What ever happened to the “Arab Spring”?

Revisiting the countries that in 2010 to 2011 grabbed the world’s attention by demanding democracy and human rights in the, so-called, “Arab Spring

The protests which erupted across Arab countries in 2010 – dubbed the “Arab Spring” – saw tens of thousands of people demanding democracy. The events created great expectations from both the populations of the countries involved and the outside world. However, these countries represent some of the most devastating humanitarian situations in the world today. While the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the devastating civil war has, recently, fixed the world’s attention on Syria it is worth revisiting the other countries of the “Arab Spring”. Each has its own set of problems and, unfortunately, most - with the possible exception of Tunisia – show no sign of reaching their expectations of 2010 any time soon.

First the good news; Tunisia, the birthplace of the “Arab Spring” in 2010, is furthest on its way to a peaceful transition to democracy. There was, of course, turbulence; in 2011 protests forced the Ennahda Islamist party the party to hand power to technocrats after it won the most seats but not a majority in elections. However, the country’s new constitution – which was created this year after months of dialogue - reflects a broad consensus of views. It shows signs of a more inclusive democracy. For example, a new law states women should comprise 50% of all electoral lists.

Tunisia’s first parliamentary elections under this constitution took place this weekend. Although the bad economic situation has meant public interest is minimal and militant groups have threatened to disrupt elections, Tunisia’s transition to democracy looks, at least comparatively, hopeful.

The prospects for Egypt are not quite so good. After Egypt’s uprising and ousting of President Hosni Mubarak the, once banned, Muslim Brotherhood – headed by Mohammed Morsi – won the parliamentary elections and presidential elections. However, after huge protests, Morsi was overthrown in a coup and President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi came to power.

Since, Egypt has moved further away from democracy “and toward military rule with a thin veneer of civilian governance”. This can be seen through the protest law that was signed in November last year. This weekend 23 activists were jailed for three years and fined £870 for protesting without the official permit. Similarly, there has been a crackdown on protests in universities – for example, in October alone more than 100 students were arrested or expelled.

Yemen made attempts towards democracy but its progress was compromised by its weak central government. The uprising in 2011 forced President Ali Abdullag Saleh to agree to hand over power to his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. After this, expert Rami Khouri claims, “Yemen has done surprisingly well given the many structural hindrances it has had to face”. These hindrances have come from both inside the state – such as its high level of poverty, its dysfunctional economy and the continued threat of Islamic insurgents – and from outside forces – such US drone strikes against Al-Qaeda. Despite these obstacles, the country negotiated a decentralised system of government to attempt stability in a county with weak national unity but strong regional and tribal ties.

Unfortunately, the weak central government has been unable to deal with a rise in violence from the Shia rebels, especially the Houthis insurgent group. The Houthis overran more areas of the country this month, including the capital, and many are concerned they may attempt to create a mini-state within the country. Yemen’s ambassador to the UK, Abdullah al-Radhi, said last week that the situation in Yemen is deteriorating so badly the country is at risk of being torn apart by a civil war. Similarly, the security consultants Five Dimensions have claimed “Yemen is moving slowly from a semi-failed state to a fully failed state, and to that extent Yemen is no better than Libya”.

Libya started off well from a national and international standpoint; after Moammar Gaddafi’s troops suppressed protests in February 2011; the UN Security Council acted decisively to end the violence and allowed NATO to initiate a no-fly-zone. However, the no-fly-zone turned into a regime change and helped overthrow Gaddafi – which led to feelings of betrayal among Russians and Chinese who sanctioned NATO action – and did not achieve stability.

After the Islamist lost elections this year conflict in Libya has become increasingly violent. Many commentators are now worried that Libya could be dragged into a civil war as the fighting between government forces and Islamist militias continue. On top of the estimated 30 000 Libyans that died in the overthrow, 25 000 have died in the choas. Further, the conflict has created a power vacuum which could be sought by al-Qaeda affiliates such as Daesh who recently expressed their loyalty to ISIS.

This brief overview, which has said nothing of the quickly crushed dreams of the Bahrainis, does not paint a promising picture for the countries of the “Arab Spring”. Whilst the thousands of demonstrators watched their countries’ fall into today’s dire situations, the outside world’s response ranged from insufficient (as in Tunisia, Yemen and Libya) to detrimental (as in Syria and Egypt). Now, these people’s dreams are crushed and the has world moved on.