By Libby Edwards
Every day, at midnight, Mohamed Bouazizi would take his cart to the wholesale market and purchase fruit and vegetables, which he would sell from early the following morning until late in the evening. Later, he would go home and sleep for just a few hours, and then repeat the whole process, day after day. On the morning of the 17th December 2010, Mohamed’s hard-working cycle was disrupted when the police confiscated his wares and harassed him for bribes. This was not the first time that Mohamed had been harassed by state officials; he had faced years of public humiliation and injustice. So, on that December morning, he went to complain at the provincial government building, where he was refused an audience with the governor and was turned away. In an act of sheer desperation and protest, on the street just outside the provincial government building, Mohamed set himself on fire.
Mohamed was known to his friends and family as being ‘Basbous’, which his cousin translates as “someone who makes a lot of jokes”. But in the last years of his life, he had lost his sense of humour. His self-immolation is widely believed to have triggered the Arab Spring; his tragic story incited a wave of protest as people demanded their human rights and called for democracy.
The ten-year anniversary of the Arab Spring is seldom worthy of celebration. Tens of thousands lost their lives and some sixteen million people have been displaced from states which are no longer recognisable. In the international community, Western governments continue the solipsistic soliloquy of their triumphs in helping the revolutions succeed, presenting the Arabs’ role in their own battle as essentially secondary. Whilst it is plausible to argue that Syria would have been slightly relieved had the US destroyed Bashar al-Assad’s air force in 2012, or that the no-fly zone over Libya in 2011 is likely to have aided the overthrowing of Muammar Qaddafi, those countries are now experiencing anything but peace.
So, what did the Arab Spring achieve? The most surface-level answer would be the overthrowing of various authoritarian leaders. After a month of protest, Tunisia began on a path to democracy with Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s government being overthrown, the secret police being dissolved, and political prisoners released. Egypt followed in their footsteps, ending the 31-year-old state of emergency and toppling their despot, Hosni Mubarak. Later, in what has become known as the Second Arab Spring, Yemen and Libya began to take steps in the direction of liberation.
However, history is not linear. It would be erroneous to suggest that the states that fought so fervently for freedom and toppled their totalitarian leaders are now living in a democratic system. In Egypt, it is quite the opposite. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, their fourth leader in three years who ousted the elected government via military coup, now rules with a tighter grip than Mubarak. President Sisi represents a group of dictators who have managed to surface from the 2011 chaos by changing the narrative from ‘democracy’ to ‘development’. Throughout his campaign, he urged Egyptians to be ready for what he called ‘the hardworking phase’, encouraging them to work harder and wake up at 5am.
Tarik Yousef, director of the Brookings Doha Center, maintains that “it has been a lost decade”. Libya, Yemen and Syria have been plunged into civil war. A wave of refugees arrived at Europe’s shores, only to be set-up in camps that resemble nothing of normality. This influx of immigration has faced a backlash of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, triggering a rise in populism and isolationist policy. Fears of terrorism surpassed the concerns for human rights for many Western governments. Not to mention, rapid population growth in the region (70 million since the Arab Spring) has led to the Middle East having the highest youth unemployment rate in the world.
The restriction of economic growth by autocrats left many in even more challenging times than before the revolutions. Even if those countries that didn’t descend into war, there are now more Arabs living in poverty, unemployment rates are higher, and more are incarcerated for their political beliefs than a decade ago. The rise of Sunni-Shia fighting in proxy conflicts throughout much of the region was yet another unpredicted outcome of the revolutions. The crippling effects of the global pandemic make the light at the end of the tunnel seem even further away.
Though, for many the Arab Spring has been seen less as a failure and more as an unfinished process. Dissent still bubbles in a substantial part of the region. In 2014, the BBC noted that, compared to other great international political upheaval (such as the relatively quick and mostly conflict-free collapse of Marxism-Leninism in central and Eastern Europe in 1989) the events in the Middle East have been slow and inconclusive. An important achievement of the 2010-11 uprisings was that they showed that the ‘Wall of Fear’ that dominated the region can be broken. Despite the repression that followed the uprisings, this new understanding opened up fresh political and socioeconomic possibilities. Dalia Ghanem, resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut writes, ‘Arab citizens broke the status quo, and that is, by itself, an achievement. Since then, autocrats fell, and people woke up and decided that they deserved better, and that the post-colonial social contract was no longer working.’ With the Wall of Fear crumbling and the increased prominence of social media enabling further discussion of these ideas, perhaps there is hope yet for the future.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.
Image source: Salah Habibi/AP Photo
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