The Arab Spring – Era of a Lost Decade

Transition is always painful and if it is prolonged beyond a reasonable timeframe the public frustration rises as the masses tend to compare favourably the immediate past with their current state and an uncertain future.
Keywords: Tunisia | Revolution | Arab Spring | Social Media | Autocracy | GCC | Muslim Brotherhood | Geopolitics | UNSC Resolution |Middle East | Reforms | Regional Power
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By self-immolating himself in front of the Governor’s office in Sidi Bouzid the frustrated and harassed street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi made history on December 1, 2010. Although he died on January 4, 2011 his sacrifice released the bottled-up frustration of a disenfranchised population for decades subjected to indignities and lack of opportunity by the autocratic regime of President Ben Ali. It was not the first time that a frustrated Tunisian had taken his life nor was it the last. But it was symbolic in more ways than one as the ensuing far-reaching impact not even the most astute strategist or commentators could have predicted and much less politicians and their benefactors. The French Foreign Minister and the other western backers of Ben Ali, knowing too well of the corrupt regime, considered it merely a law-and-order situation and even offered to send the gendarmes to contain it. Public ire and ever-growing demonstrations demanding the end of the regime moved so fast that the situation could not be repaired and within weeks President Ben Ali left the country for exile in Saudi Arabia. But Social media made it contagious in the region. Tunisia is still a relative regional success story even if partially so in the post revolution era.

The domino effect followed in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and even other Arab and GCC countries. Well entrenched regimes for decades were to face the most vehement existential crisis from within. Libya’s Mohammed Gaddafi was an exception that was replicated in Syria and Yemen where external military intervention became a norm and remains so. People wanted nothing less than to take power in their own hands but no one knew how to use it. The removal of the dictatorial regimes became an end in itself. This was duly supported by the regional and western powers after seeing the Tunisian impact. Tunisia is still struggling to maintain a democratic order despite occasional political instability and other challenges. 

The Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, after huge protests at Tahrir Square and elsewhere, had no option but to abdicate when he was let down by his military-industrial complex.  What followed became the redline for the region. The Muslim Brotherhood that had been banned for decades and had been expanding its network clandestinely through social work resurfaced and won the elections. However, Morsi, inexperienced and embedded with MB ideals in an Islamic cage failed to meet the aspirations of Egyptians and by challenging the well ensconced military complex invited the wrath of the mighty elite. The rest is history. Egypt could not become a model for the revolutions and simmering discontent remains and bears the seeds of a future eruption. As such its economic condition and opposition to Muslim Brotherhood brought it closer to the Saudis and Emiratis who economically bailed it out as Turkey and Iran – the two functioning Islamic democracies became the major competitors for religious and geo-political influence in the region. Qatar, even though a monarchy had supported the Muslim brotherhood and Hamas and hence was accused of fomenting terrorism in the region directly and destabilising others through its powerful media organ Al Jazeera (Arabic). Hence, Doha’s blockade and disruption of diplomatic relations were decided in June 2017 by the Saudi led Quartet and there is hope they will soon be eased. However Turkey in the process got its feet in the GCC strategic military space through its base in Qatar as it came to the rescue of the tiny but rich gulf state that somehow managed rather well by keeping western countries strategically engaged and in good humour.Yet the spectre of the aspirational Arab Spring has not gone away and hence gradual reforms in the energy-rich Gulf states are underway since the street is unlikely to be satisfied with mere doles.

Libya remains unstable, divided, and devoid of law and order. This happened due to the application of R2P doctrine without any plan for the country after the violent removal of Gaddafi who had challenged the authority of the mighty for far too long and had ambitions of becoming the “King of Africa”. He had also displeased the Arab monarchs by his flamboyance and irreverent manners. The French and US led NATO intervention brought down Gaddafi’s regime in no time. Hence regional satraps became the tools for the Libyan revolution that finally triumphed after the killing of Gaddafi in his hometown Sirte on 20 October 2011 but hope for “New Libya” remained shrouded in violence spurring the growth of powerful armed militias supported by regional and international actors. This led to two parliaments in the East and West and two Prime Ministers and rival forces. Fear of Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists also contributed to the continued instability as the country has been divided, On the one hand General Haftar in the East is going strong, with the backing of Egypt, France, UAE and Saudi Arabia and the in the West the Tripoli based Government which is often described as the internationally recognised government of PM Serraj is supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy. The US and UK vacillated all through between the two sides. Now sincere efforts are afoot to bring about some semblance of political order in the country, but Libyans continue to suffer. Libya even became a refuge and hotbed of terrorists including ISIS which Gaddafi had warned against. 

Syria and Yemen have become the humanitarian disaster zones with the power play in full swing. Russia that had felt cheated by the US and others, who manipulated the UNSC Resolution to intervene in Libya decided to step into Syria and changed the course of events. They have moved rather strongly in Libya and the Mediterranean too. But this time Turkey has become a new rival even though Ankara works with Russia elsewhere. Iran has been a major player in Yemen and Iran through its proxies and hence comes in direct conflict with certain Sunni countries including the Saudi led alliance but UAE and Oman have moved back into Syria to help in its reconstruction as new power equations following the signing of Abraham Accords are emerging.

Judging the outcomes of a revolution in a decade old timeframe may not be doing it justice but unfortunately what transpired thereafter due to the designs and malfeasance external actors must be questioned. Having no plan after carrying out the regime changes is unpardonable. More importantly continuing to sabotage the stabilisation efforts calls for accountability even in this imperfect world order. One of the problems remains the lack of democratic temper and value systems compounded by the lack of appropriate institutions and it may be recognised that perhaps the Westminster style of democracy needs to be and adapted to the cultural and civilisational order of the Middle East. Moreover, the Covid crisis19 and how regimes handle it will also define their capacity to govern. 

It has not all gone waste as one witnessed the simmering hopes of change in the second wave during the last couple of years- loosely termed as Arab Spring 2.0 Once again the replacement of leaders took place rather fast through demonstrations be it Algeria, Lebanon, or Sudan. The Deep State in all these countries might be active as the military in most of them holds significant power over institutions and resources but people seem to have taken a better route to emancipation from dictatorship this time. Transition is always painful and if it is prolonged beyond a reasonable timeframe the public frustration rises as the masses tend to compare favorably the immediate past with their current state and an uncertain future.

Many of the regional powers who feared the public furore on the Arab street and its power to dislodge the long-time dictators as much as the onslaught of democracy have worked overtime to engineer a counter revolution in these countries. Consequently, the weak institutions have been decimated causing greater impatience and frustration at the grassroots level. The resulting situation is precarious in the medium and long term even if in short term it might look tenable. People’s aspirations are like a genie in a bottle – once corked out they will engulf all. Finally, if the international community is serious much can still be retrieved so that the dreams of the ordinary people may be realised. 

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Anil Trigunayat

Amb Anil Trigunayat is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta.

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