After the Arab Spring

Written by Mark Briggs on . Posted in Current features, Features

Three years ago fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the middle of a Tunisian street. His actions unleashed a wave of protests against state injustice which toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, before spreading across the Middle East.

The events became known as the Arab Spring and forced a host of undemocratic leaders from office across the region, greeted by jubilant crowds from Tripoli to Tahir Square and beamed around the globe by the world’s media.

Now the dictators and the news crews have gone, the hard work of rebuilding countries after years of monopolised power has been met with a mixture of success and shortcomings.

Some countries have forged a new path towards democratic rule, while for others the future remains less than clear.

The good the bad and the ugly

Professor Olivier RoyPerhaps the most successful revolution took hold in the country where it all began, Tunisia. “I think it exemplifies what could happen if there were no external interferences in the Middle East,” says Olivier Roy, Chair in Mediterranean Studies at the EUI. “Tunisia is a very interesting case, there is no geopolitical stake; there is no oil, no big army no big neighbour and little interference from the former colonial power and the west.”

Essentially left to their own devices Tunisians were forced to negotiate amongst themselves. The result, according to Roy, is the most democratic constitution in the Middle East, which safeguards freedoms of consciousness and women’s rights.

In Egypt, after initial early progress the situation has regressed. After the ousting of Hosni Mubarak and initial elections, the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was removed by the army with popular support after being accused of a power grab. It now appears the armed forces are trying to reassert control by putting their own candidate forward for the presidency.

“In the end we have a new dictatorship in Egypt. But we are not back to square one,” says Roy. “The society has profoundly changed, the political structure has changed. I expect another round in Egypt.”

Whereas in Tunisia and Egypt the essential day to day infrastructure of the state remained, in Libya, with the fall of Gaddafi, the state fell into dysfunction.

“Libya is an interesting case in the Arab Spring because it was the only one where foreign intervention was decisive,” says Bhuta. While such action undoubtedly quickened the downfall of Gaddafi such interventions bring their own challenges.

“The problem in Libya is the political process has been sped up by foreign military intervention,” explains Roy. “Here we have the rule that any time you have foreign military intervention things go bad because you have no internal domestic political process.”

There is a democratic process underway in Tripoli, but militias across the country are staking claims to power, territory and oil ignoring the ballot box for the barrel of a Kalashnikov.

Currently the militias are relatively balanced in terms of resources, which may have stopped the descent into civil war: no side has the power to overwhelm the others. “Right now there is an equilibrium of forces that means you have a constant low level of conflict, but not a massive conflict. This means it could go along like this for quite some time,” says Nehal Bhuta, Professor of Public International Law.

The country that has suffered most from the Arab spring is Syria. An armed struggle against an obstinate regime has become not just a civil war, but a proxy war between vested interests from throughout the Middle East and beyond.

“No one expected there to be a civil war in Syria,” says Nida Alahmad, a research associate at the Department of History and Civilization. “Now, most people expect it to continue.”

Beyond the Arab Spring

Professor Nehal BhutaDespite appearing to sweep across the region, many countries including Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine avoided the upheaval wrought on their neighbours by popular uprising. However, they have not remained unaffected by developments across the region.

The monarchy of Morocco announced democratic reforms before protests picked up momentum in the country. Elections have been held but ultimately power still rest with the royal family. “The situation is not solved in Morocco,” says Roy. “Tension might grow, but I don’t think in a violent way. You have a specific historical tempo with Morocco (the only Arab Nation not ruled by the Ottomans). The society is changing and modernising and democratic demand will come back sooner or later.”

Despite the turmoil erupting in what would have appeared the most unlikely places, the territory long considered the most unstable in the region appears unaffected by the events. “The Palestinian leaders missed every opportunity,” states Roy.  “The worst thing for Israel would have been an Arab Spring in the West Bank, but it didn’t happen.”

Once the strategic issue of the region it has now moved to the periphery, as others move centre stage. “What remains of the Arab Nationalists who consider the Palestinian struggle the Arabian people’s struggle have no impact on public opinion.”

Ramifications and Geo-politics

Nida Alahamad

“The geo-politics is a mess,” says Alahmad. “Saudi Arabia and Qatar still have a lot of influence and recently they have been in open conflict with each other on geo-politically issues. The gulf states remain very influential.”

“There is evidence the Qatari government is intervening heavily in Libyan affairs by funding particular groups and individuals,” says Bhuta. “There is a great deal of foreign intervention in Libyan politics.”

Although not experiencing an Arab Spring at home, Saudi Arabia has been involved in events abroad, backing factions and groups which serve their interests. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-led state and has found itself in constant conflict with a Shia axis “trying to maintain a Shia corridor from Tehran to Beirut,” according to Roy. However they have been unable to unite the Sunni groups across the region, actively undermining the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as well as democratic forces. “De facto they align with secularists even if it is supposed to be worse to be a secularist than a Shia.”

“The Saudi policy is a catastrophe, not only because of the effect it has on the region, but because it undermines their own camp.”

Perhaps the most influential Shia state is Iran. After gaining diplomatic victories over its own nuclear programme and its role in the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, Iran is keen to re-enter the wider diplomatic scene.

“In the long term I think we are witnessing a reshuffling of the balance of power in the Middle East. The big question is will this reshuffling have an impact on the borders,” says Roy.

Going forward

“It is all yet to be seen, it remains unclear. You would hope the big winner would be the people, but we still don’t know,” says Alahmad. “There is a generation of Syrian refugees who will never have been to school and are scared by the war and their experience in the camps.”

“It is anyone’s guess right now,” says Bhuta. “Libya, I think, will continue to stumble on in this way.”

“People are free from an authoritarian state and that has created the space for all sorts of political, artistic and other kinds of expression. The problem is when that happens where the basis of civil order is very weak; those kinds of achievements tend to be a bit evanescent.”

Without any recent experience of democratic representation people are still finding their space. “The positive side of this is there are more voices, there is more expression of hopes, fears and opinions,” says Alahmad. “You have everything and its opposite, it remains a very transformative moment.”

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