Washington Post, Liz Sly, its Middle East correspondent, cited World Bank figures that, “the population of the region has grown by 70 million since the Arab Spring, and is expected to increase by an additional 120 million by 2030,” likely to further exacerbate the agony. In 2018, for the first time, the World Bank classified more people in the Middle East as poor than in Latin America. Sly has cited the disparities between Egypt and South Korea. “In 1960, the economies of the two countries were roughly comparable; however, the current South Korean economy is four times larger than Egyptian, while its population is only half of the latter.”
The question of what went so wrong with the uprising has been debated among Arab and non-Arab academicians and intellectuals and in salons around the world. A variety of opinions have been expressed. Some had suggested that Arab societies are not inherently conducive to the growth and development of liberal democracy. These opinions aside, one truth has emerged from the failure of the Arab Spring. If autocrats are able to ruthlessly suppress their population, they can survive, at least in the short run. In Syria and Iraq thousands of protesters lost their lives, and more were displaced; nevertheless, the rulers could not be displaced.
Another factor that seem to have contributed to the failure is that the Arab world, having long been ruled by repressive rulers, permitted no opportunity for the emergence of national leaders, political institutions or constitutional infrastructure. Consequently, even when the dictators were overthrown, as was the case in Libya and Egypt, there were no structures or leadership in place to replace them. Western countries were reluctant to help as in their view the ruling dictators ensured peace and stability in the region. Of all the disappointments, one welcome outcome of the movement was the increase participation of women in the political process who had not been previously visible.
The current veneer of stability in the Arab world maybe a mirage. The weakness in the oil-based economies and the effect of a world-wide pandemic is likely to lead to renewed unrest and emergence of new longings for a democratic and open society. Importantly, unlike the former president of the US, Donald Trump, President Joe Biden is more likely to be a supporter of human rights and democratic order and not a coddler of dictators and despots.