Overview of the Arab Uprisings
It is amazing how quickly small-scale demonstrations can escalate into full blown chaos and civil unrest as experienced in some Arab nations over the past 8 years. Frustration over secular Arab regimes, corrupt leadership, aging dictators, poor living standards, police brutality, cultural handicap, unemployment, social injustice and a lack of human rights (equal opportunities in employment and education) has been the order for marginalized people over the years.
The Arab world is largely undemocratic in nature, so it came as no surprise when a string of normal events led citizens of predominantly Muslim nations in North Africa and the Middle East (Tunisia, Jordan, Oman, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia) to speak out about the state of their countries and demand change.
These anti-government protests began in December 2010, and 8 years later, still rage on with no immediate hope of resolution, as the people remain uncompromising in their demand for total change, and the need for political and social reforms.
Nine (9) countries would be briefly analyzed to get a sense of how the revolts began, the benefits, and consequences across the board.
President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali – 24 Year Reign (1987 – 2011)
Result of Protest – Partially Successful
Estimated Number of Casualties – 338+
On the 17th of December 2011, a vegetable seller ‘Mohamed Bouazizi’ set himself on fire in response to the ill treatment he had received from security forces when selling his wares. This singular act, along with the general ill treatment of citizens in Tunisia, was enough to instigate pro-democracy protests across the country. President Ben Ali tried to curb the escalating violence and uprising – known as the “Jasmine Revolution” using violence, but when that failed to yield positive results, he attempted to remedy the situation by offering concessions and making promises to no avail. The protests and armed rebellions intensified, overwhelming security forces, and forcing the President to step down, and flee to Saudi Arabia on the 14th of January 2011. By October 2011, a democratic election was held, and by December that same year, a democratically elected president and prime minister resumed office.
Current Situation: Although they were successful in overthrowing the government, seeking justice, and creating new constitutions for the people; the current administration is made up of people from Ben Ali’s administration alongside the Islamist Ennahda party. Some aspects of human rights are still under attack, and reforms are slow in taking shape.
President Ḥosnī Mubārak – 30 Year Reign (1981 – 2011)
Result of Protest – Inconclusive
Estimated Number of Casualties – 1,700+
Days after the Tunisian President was ousted, and his administration toppled, protests broke out in Egypt against President Ḥosnī Mubārak. As with Tunisia, the Egyptian government also tried to contain the unrest using armed forces, plain-clothed supporters and reform concessions, but they were unsuccessful. The clashes between security forces and the citizens resulted in a lot of fatalities and casualties until the Egyptian army stepped in to enforce peace, order, and accelerate the removal of President Mubārak on the 11th of February 2011. His administration was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood inspired government of Mohamed Morsi El Ayat in 2012. This military-backed administration/dictatorship was initially applauded by the people, however, the euphoria was short-lived, as the administration was hesitant to transfer the reigns of leadership to a democratically elected government, leading to an Islamist coup in 2013, which prompted violent confrontations between the military and protesters. Abdul Fatah al-Sisi overthrew Morsi, and assumed control and the Presidency.
Current Situation: Military dictatorship is the case in Egypt. Thousands of activists, protesters, and journalists were ill-treated, tortured, killed, and given life sentences for their participation in the protests or alleged links to the political opposition.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa
Result of Protest – Unsuccessful
Estimated Number of Casualties – 120+
In Bahrain, human right activists and members of the marginalized Shīʿite community instigated mass protests for equal rights, economic reforms, and political freedom by mid-February 2011. These protests began well, but were stifled by Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates security forces, who were sent to restore peace in the land, and apprehend and convict protest leaders. People were convicted for anti-government activities and imprisoned; hundreds of Shīʿite workers were fired on suspicion of supporting the protests, and dozens of Shīʿite mosques were demolished in retribution. By November of that same year, an independent investigation into the uprising was commissioned by the Bahraini government, the results concluded that excessive force and torture was used on protesters. The government vowed to act on the reform recommendations included in the report, but the protest as a whole did not result in any change in administration.
Current Situation: Personal freedom remains limited, and backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the King suppresses pro-democracy protests and opposition leaders from gaining traction, despite operating a constitutional monarchy form of government.
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi – 42 Year Reign
Result of Protest – Failure
Estimated Number of Casualties – 50,000+
By mid-February 2011, peaceful protests began in Libya against authoritarian ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and quickly escalated into a civil war when the Libyan government reacted harshly in retaliation. Rebel forces did their best to overthrow Gaddafi’s administration, and backed by an international coalition with a NATO-led aerial bombardment of Libya’s forces in March 2011, they were able to retrieve control of the capital, Tripoli from Gaddafi on the 23rd of August 2011. After evading capture for several weeks, Gaddafi was killed on the 20th of October 2011 in Surt. Gaddafi’s death did not result in a democracy, as the provisional government – Transitional National Council (TNC), that assumed power soon after, did little to resolve the challenges in Libya – they struggled unsuccessfully to restart the Libyan economy, establish functional institutions of government, and exert control over the many autonomous regional and tribal militias that had participated in the rebellion against Gaddafi.
Current Situation: There is a full blown civil war in Libya with violence between rival militias on the increase. The opposition fighters and government forces rule separate regions of the country, and combined, have wreaked severe damage to human lives, and committed war crimes of untold proportions. Millions of people have been displaced or forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries and across Western Europe. Those that remain face abject poverty, violence on the streets, and limited access to food, resources and healthcare services.
Bashar Al Assad – 18 Year Reign (2000 till date)
Result of Protest – Failure
Estimated Number of Casualties – 210,000+
By mid-March, protests broke out across Syria, calling for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. Unlike the reaction and response of other Arab administrations, Assad’s regime responded with a brutal attack on protesters despite of the wide scale condemnation received from international and human rights groups. Opposition militias and groups launched attacks on the government forces, but this did little to lessen Assad’s hold to power, especially as he had the support of the military composed largely of members of the Alawite minority.
The scale of violence against innocent people went further than ever imagined, to the point that other countries, including the United Nations and peace delegations from the Arab league, increased their military intervention in Syria to put pressure on Assad to resign. The tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims in many parts of Syria also escalated with Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia fighting a proxy war in Syria.
Current Situation: The civil war in Syria still rages on. It has led to the execution and displacement of millions of people with some seeking refuge across Europe, and it has given militant group ISIS the opportunity to declare a caliphate in the northeastern part of the country. Peaceful demonstrations in response to years of brutal suppression and political reforms yielded no solution. Assad remains in power, and in constant conflict with ISIS and other opposition forces.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh – 34 Year Reign (1978 – 2012)
Result of Protest – Unsuccessful
Estimated Number of Casualties – 10,000+
The situation in Yemen was not so different from that of Libya. Protests erupted on the 3rd of February 2011 with citizens, tribal rulers, and the military united against the government of President Saleh, calling for democracy, and for him to step down. Tribal rulers and military forces withdrew their support for his administration in January 2011, leading to subsequent negotiations that failed to yield benefits, thereby increasing the clashes and unrest in the country. By November 2011, President Saleh signed an internationally mediated power transfer agreement to his vice president, ʿAbd Rabbuh Manṣūr Hadī who formally assumed the presidency after the presidential election in February 2012.
Current Situation: The civil war destroyed a vast amount of Yemen infrastructure, and led to the death of thousands of civilians, and created divisions and fostered tribal wars amongst the people. Yemen is still engulfed in a civil war.
In other countries these protests were put to an end almost as soon as they started. Towards the end of January 2011, demonstrations erupted in Jordan but it was different compared to other Arab nations as the people did not seek to overthrow the monarchy, but rather, protest against high food prices, high inflation figures, corrupt government practices, seek a more representative government, and push for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. King Abdullah met with opposition groups to express his readiness to address the grievances and demands of the people, and the protests ended swiftly.
In Morocco, pro-democracy protests began violently on the 22nd of May 2011 with the police using force to bring it to an end. By the 1st of July 2011, an agreement had been reached, with the monarchy signing constitutional changes that limited their power.
Protests in Saudi Arabia were very similar to that of Jordan, as the people did not seek to overthrow the monarchy, but rather to fight for more political freedom, an elected consultative council, an independent judiciary, more open practices, and the withdrawal of troops from Bahrain. These protests were mainly staged by the minority Shi’ites complaining about discrimination at the hands of the Sunni majority. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud made some changes to economic reforms including granting housing subsidies; unemployment benefits; giving permanent contracts to temporary government workers, increasing salaries for State employees by 15%, and giving women the right to vote, run in future municipal elections, and drive.
Causes of the Arab Spring
To pinpoint the factors that led to the Arab Spring, one would need to analyze conditions on a country by country basis. On a whole, however, the following have been identified as contributing factors:
- Socio-Economic Discontent: These countries had faced many decades of economic stagnation, staggering unemployment rates, abject poverty, and great divisions between the affluent and lower-class citizens.
- Authoritarian Regimes: The Middle East and parts of Northern Africa are majorly dominated by Muslims, authoritarian in nature, with a strong core in Islamic dictates. Most of the rulers have spent decades in power and were repressive, ruled with tight fists, silenced oppositions at every opportunity, and carried out numerous human rights abuses against their citizens on a daily basis. They kept their country and its people under close supervision, to the point of limiting or restricting the media.
- Corrupt Practices: Most of these regimes were corrupt. The leaders amassed great wealth even to the detriment of their nations. Government funds were mismanaged, privatization of government-owned assets and business deals were never straightforward, arms and nuclear deals were rife, and revenues generated from resources (especially oil) were misused, and often used to fund their own empires. Security forces were also under their payroll to the point that the voice of the citizens was permanently silenced.
Consequences of the Arab Spring
The immediate and long-term effects of the Arab spring include but is not limited to: civil war, death, infrastructural damage, the rise of extremists and jihadists, destabilized economies, inter-tribal conflict, religious conflict, displaced citizens, illicit arms trade etc. The civil war gave rise to the recruitment and training of jihadist groups, who use these destabilized economies to thrive and establish their dominance. Jihadist violence is spreading like an epidemic all over the world, and not only restricted to the Middle East and Africa. There is no safe haven around the world, as even countries that had enjoyed relative peace over the years, are under threats, and facing violence.
This unending violence has made it difficult for citizens to continue residing in their own lands, forced to live as fugitives, afraid for their lives and families; left with no other choice than to endure gruesome treks, and take substantial risks in their quest to migrate, in search for safer havens in other countries. This increasing migration puts a strain on the resources of other countries, while raising their security concerns.
Was the Arab Spring a Success or Failure?
With mixed reactions experienced across different countries, it is difficult to ascertain if there were any significant benefits from these protests. Of the whole, Tunisia and Egypt stand out. Tunisia was able to experience a peaceful transition from authoritarian rule to democratic government, and Egypt was successful in toppling its authoritarian regime. Although both countries enjoyed minor political and economic reforms, these changes did not address all the problems they had experienced or fought for till date. Libya was successful in overthrowing and killing Gaddafi, but the Arab Spring yielded no significant result, as the country continues to experience civil war.
Other countries were not so lucky, as their protests failed to gain traction, and was stalled before it yielded any change (Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia etc.). The rulers of these countries prevented widespread protests by offering a variety of concessions to the citizens including the removal of unpopular officials along with some constitutional changes. The uprising in Yemen and Syria was a complete failure as they experienced increased insecurity and oppression till it became a full scale civil war with no signs of ending.
The people expected immediate improvement to their livelihood and economy by replacing monarchies and authoritarian regimes with democratic governments. They did not anticipate problems with political transitions; envisage the amount of time it would take; or the additional pressure and strain it would put on the economy and the entire people.
Indeed, uprisings have the power to put pressure on a government and result in leadership changes and reforms within a brief period of time. However, the anticipated and expected outcome of the Arab Spring was not experienced in all the countries that took part in the revolt.
The core problems in the Middle East and other parts of North Africa were not resolved. Rather, it slightly alleviated the suffering and struggle in some countries and worsened the situation and conditions in others. Some countries were forced to reshuffle their policies and reforms to accommodate the people, but even that did not resolve the underlying issues. Other brutal regimes that were replaced became harsher despite offering few concessions in their quest to hold on to power and dominate the people.
These problems are bound to rear up sometime in the future with greater unrest and violence than ever imagined. It is beginning to seem like the Arab world is not destined to experience liberal democracy.