Ten years after peoples’ uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa toppled dictatorships, the sense of hope for a more democratic future has since disappeared.
by Alessandra Bajec
December 17, 2020
Ten years ago, an uprising in Tunisia opened the way for a wave of popular revolts against long-time authoritarian rulers across the Middle East and North Africa.
What became known as the Arab Spring offered a historic moment of hope to the region’s inhabitants aspiring for freedom and democratic change.
What became known as the Arab Spring offered a historic moment of hope to the region’s inhabitants aspiring for freedom and democratic change. More than just ousting autocrats, millions in the streets were demanding better living standards, more rights, and a greater voice in how their countries were ruled.
For some time after, in 2011, the Arab Spring built momentum as social unrest quickly spread across the region. But, except for Tunisia’s transition, widespread change failed to transpire. The uprisings in Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere ended in repression, war, or chaos, dashing the hopes of those who believed in the potential unleashed by the early days of revolution.
Here’s an overview:
On December 17, 2010, a young street fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, in protest against local police officials who had confiscated his cart and produce. His tragic act triggered nation-wide protests that eventually toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after twenty-three years in power.
A decade later, Tunisia has transitioned peacefully to a democratic government. It has the Arab world’s most progressive constitution, limiting presidential power and guaranteeing unprecedented human rights and freedoms. Women enjoy their rights (though not in full) and speak out more against injustices and abuses they face.
Yet, despite the public and individual freedoms Tunisians have won, they still struggle with unemployment, inequality, and poor state services. The economy has deteriorated and the political leadership appears paralysed.
In the ten years since the revolution, the small North African country has had nine governments, slowing progress of the reforms necessary to reactivate its sluggish economy. Last year’s elections led to a highly fragmented parliament unable to deliver stability, leaving citizens as disaffected as they were before 2011.
In recent weeks, protests, sit-ins, and strikes were staged in many regions, from north to south, for local jobs and development. But many jobless young men are still trying illegally to leave the country in search of a better future. As of 2020, Tunisians make up the largest nationality among those arriving in Italy by boat.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Cairo, Egypt, during an eighteen-day popular uprising that erupted on January 25, 2011, forcing leader Hosni Mubarak from power after three decades of iron-fisted rule.
Elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, Mubarak’s successor, ruled for a year marked by political dissent until he was overthrown in 2013 by a military coup, led by current head of state Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Since the ex-army chief removed Morsi from office, Egypt has witnessed repression arguably far beyond what was seen under Mubarak. Under Sisi’s rule, a host of laws that severely curtail civil and political rights have been issued, effectively erasing the human rights wins of the 2011 uprising.
Sisi’s government has been waging a relentless crackdown against all forms of dissent by routinely harassing, intimidating, and jailing political opponents, Islamists, secular activists, journalists and others, strangling much of civic life. There are currently more than 60,000 political detainees languishing in Egyptian prisons on politically motivated charges, rights groups estimate.
The regime has tightened its grip on Internet access, and enacted laws that facilitate censorship and the detaining of people over anti-government social media posts.
Security forces have carried out torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. The army has conducted home demolitions in North Sinai as part of its campaign against ISIS-affiliated militants in the area—resulting in thousands of forced evictions and victims.
As Egyptians increasingly struggle to cover basic commodities, the fruits of economic growth appear to have been monopolized by the well-connected few.
Elected president in 2014, and again in 2018, Sisi was exceptionally allowed to run for a third term and stay in power until 2030 following controversial constitutional amendments approved in a referendum last year.
The revolution’s demands for bread, freedom and social justice have gone largely unmet.
And as Egyptians increasingly struggle to cover basic commodities, the fruits of economic growth appear to have been monopolized by the well-connected few. Meanwhile, the government continues to pursue unnecessary megaprojects like lavish palaces and the $58 billion New Administrative Capital project.
Protests broke out in February 2011 in Libya against the forty-two-year dictatorial regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi. After the demonstrators were met with live ammunition from Gaddafi’s forces, rebels armed themselves and, through a United States-led NATO intervention, captured and killed the long-time autocrat following nine months of fighting.
The oil-rich nation has since descended into violent turmoil with two rival authorities, backed by competing foreign powers, along with an array of militias vying for control. An internationally recognized government, led by Prime Minister Sarraj, has been based in Tripoli since 2015, while a parallel administration based in the east is aligned with military commander Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled army. The administration in Tripoli is supported by Turkey and Qatar, while the eastern strongman’s army has the backing of France, Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.
The ongoing battle for power reached a climax in April of 2019, when Haftar launched an offensive to seize the Libyan capital (which failed after a little more than a year). Peace talks have been ongoing, though no progress has been announced so far. Previous diplomatic initiatives have all collapsed.
It’s hard to overstate the harm to Libya’s population of nine years of violence. Over the past decade, close to 400,000 have been displaced from their homes; in the last year alone, around 2,000 Libyans have died. The war has cost Libya tens of billions of dollars in lost oil revenue, caused extensive damage to infrastructure and houses, and brought about fast-rising inflation and frequent power and water cuts.
The conflict has recently morphed into an international proxy war where foreign powers openly provide weapons, money, and even fighters to fuel the conflict.
When peaceful protests flared up in southern Syria in March 2011, President Bashar al-Assad launched a bloody crackdown on demonstrators, sparking a complex multi-sided war involving rebel groups, jihadists, and world powers that has left the country in ruins.
With military support from Russia, Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Assad regime is back in control of around 70 percent of the country, allowing the Syrian leader to remain in power.
The nearly ten-year-long civil war has killed more than half a million people, and injured another two million amid ongoing military operations, shelling, bombardment, and various other explosions. More than half the country’s pre-war population has been displaced, creating one of the world’s worst refugee crises.
Tens of thousands are being held behind bars, with far more political prisoners in the security prisons than at the beginning of 2011.
Infrastructure, hospitals, schools, and other private and public property have been substantially damaged or destroyed.
The dissent that thrived in the early stages of the uprising has been routinely repressed. Tens of thousands are being held behind bars, with far more political prisoners in the security prisons than at the beginning of 2011.
Syrians have seen the local currency plummet sending food prices skyrocketing in an acute economic crisis compounded by Western sanctions.
The small, Shia-majority state witnessed mass demonstrations in February 2011, with protesters defying the ruling Al Khalifa family and demanding reform. Bahrain’s unrest was brief, as the anti-government movement was brutally crushed a month later when Saudi Arabian troops moved in to assist the government in cracking down on the popular protests.
The main opposition movements have been dissolved, including Al-Wefaq party, which Bahraini civil society considered one of the biggest setbacks of the country’s uprising.
Bahrain’s human rights crisis has since regressed, with the authorities showing a zero-tolerance for any independent and critical voices. Hundreds of political opponents, rights activists and dissidents have been imprisoned, exiled, intimidated, or stripped of their citizenship.
In February, 2001, ten years before the 2011 revolt, Bahrain’s citizens passed a referendum in favor of the National Action Charter, which was supposed to deliver key democratic reforms to the country.
Today’s opposition complains of discrimination against the largely Shia population in areas such as work and public services, and calls for a constitutional monarchy with a government appointed from within a democratically elected parliament.
As of now, Bahrain is still ruled by the Sunni monarchy, which is not ready to extend an adequate social contract to the Bahraini people. Mistrust between the opposition and the Al Khalifa dynasty remains high.
While hopes for democracy have been dashed across the Middle East and North Africa, the same woes that fueled the 2011 uprisings are still there and Arab regimes today are far from immune to the winds of change.
by Alessandra Bajec
December 17, 2020
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