We should not give up hope on the democratic surge that has sent shock waves through a number of Arab countries since 2010.
On 17th December 2010, Mohamed Bouaziz, a young Tunisian street vendor selling fruit and vegetables in Sidi Bouzid, set fire to himself in protest against poverty, police brutality and corruption. Less than a month later, the Tunisian president Ben Ali fled the country. The shock wave was felt throughout the Arab world and gave birth to the most important revolutionary movement since 1945, with uprisings in Egypt on 17th February 2011, in Bahrain on 15th February, in Libya on 17th February, and in Syria on 6th March.
Ten years later, the hopes raised by the Arab Spring have largely dissipated, just like those that were behind the Springtime of the Peoples in Europe in 1848. Although the dictators ruling Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya were ousted, aspirations to democracy were crushed everywhere, with the exception of Tunisia. The results seem tragic: on a human level, it left over half a million dead and almost 20 million displaced people; from an economic standpoint, it meant a big step backwards, impoverishing the population; on the political front, the authoritarian regimes became stronger and the rule of law declined; from a strategic point of view, the Middle East and North Africa slipped into chaos.
Of the 10 countries where uprisings took place, only Tunisia has transitioned towards democracy. But the situation there remains highly precarious because of political instability, pressure from Islamists and, above all, the economic crisis. The fact that GDP has stagnated at around $40 billion caused per capita income to fall from $4,140 in 2010 to $3,295 in 2020. This has been accompanied by an annual inflation rate of 6%, an unemployment rate at something less than 40% of the working population, public debt at 85% of GDP and devaluation of the dinar against the euro in excess of 75%.
Four countries – Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen – are locked in interminable wars that juxtapose internal ethnic and religious conflicts on the one hand and intervention from external powers on the other. With 500,000 dead and 12 million refugees out of a population of 22 million, Syria is a testing ground for the conflicts of the 21st century. Bashar el-Assad has only managed to save his regime at the cost of his allegiance to Putin’s Russia and Ali Khamenei’s Iran, and because of partition of his country – the North now being under Turkish occupation. Libya – since the death of Kadhafi – and Yemen – since the fall of President Ali Abdallah Saleh in 2011 – have also plunged into chaos and are headed for break-up because tribal and religious conflicts have been ramped up by military intervention – from Russia and Turkey in Libya, and from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran in Yemen.
Everywhere else, authoritarian regimes have remained in place and have become tougher, as symbolized by the counter-revolution led by Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in Egypt. In Bahrain, the Shiite uprising was violently put down by the Sunnite government supported by Saudi Arabia.
The failure of the Arab Spring began in 2012 when the Syrian regime resisted opposition that had quickly come under the thumb of Jihadists, and when the Morsi presidency of Egypt turned into a fiasco. The end of democratic transition can be explained by the lack of any plan or organized opposition. This has left the field free for Islamists, as was the case in Iran in 1979. Furthermore, the geopolitical background has undergone a radical change: the rise of the Islamic State forced the West to prioritize the fight against Jihadism; the election of Donald Trump legitimized the “strong man”; US withdrawal has opened up vast spaces to Russia, Iran and Turkey; and the Middle East has been re-structured around an anti-Iranian axis made up of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt the UAE, Bahrein and Morocco.
And yet, all is not lost with regard to democracy in the Arab world. The Arab Spring has been blossoming again since 2019, thanks to the mobilization of young people and civil societies. Despite people’s fears, their desire for democracy survives and is gaining in maturity, avoiding Islamist manipulation. In Sudan, a people’s revolt brought about the departure of Omar el-Bechir and a transition period is taking place thanks to cooperation between civilians and the army. In Algeria, the Hirak movement has continued to exist for two years –remaining true to the ideals of democracy and non-violence – in the face of military power that has been tightened around President Tebboune after the fall of the Bouteflika clan. In Iraq and Lebanon – even more so in Lebanon since Beirut was devastated in August 2020 by the explosion in the port – the people are making a stand against faith-based powers, against poverty and corruption, and against submission to Iran on the part of their leaders.
The Arab Spring ended in civil wars brought about by Islamists and the return of authoritarian regimes. But democracy only comes after a long apprenticeship, as illustrated by Europe. And, sooner or later, the return of authoritarian regimes will bring new revolutions because of their very nature and economic failure. The latter has been amplified by the Covid epidemic – which has meant a 15% fall in GDP and the disappearance of 17 million jobs in the Middle East – and by the beginning of the end of hydrocarbon wealth. This is why democracies – particularly in Europe – must change their strategy towards the Arab world, stop being obsessed with refugees, and combine the battle against Jihadism with pressure for reform and support of civil societies.
(Article published in Le Point, 25th February 2021)