Has The Arab Spring Failed Or Just Ran Out Of Steam? – Analysis


When Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit street vendor, was harshly molested by the police of his country for doing business without a license, he felt humiliated by a repressive regime in his manhood and citizenship and, as a result, he poured kerosene over his body and lit a match to put an end to his miserable living conditions. The same match that put an end to his life begot a gigantic dream of well-being for the Arab world: a dream of democracy and freedom from the yoke of dictatorship, humiliation and feudal tradition.

An Egyptian soldier and tank in Tahrir Square, during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
An Egyptian soldier and tank in Tahrir Square, during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.

This heroic and unselfish act heralded the beginning of new era in the Arab region that was called the Arab Spring. Indeed, the Bouazizi’s match ignited, also, and most importantly, a popular uprising in Tunisia, and its strong tide, in no time, swept away the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Unabated, the Tunisian flame of change was passed on to the youth of Egypt that, through protests, direct confrontation with the police and sit-ins at Tahrir Square brought down the repressive regime of Hosni Mubarak.

In a perfect domino-effect movement, revolutions reached Yemen and Bahrain creating new political realities. Later, the wave swamped the harshest military regimes of the area: Libya and Syria, where it triggered cruel civil wars, one of them still going on today, claiming thousands of civilian lives and an incredible exodus of the population.

At the height of the youth revolutions, there was a sense of pride in being Arab; it is expressed clearly by Rashid Khalidi in The Nation:i

“Suddenly, to be an Arab has become a good thing. People all over the Arab world feel a sense of pride in shaking off decades of cowed passivity under dictatorships that ruled with no deference to popular wishes. And it has become respectable in the West as well. Egypt is now thought of as an exciting and progressive place; its people’s expressions of solidarity are welcomed by demonstrators in Madison, Wisconsin; and its bright young activists are seen as models for a new kind of twenty-first-century mobilization. Events in the Arab world are being covered by the Western media more extensively than ever before and are being talked about positively in a fashion that is unprecedented. Before, when anything Muslim or Middle Eastern or Arab was reported on, it was almost always with a heavy negative connotation. Now, during this Arab spring, this has ceased to be the case. An area that was a byword for political stagnation is witnessing a rapid transformation that has caught the attention of the world.”

What Led To The Uprisings?

Since the independence of the majority of Arab countries, in the middle of the last century, people were ruled by two kinds of regimes, different in format, but similar in outcome:

1: Traditional monarchies, autocratic and tribal claiming religious legitimacy and endearing the population with generous direct or indirect cash. Indeed, most of the rulers of the Gulf States, in the aftermath of the uprisings, handed generously money to their people to dump their instinct of change, if any. As for the monarchies that do not have oil, like Morocco and Jordan, to avoid popular ire, they initiated power devolution processes, through either constitutional revamping or more liberal governance.

2: Young republics that adopted pompous pan-Arabism theory and exhibited revolutionary socialist leanings, but cultivated repressive regimes that ruled by the means of corruption, nepotism and co-optation, as well as, intimidation and terror.

These two forms of governance ruled the population through the following schemes:

  • Maintaining the endemic illiteracy of the majority of the population;
  • Encouraging obedience through religious edicts;
  • Triggering automatically harsh repression of discordant voices;
  • Keeping a strict control of the media; and
  • Using the media in its subliminal capacity in brainwashing the grass roots in the love of stability and law and order, even if it is achieved repressively.

These recipes worked more or less for over half a century until the advent of the digital revolution that brought high-debit Internet and satellite television into all homes and, thus, this, ultimately, broke the spell of absolutism. Through television, people learned about other cultures where the individual was respected and celebrated, so they started questioning their political culture in all its different facets.

Tunisia's flag.
Tunisia’s flag.

After that came the digital revolution that gave the ordinary citizen ultimate power to criticize, question, but, most importantly, communicate aptly with others of his/her kind. Until then, of course, information was controlled by the state; it was the ultimate strength of the regimes, more powerful than crude force. Governments used it to brainwash citizens in believing that the state is their protector and that the beloved leader zaim is their caring patriarch. Through checking various sources on the net and hearing and reading many accounts and articles, they came to the conclusion that the zaim in question is corrupt and oppressive, so by the means of the Internet they organized their resistance, quietly, until Bouazizi struck his match and kick-started the Arab uprisings, still going on, today, unabated.

The ironic thing about the Arab Spring is that the same very autocratic regimes that were, somewhat, protected by the US, like Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and Egypt’s Mubarak were, on the other hand, brought down by non-lethal American inventions: the Internet and its affiliated social medias such as Facebook and Twitter as well as YouTube.

Regime Change: No Change

In the past, change of leader in the Arab World only happened through two means:

  1. Putsch: the military unhappy with the reigning zaim, for one reason or another, decide to replace him so they mount a military coup and him and his followers and family are either imprisoned in some gulag of the regime, or literally liquidated to make place to a new team, while the people watch on uninterested because they know that the plight of repression will continue on, as ever; and
  2. Natural death of the zaim: the leader will die, out of old age or illness, and the ruling party will designate his successor in consultation with the army.

Nobody, in their wildest dreams, ever thought that docile and “immature” Arab youth will lead successfully a popular uprising, simply because such events were always crushed in blood and in total silence. This time, however, things were different, Arab youth had a more sophisticated weapon i.e. PCs, tablets, smartphones and Internet and possessed, also, lethal bullets: social media and powerful allies i.e. the world opinion.

The digital revolution has allowed every Arab young person to be, at the same time, organizer of political meetings and demonstrations and be, also, an efficient and fully-operational news agency capable of sending, to the world, at large, accounts, communiqués and, most importantly, videos and image, as they truly are and happen, and not as the dictatorships will photo shop them, normally, to lie.

Why Did The Arab Youth Rebel?

Women taking part in a pro-democracy sit in in Sitra, Bahrain. Photo by Bahrain in Pictures, Wikipedia Commons.
Women taking part in a pro-democracy sit in in Sitra, Bahrain. Photo by Bahrain in Pictures, Wikipedia Commons.

The youth, from the word go, were imprisoned in traditional absurd systems that are archaic and unfair and belonging to the Middle Ages. The existing societal systems are basically tribal, in essence, and patriarchal in organization. In such an organization, the individual has no existence, whatsoever; he is part of an extended family ruled by a patriarch who does not accept criticism, dissent or expression of dissent of any nature. As such, the political system is a mirror image of the social system: undemocratic and repressive. Thus, to preserve this way of life, the youth are educated into obedience and allegiance and imprisoned for life in taboos of two kinds:

1: Social taboos

Arab societies accessed modernization and modernism, but disallowed the youth their fruits. They were not allowed to have girlfriends and date and flirt with them publicly, no sex before marriage, no expression of other sexuality identities outside of heterosexuality, total respect of seniority, no independence of thought, no profession of opinion outside of the consensus, no criticism of religious or political establishments, no freedom whatsoever for women, worse, women were considered under age all their life and almost like furniture of the house, etc.

2: Political taboos

The youth are required to express allegiance to repressive regimes and extol their goodness. They are taught to tone down their discontent, if any, and are barred from expressing discordant opinions for fear to go to prison or literally be killed or maimed, in retribution. So, existing regimes instilled fear in the youth for any transgression of the red lines and those who toe the line and show obedience are rewarded for their subservience with money, power and seniority over those who do not, as if to say, neutrality towards the establishment is synonymous of discordance and denial and cannot be tolerated.

Did The Arab Spring Falter?

Amnesty International argues in a comprehensive report that five years on the picture is rather grim:ii

“Protesters took to the streets across the Arab world in 2011, pushing their leaders to end decades of oppression.

The Middle East and North Africa was engulfed in an unprecedented outburst of popular protests and demand for reform. It began in Tunisia and spread within weeks to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria.

Long-standing authoritarian leaders were swept from power, including Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia.

Many hoped that this “Arab Spring” would bring in new governments that would deliver political reform and social justice. But the reality is more war and violence, and a crackdown on people who dare to speak out for a fairer, more open society.”

And goes to point out that:

“Five years later, human rights are under attack across the region. Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them children, have been killed during armed conflicts that continue to rage in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The Syrian conflict has created the largest refugee crisis of the 21st century.”

In addition to the fact that:

“In Syria, Egypt, Bahrain and other countries, governments are attacking free speech by locking up human rights activists, political opponents and critics, often in the name of counter-terrorism. What’s more, few have been brought to justice for the violence, killings and torture which took place during and after the protests of 2011.”

The Arab Spring did not fail, as many people would argue, it just ran out of steam for two reasons:

  • Firstly, the youth lack experience in the management of the post-Arab Spring political situation and as such they were supplanted quickly by the regimented and religiously- motivated Islamist groups, who, in turn, are losing the sympathy of the masses due to their harsh handling of daily life; and
  • Secondly, the establishment, in many cases, introduced reforms, that may or may not be genuine, either to defuse the situation or make minimal changes to ride the storm.

Nevertheless for some Arab thinkers like Rajah Shehada, a Palestinian lawyer and writer, the world powers that have a stake in the Middle East are insidiously preventing any change from taking place to preserve their interests:iii

“Five years ago I watched the inspiring and creative ways in which the Syrian people expressed their rebellion against the Assad regime, sometimes with dance, songs, graffiti and cartoons. I thought then that when a people rise up against oppression they are bound ultimately to win. I was wrong. In today’s world, no people, certainly not in the contemporary Middle East region, can act independently, however creative the means they employ. The conflicting interests of the various powers surrounding and beyond the region all played their part in thwarting what began as a peaceful revolution against the longstanding oppressive and anti-democratic regime of the Assad dynasty. This was also true of Egypt, where the most oppressive and rich country in the region, Saudi Arabia, rallied with others to restore the ancien régime. In the case of Palestine it was the unflinching US support of Israel that enabled an increasingly rightwing government to thwart the enduring struggle of the Palestinian people for self-determination. And Syria now is a cruel battleground of contending forces with almost 3 million refugees and an unimaginable quarter of a million dead.”

All in all, the Arab youth has given the existing regimes a second chance, but, alas, most of them have squandered it and they have, also, given the Islamist a golden opportunity to govern ad prove they are different, but their attraction to religious absolutism made them loose credibility in the eyes of the public, and, thus, they are out, for now.

For the time being, the Arab spring is taking a rest in the Arab world but, its universal message is alive worldwide. Yesterday it was the uprising of Ukraine against undemocratic institutions; not to forget that the Arab Spring has romanced communist China through the “Revolution of Umbrellas” conducted by the youth of Hong Kong, dreaming of true democracy, maybe, in all of China, for once.

So the Arab Spring is alive and kicking and its next manifestation in the Arab world will not only finish off the political systems affected by the first wave but might, also, wreck havoc in the rich conservative countries of the Gulf and reach theocratic Iran, where the ground is fertile for a change.

So, everyone is, duly, warned of what is to come. Either initiate true change or end up in the trash can of history: the choice is yours.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

i. https://www.thenation.com/article/arab-spring/
ii. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/01/arab-spring-five-years-on/
iii. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/23/arab-spring-five-years-on-writers-look-back

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Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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