Today
Tue 22 June 2021

Ten years on from its origin in Tunisia, Jonathan Fenton-Harvey assesses the chequered fate of the uprisings against autocrats in Egypt, Libya and Syria

A decade after the Arab Spring uprisings, it is clear to many observers that the economic hardships and turmoil people were protesting against still remain across the Middle East and North Africa.

There were some initial successes, from the ousting of Egypt’s autocrat Hosni Mubarak to the toppling of Libya’s erratic dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and an opposition movement against Syria’s rigid al-Assad dynasty. 

However, the odds were ultimately stacked against those seeking better lives – those free from autocracy and deliberate impoverishment at the hands of ruling elites. Not only were certain regimes rigged to ensure that power remained within their hands, international powers and external counter-revolutionary elements were always seeking to ensure that they maintained their stakes in the region. 

The Arab Spring began on 17 December 2010 after 26-year-old street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, in protest at authorities’ mistreatment of him. Protests then erupted across the country, forcing strongman leader Zine al Abadine ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia, and shaking Tunisia’s authoritarian regime. 

This one act of self-immolation triggered calls for regime change in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere, tapping into deep-seeded societal frustrations. Televised broadcasting certainly had a central role, as Qatari state-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera publicised these scenes, helping to inspire change. One by one, autocratic rulers were toppled or forced onto the back foot.

Opposition forces were diverse – secular, liberal, socialist, feminist – all united by the goal of seeking better livelihoods. However, political Islamist parties, which were repressed and driven underground under authoritarian regimes like those of Egypt and Tunisia, also found a new lease of life and were in pole position to take power via the ballot box. Many of these parties were aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was considered a “terrorist” organisation under these governments. 

The Brotherhood’s nature has attracted wide debate. It has come under accusations of being extremist and is highly controversial across the Middle East and north Africa. Former MI6 Chief Sir Richard Dearlove said in 2011 that the faction was “at heart a terrorist organisation”. Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also designated it as a terrorist organisation, while Donald Trump toyed with the idea last year.

However, this view was not shared in Westminster and academia, where the Brotherhood was often perceived as an idea and a loose collection of factions, rather than a unified transitional movement seeking world domination. Moreover, it is wrong to use the broad label of “terrorist” as the faction generally adopted non-violent measures, aside from cases such as Syria where revolution turned into a war. 


Egypt’s Tiananmen Square

In Tunisia, the soft Islamist party Ennahda won Tunisia’s first free elections in September 2011, after its members returned from exile in the UK; while Egypt’s Freedom and Justice party led by Mohammad Morsi won the 2012 presidential elections. 

While many eyes were on the Brotherhood’s successes in Egypt, the country’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) still wielded power as a shadow government, and this would later prove deadly for Morsi. Egypt’s armed forces had dominated the country since 1952 and every president since had been a military general. 

Morsi told his son and his wife that he knew from “day one” that his days as Egypt’s President were numbered and that he would not be allowed to complete his term. Though he continued fulfilling his duties as President, this prediction came true as he fell victim to a counter-revolution in July 2013 during protests at the Brotherhood’s alleged economic mismanagement. Military general Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi claimed that the Egyptian people had called on him to “secure essential protection for the demands of the revolution”.

While there may have been genuine concerns about the Brotherhood’s aims and lack of political experience, the military exploited this to seize power and crush democratic hopes. Even secular and liberal regime critics were later treated with considerable brutality. 

Egypt’s bloodiest moment in recent history occurred the following month, dubbed its Tiananmen Square. As thousands of people launched a sit-in in Cairo against the coup, the military murdered more than a thousand of them in a single day, in what was known as the Rabaa Massacre.  

The then US President Barack Obama refused to call Egypt’s military takeover a ‘coup’, and his administration shrugged off calls to cut aid to Cairo.


Libyan Ambivalence and Syrian Negligence

Meanwhile, neighbouring Libya quickly descended into civil war. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime crushed protestors in the oil-rich country from March 2011, and he was prepared to commit crimes against humanity, prompting armed opposition groups to mobilise.

The United States backed these rebel groups and NATO intervened as the then UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy led airstrikes on Gaddafi’s forces, eventually leading to rebel groups capturing and killing Gaddafi in October that year. 

Washington, London and Paris were ambivalent about the future of Libya’s reconstruction and effectively abandoned it after helping to overturn the Gaddafi regime, allowing the country to fall into chaos. Rebel forces made clear that they were willing to prioritise oil and gas deals to both France’s Total Energy and British-Dutch Shell company, both of which showed signs of moving into Libya as the conflict continued. 

Today, two rival governments struggle for power in Libya, amid an external proxy war including Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France, while repeated UN mediation efforts fail as it watches helplessly as its arms embargos are repeatedly flouted.

However, Western policy towards Syria was haphazard in other forms, though the country has still fallen prey to external forces. Syria’s conflict has attracted much global attention, particularly from European policy-makers determined to curb the refugee crisis in which millions of displaced civilians fled the civil war. 

Bashar al-Assad’s Government harshly cracked down on peaceful protestors and, like Libya, this led to a mobilisation across the country. Armed Islamist and secular forces – with western, Gulf and Turkish backing – then tried to counter al-Assad’s continued crackdown. This led to more of a violent reaction and then civil war erupted, creating one of the largest displacements in modern history and the emergence of extremist forces such as the so-called Islamic State and al Qaeda. Western powers were accused of standing by while al-Assad committed crimes against humanity against civilians.

Amid these mixed results across the region, a YouGov/Guardian poll showed that a majority of those surveyed in Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq felt that their lives had deteriorated, while 53% said they regret the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring may have collapsed into counter-revolutions and dynasties seeking to maintain their rule, but it would not have been easy for certain regimes to secure their grip on power without wider international backing. 


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