The Arab Spring has produced mixed results in the Middle East. It was initially a movement driven by economic factors: rampant unemployment and the unfair and grossly unequal distribution of wealth forced young people out onto the streets to demand the fall of the dictatorships that had ruled their countries for decades. In countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, early signs of success were evident when it took less than a month for the dictators to be ousted. In Tunisia in the months that followed free and fair elections saw political parties compete and accede to power, whilst Egypt struggled more with the concept of democracy as their first attempt at elections were marred by corruption. However, the situation today shows signs of a return to pre-Arab Spring politics, and Syria provides evidence that the Arab Spring didn’t have the same emancipating results for all countries involved.
The new Tunisia envisioned by the secular, middle-class Tunisians who took to the streets in 2010 to protest the authoritarian regime was not the one that transpired after elections were held to bring a new party to power. They were outnumbered by poor, conservative Muslim voters who ensured the Islamist party Ennahda swept to victory. This highlighted divisions that ran deep in Tunisian society, but the success of such a democratic process gave hope that the country was making progress on the path away from autocracy.
However, less than eight years later the prospect of revolution is once again rearing its head in the Tunisian capital of Tunis where over the past weeks protestors have been taking to the streets to protest many of the same issues they faced in 2010. Unemployment remains high, and with a stagnant economy even those with jobs are struggling to provide for their families. The Tunisian government have promised improvements to social security, but this has done little to calm the unrest, with most protestors saying it doesn’t go far enough.
The International Monetary Fund has imposed austerity measures on the country, exacerbating already-rising tensions in a political environment where stability is yet to be achieved. Figures from the Ben Ali regime are making a political comeback, fuelling fears that very little has changed behind the scenes. Despite the political reforms and the existence of free and fair elections, Tunisia has seen few social and economic improvements. To quash public resentment at this, the regime has been reverting back to old techniques of rule, further fuelling the anger and resentment of the people.
‘less than eight years later the prospect of revolution is once again rearing its head in the tunisian capital.’
The majority party in government, Nidaa Tounes, is a secularist political party and many of the current protestors are calling for the return of Ennahda, which is currently the junior partner in the coalition. However, some are accusing Ennahda of trying to capitalise on the event, further showing that divisions within Tunisia between secularists and Islamists are yet to be resolved. It remains to be seen whether the younger generation can once again take control of the situation and organise themselves in such a way as to get their voices heard democratically.
However it must be remembered that, for all its faults, Tunisia remains the only relative success story of the Arab Spring. These recent protests show that citizens have the political space and freedom to protest, something which was non-existent before the Arab Spring.
Egypt was also commended for its swift ousting of its president and success of elections which brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. However, a year later protests broke out over President Morsi’s rule and the army staged a coup which ousted him.
Under current president Sisi economic and social marginalisation remain, much the same as in Tunisia. The security structure that was the cause of so much state-sponsored violence under Mubarak has been in part re-established, threatening the legitimacy of the current regime. Sisi’s government allows little space for political discourse or dissent, preferring a more autocratic style of rule which represses the freedom of expression which would otherwise threaten their stability.
Similar to Tunisia, Egypt’s economy is faltering with inflation spiking and workers’ earnings failing to cover the basic cost of living. The crackdown faced by journalists and human rights activists is also hugely reminiscent of Mubarak’s rule. As such, the underlying problems which initiated the Arab Spring remain unchanged, and Sisi appears only to be acting on the consequences, rather than root causes, of this discontent.
The Arab Spring plunged Syria into a civil war which is ongoing today. However, there is a widespread sense that the civil war is coming to an end and that president Assad will emerge from it intact and in power, despite the fight many Syrians have put up. Even some in the West, including the US and UK, have conceded that Assad needs to go to ensure a stable and lasting peace in Syria. With the help of Russia and Iran, Assad’s forces have fought against his opposition, many of whom have terrorists in their ranks, to emerge politically victorious. In the same time it has taken for this civil war to reach a conclusion (assuming one will be reached in the near future), Tunisia and Egypt have tasted success and fallen back into the traps of authoritarianism.
This raises the question of what these countries need to do next to resist returning to the conditions of the pre-Arab Spring period. Many have had a taste of democracy, but some argue they need a form of democracy distinct from that experienced in the West. The experiences particular to the Middle East of colonialism and the post-colonial independence struggle defines their political progress. This has to be understood and navigated to ensure a smooth transition to true democracy.
In the wider Middle East, many of the underlying issues which caused the Arab Spring protests have remained unaddressed and unchanged, with regimes opting instead to address the symptoms rather than causes. As a result, nearly eight years later we are witnessing these issues once again find an outlet in popular protest and demonstrations.
There is an irony seemingly lost on the current regimes that they are beginning to mirror the actions of those they fought so hard to overthrow. They are using their power to enforce a crackdown on dissent and the threat of terrorism drives many of the regimes in the region to embark on protectionist policies to safeguard themselves and their political elite, leaving their citizens to fend for themselves. This provides the perfect opening for citizens to join these organisations that appear to offer an alternative way of life. This has been evident in Syria, and the possibility of an end to the civil war that leaves Assad in power will only add fuel to the fire of young people who feel they have been forgotten about. Tunisia might once again be the first of many to become embroiled in protests and demonstrations that sweep across the Middle East.