Reviewing the Arab Spring

On 17th December 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia self immolated, sent a tsunami of protest and revolution across the Arab world, which does not seem likely to stop anytime soon. Since the initial act by Bouazizi, the world has seen unrest in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, Israeli border areas, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Mauritania, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, the Palestinian Territories and the Western Sahara, all of which have varied in their magnitude and their level of coverage, effectiveness and resilience. The themes of these protests include: income disparity, dictator rule, oppression of minorities, abuse of human rights and restriction of freedom of speech. In many of these countries, civilians are not allowed to live according to their will and are forbidden from practising their basic human rights. Therefore, after these protests, what has been left behind?

Tunisia was the first to revolt on 18th December, and by 14th January, it managed to drive out its President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, forcing him to dissolve his government and to exile himself. On 23rd October 2011, Tunisians finally got their chance to vote, with the formerly-banned Islamic party, Ennahda, winning with 41% of the total vote.

Egypt soon followed, with the first protests beginning on 25th January, which are still ongoing. The protests have been violent, with at least 846 dead and 6,000 injured. Protesters have had to handle attacks from pro-government forces on camels, gun fire from the military and army vehicles. The protesters have managed to remove President Mubarak and Prime Ministers Nazif and Shafik, but their problems are not yet solved. In light of the situation, a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was set up, which very soon became unpopular and was seen as extending the old regime’s influence (Mubarak had strong ties with the army). Moreover, the new constitution (written effectively under the watch of the Supreme Council) supra constitutional amendments have been suggested, which make it impossible to see the Army’s budget and spending. SCAF have also called for 80 members of the constitutional assembly (the body responsible for writing the new constitution) should be non-MPs. SCAF has also been criticised following confrontations in October between the armed forces and a group of protesters, mostly comprised of Coptic Christians (Egyptian Christians). Since SCAF took charge, 1,600 people have undergone military trials and the decades of old state of emergency that has hung over Egypt has still not been fully removed. There has also been the introduction of a law criminalising protests and strikes, anybody organising or calling for protests will be sentenced to jail and/or be fined up to 500,000 Egyptian Pounds (£52,000). Parliamentary elections have happened and results from that have largely been in favour of the Islamic parties. Roughly two thirds of the vote went to two parties (both Islamic in their ideology), one was the Democratic Alliance for Egypt (almost entirely made up of the Freedom and Justice Party, which may as well be pseudonym for the Muslim Brotherhood) and the other was the Islamist Bloc. No Presidential election has taken place yet.

Libya used to be the 4th longest running dictatorship in the world (3rd Kim Il-sugn, 2nd Chiang Kai-shek and 1st Fidel Castro), headed by Colonel Gaddafi. Having been in power for the past 42 years, Gaddafi had a hold over Lybia, but also being the irrational thinker he was widely attributed for, he did not have strong organisation throughout the country. This meant that when revolution hit, it did not take long for defectors to come out in favour of the people. The revolution started on the 15th of February in Libya’s second largest city (Benghazi) and by the 21st, it was liberated from Gaddafi’s rule and the National Transitional Council (NTC) was formed. Soon after, there was a military crackdown on the city through the use of African mercenaries that were paid for by the state. The civilian protesters were able to overcome this through the use of the fact that 15 in every 100 people in Libya own firearms and when military divisions, or even whole barracks defected or were taken over by the NTC, they would bring arms with them. Throughout what effectively became a civil war, there were to and froes, as the NTC would drive Gaddafi’s back and then there would be a counter-offensive by troops loyal to Gaddafi. At one point, the revolution nearly ended when Gaddafi’s forces managed to reach Benghazi on 19th March. Eventually, the UN passed a resolution which imposed a no-fly zone over Libyan air space on 17th March, with what became a widely regarded as successful humanitarian intervention and the Gaddafi regime was toppled on 23rd August 2011 and Gaddafi was found on 20th October 2011. This was, despite the fact that he had earlier claimed that he could not step down, like a normal head of state because he had resigned from all formal state positions in 1977 and assume non-executive leadership roles, which made no difference. When he was finally found, ironically, he was found taking refuge with his bodyguards in a drain, despite earlier threatening ‘to kill the rats who opposed him’.

Following Gaddafi’s downfall, the world has seen civil war, discontent within the public and a lack of leadership. The NTC is made up of former Gaddafi loyalists, Islamists, secularists and others from a wide spectrum of political backgrounds with no common political identity. And while the NTC seems unable to take a hold of the country and bring it together under a common national identity, the county is left with the law of the jungle and tribal politics takes hold once more. Meanwhile, being black in Libya has become a quasi crime, with it being widely reported that civilians are lynching black people due to the fact that they either associate them with Gaddafi’s African mercenaries, or Gaddafi’s want for an united Africa under his leadership. Nevertheless, apparently incidents of road rage have reduced and people are driving in a more civil manner.

Despite the democratic changes that have taken place recently, we should take this change with a grain of salt. In the past, we have seen many seemingly peaceful democratic and western backed springs/ changes that have turned sour: the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Mugabe in Zimbabwe and even Mubarak in Egypt (it should be noted that secretary of state Hilary Clinton described Mubarak as a personal friend in 2009). The west and major regional powers have to get involved in supporting the democratic process and the civilian populations, not just the new leaders. This is a chance for proper, legitimate, representative governments to come out of these countries that have seen tumultuous change. However, the course they are on now bodes well only for the power hungry and prospective dictators. Powers which can help should aim to try to in pushing for an open democracy, aiding the new interim councils through advice in regaining power and legitimacy, as well as helping set up institutions necessary for a properly functioning democracies, such as a free independent media, a dismantling of the police state and involving all parties and groups in the transition. These steps will be difficult and there are many challenges which these incipient new orders will have to face, including that of promoting neo-liberal thinking in a society that has only known dictator rule from a theocrat supposedly appointed by god. Undoubtedly, many of these new rulers will try to reflect their old leaders, thinking that is how you are supposed to act as a leader. There is the added challenge of the sectarian divisions within these countries, tribal divisions and voting based on commonalities of religion, tribe and creed. Needless to say, secularism is not something that is learnt or taught overnight. Unfortunately, it’s a long arduous process of cultural change.

There is always a chance and one shouldn’t turn away from the situation completely. These countries cannot be left to their own devices because it is obvious that many of these countries are left in such a state that they will either slip back into the dictatorship, headed by their transitional council, or a strongman will arrive, promising to solve their problems and a dictator will be found in that way. But we cannot repeat our Iraq or Afghanistan strategy of picking a western backed chosen one to run the country and then regretting the decision. We have to allow a natural process of rebuilding with the west’s guidance and we should not be afraid to speak out when we see something wrong in the new regime. The best thing for the west and other powers to do would be to offer their help and support in the form of democracy promoters, advisers sent to these incipient democracies which would be there to help guide the new order and power structures, offering advice on steps which the governments should take in order to help promote democracy. However, from a cynical point of view, the new leaders can chose to ignore the advice and may have mal intent. If that is the case, democracy may be finished.

Contributed by Kayani Mohammad Kayani

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