Four Countries Almost a Decade After the Arab Spring
By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
The ‘Arab Spring’ all began on December 17, 2010, when 27-year-old street vendor Mohamed Abu Azizi set himself on fire in his home town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia. He had been threatened by municipal authorities because he couldn’t afford to bribe them, even though a license to sell produce on the streets was not illegal. Abu Azizi was defending his right to make a living. It was in symbolic representation of much of Tunisia’s under and unemployed youth that he took his life.
This set off a level of violence that ended in the removal of the autocratic regime of Tunisian President Zine al-Abdine ben Ali on January 14, 2011. In turn, it triggered a series of anti-government protests across the Arab world. These protests were a response to oppressive regimes and poor standards of living. Through social media and other means, a revolution erupted in opposition to autocratic rulers across the region. Here, we look at the impacts of ‘Arab Spring’ in the country of its origin, Tunisia, followed by Libya, Yemen, and Egypt.
After Zine al-Abdine ben Ali was toppled, Beji Caid Essebsi was elected president in a free election in December 2014. Since he had served as parliamentary speaker during Ben Ali’s rule, it was assumed he would return the old establishment to rule. The more recent government of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed represented a unified government made up of Islamist, secular, independents, trade unions, and leftist parties. Of the four countries considered here, Tunisia has achieved the closest semblance to democratic reform.
Unfortunately, the Tunisian economy has not fared very well since its movement towards a more democratic form of society. This has led to tensions between President Essebsi’s anti-Islamist party and that of the Prime Minister Chahed’s Islamist party. Unemployment remains high, the cost of living has grown, and household debt has risen. Besides, some Islamist State terrorist attacks in the past few years on tourist sites have threatened Tunisia’s critical source of foreign income from tourism. Islamist and anti-Islamist opposition parties continue to vie for power. Tunisia is one of the few examples in the Middle East where an Islamist party participates significantly in the democratic governance of a country.
The European Union, a major donor to Tunisia, is seen as an important force in maintaining a balance between the Islamists and the anti-Islamists. Thus is Tunisia perhaps the only success story of the Arab Spring in overthrowing autocracy in favor of at least some idea of democracy.
Initial effects of the Arab Spring, which spread across the Arab Middle East in the form of demonstrations and protests, faded in the face of government militaries, counter-demonstrators, and pro-government militias. (Syria, not considered here, erupted in a civil war which continues in one form or another to this day; Iraq, also not reported on here, suffered an insurgency followed by its own civil war.)
Following a U.S.-allied aerial effort in 2011 to keep Leader Qadaffi’s military from bringing ruin on the residents of Benghazi, the Leader was captured by local militia forces and then quickly assassinated. The U.S.-allied force, unfortunately, did not fill the void left on the ground, which was rapidly filled by numerous militias and ISIS. Another gap was left by 42 years of Qadaffi’s destruction of Libya’s civil society, institutions, and economy.
Libya has become a battlefield on which various militias and political factions vie for control. In addition to three different government groupings competing for power, a strong military presence occurs in the person of General Khalifa Hiftar (a former general in Qadaffi’s army who defected and settled in Vienna, Virginia in the U.S.). Hiftar, who represents Benghazi as a political-military entity in the form of the Libyan National Army (LNA), has recently threatened to march his army on Tripoli, the presumed capital of Libya. His army had reached as far as Gharyan, only 30 miles from Tripoli, though, on April 6 (2019) the LNA had taken the Tripoli International Airport. Warplanes of the UN-backed national government tried to drive off Hiftar’s ground forces.
Politically, a power struggle has developed between a Tripoli-based, United Nation’s- backed government of National Accord and Hiftar’s LNA. In the absence of any established rule in Libya’s vast southern region, it has opened up to lawlessness and incursions by surrounding-country armed rebel groups. Hiftar’s LNA has indicated it will clear the south of terrorists and other rebels.
The fear among Libya’s official power brokers is that the LNA could upset the UN-backed effort to foster a sense of national unity, including a proposed national election in 2019. The LNA is operating outside the United Nations and thus poses a threat to the model based on national unity. Given this situation, the tendency may be towards more military confrontation rather than national dialogue.
The long period of Qadaffi’s misrule of Libya has been hard to close in a satisfactory way. The gap left by the U.S. and its allies after destroying his military forces enabled both local and foreign militias to intervene. The political solution to Libya’s problems has so far eluded a practical solution. (The writer, who lived in Libya during two different periods of Qadaffi’s turbulent years, has a special interest in that country’s future.)
Power vacuums across the Arab world opened on the heels of the Arab Spring, some of which are still being filled. The post- Arab Spring battles have included struggles among religious elites and pro-democracy groups. In Yemen, complexities have arisen in response to regional and international military interventions. Again, as in the case of Libya, the U.S. is implicated along with Saudi Arabia. Some critics have characterized this latter, post-Arab Spring period as the Arab Winter.
Yemen has been an area of conflict for much of its history. Gaining its independence in the 20th century, it formed a Republic in 1962, followed by the Democratic Republic in 1970, and was capped off by the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990. That state was led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but soon after, in 1994, civil war broke out between the north and the south. Saleh led the country until the Arab Spring arrived there in 2011, leading to a revolution which is still going on. In the meantime, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world.
A Yemeni movement started by the Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, known as the Houthis and backed by Shia Iran, has taken over large swaths of the country. Fearful of a Houthi-Iran alliance, Saudi Arabia and eight additional Arab states began air strikes to regain the country and restore Sunni rule. The Saudi alliance has received U.S., UK, and French aerial and intelligence support (the U.S. Congress has voted to end that support). Complicating this growing military crisis is the presence of al-Qaeda militants from the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State, who have captured territory in the south.
In the case of Yemen, the impact of the Arab Spring has gone much further than in Tunisia, Libya, or Egypt. One of the worst man-made humanitarian disasters in the world has been exacted on the already impoverished people of Yemen. According to the United Nations, around 20 million citizens are food insecure and 10 million more are on the edge of famine. Children have been hit hardest by this war, bringing about 2 million to a point of acute malnourishment.
This war, fueled by hostilities between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shia-rule Iran, continues unabated today.
Egypt contrasts radically with the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring in Libya and Yemen. After long, bloody protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square beginning on January 25, 2011, longtime dictator, Mubarak, was deposed. Then, through a democratic election, Muslim Brotherhood leader, Morsi, was elected president. Then, a military coup rid the country of Morsi, replacing him with a much more thoroughgoing dictator, al-Sisi, than either of his predecessors.
Arab Spring protests in Egypt were more significant than in any other Arab country, at first resulting in the overthrow of Mubarak. The subsequent election of Morsi seemed hopeful at first until he erred in assuming that most Egyptians wanted an Islamist government. Finally, Egypt once again fell back on a dictatorship form of government with which it has been familiar, dare we say, for millennia.
An interesting effect of the Arab Spring in Egypt, much more so than in the other three countries we’ve considered, is that of Facebook and Twitter. These social media devices turned out to have played a meaningful part in Egypt in organizing protest events so as to bring large numbers of people together. Facebook is noted for bringing together large numbers of youth, while Twitter was used efficiently in updating protesters of upcoming events. The negative side of these media opportunities is that they can be used equally by government authorities in shaping the news the way they want to and thus diverting those seeking freedom and justice.
Throughout the turmoil in Egypt over the last decade, the role of the U.S. has been very uneven. In the era of the Camp David accord in the late 1970s, Egypt and the U.S. had a highly cooperative relationship. Since 2011, however, the time of the demonstrations and the fall of pro-western President Mubarak, that relationship has gone downhill. The U.S. blinked when then-General al-Sissi overthrew duly elected President Morsi and since then, al-Sissi became President in an election that was much less fair than that of Morsi. Sadly, the U.S. has become more tolerant of a dictatorship that suppresses comedians and soap opera, among others. In this context, we have to appreciate how much Egyptians appreciate their comedy and soap operas. For a variety of reasons, the Egyptian public is not especially enamored of U.S. policy and its cozy relation with al-Sissi.
It’s as if the U.S. government was blindsided by the Arab Spring. How could that have happened? We can’t play the blame game along political party lines since the chaos of that moment began under the Obama administration. The U.S. did support the Tunisian movement towards a democratic system, especially in helping to temper the Islamic State’s attempts to undercut the nascent democracy. This happened even in the context of a Tunisian ‘Islamic lite” approach to such a democratic approach.
In Libya, the U.S. helped save the people of Benghazi, which resulted in the downfall of Qadaffi, but at the expense of leaving the government flat-footed, thus facilitating the military and political chaos on the ground, which continues today.
In Yemen, the U.S. role seems to be simply one of supporting the Saudi side against the Iranian Shia-backed Houthis. This has resulted in a catastrophic humanitarian disaster. The U.S.-Saudi cooperation seems to be based predominantly on a personal link of the U.S. President, through his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and the Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Salman. Such a link between a hardliner Sunni ruler-in-waiting and an Orthodox Jewish American is perhaps the first of its kind.
–Human Rights Watch, “Tunisia: Events of 2018;
–International Crisis Group, “Tunisia in 2019—a Pivotal year;” Al-Jazeera, “Libya remains a battleground eight years after Gaddafi revolt,” 2/17/2019;
–BBC News, ”Yemen Crisis: why is there a war?” 3/21/ 2019;
–NY Times, “Yemen,” March 2019;
–Harvard Divinity School, “The Arab Spring in Egypt” 2019;
–Washington Post, “Eight years after Egypt’s revolution: here’s what we’ve learned about social and media protests,” 2019;
–“Libya,” Washington Post (Associated Press release), 4/5/19;
–“Libyan Warlord battles for control of Tripoli airport as militia forces push closer to the city,” Washington Post, 4/6/2019;
–David Ignatius, “Here’s one U.S.-Egypt success story,” Washington Post, 4/5/2019.
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.