Arab Spring anniversary

— 7 minute read — by Ed Bazeley and Sam Feierabend

The events of the Arab Spring

By Ed Bazeley

Photo by industriall-globalunion.org from Flickr

This year marks a decade since the Arab Spring put North African and Middle Eastern politics at the forefront of news bulletins around the globe. The uprisings began in 2011, when oppressed citizens of countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Syria decided to stand up against the dictators who ruled their respective nations. 

These countries were ruled in a way that ensured the gap between the rich and poor was insurmountable and ever-growing. Those less fortunate in these nations had to cope with some of the lowest living standards in the world whilst being aware that those in the wealthy faction of their country were among the richest in the world. 

The first protests took place in Tunisia, where demonstrators came together to oppose the tyrannous president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The uprisings in Tunisia commenced on December 18th 2010 and by the January 14th 2011, the president and his wife, Leila Ben Ali, had fled to Saudi Arabia.

A Tunisian protestor, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself alight in the early stages of the Tunisian revolution and his “burning man” image is an iconic moment of the Arab Spring. 

Inspired by the success of the Tunisians, millions of Egyptian demonstrators gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday 25th January 2011 to oppose long-standing ruler Hosni Mubarak. The date of this protest deliberately coincided with Egypt’s national police day.

An Egyptian army tank patrols the streets of Cairo. Photo by Alan Bazeley.

On the subsequent Friday, one of the most infamous moments of the Egyptian revolution occurred when protestors torched a police van on the iconic 6th of October Bridge. It was subsequently dumped into the river Nile. Mubarak retaliated strongly to these actions and deployed the armed forces. 

In addition to those in the capital, violent clashes were seen in notable cities such as Suez and Alexandria. Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed El-Baradei was present at protests throughout the Egyptian revolution. On the 11th February 2011, Mubarak was ousted by military general Mohammed Hussain Tantawi, who consequently headed a de facto government. 

Algeria was another North African nation that succumbed to the collective might of the Arab Spring protests. Protestors forced the government to put an end to its 19-year state of emergency. This led to a relaxation of government restrictions imposed upon the people. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the protests in Algeria did not lead to the government being overthrown. The then-president Bouteflika did not resign until 2019. Fortunately for Algeria, the death toll was estimated to be just 8 people – a small number when compared to the hundreds of deaths seen in Tunisia or Egypt, or the thousands seen in Libya and Syria. 

The revolution in Libya was a success in terms of the protestors getting what they wanted, but its impact was severe and has decimated the North African country. The violence seen between rebel forces and Gaddafi-backed forces was so extreme that it led to UN intervention. The coastal town of Benghazi and the country’s capital, Tripoli, became all-out battlegrounds. Muammar Gaddafi was killed by rebel forces in August 2011 – an image that became one of the most poignant of the Arab Spring in its entirety. Libya’s death toll as a result of violence related to the revolution is estimated to be 20,000. Perhaps, however, there is some consolation in the fact that the government was ultimately overthrown. 

In nations such as Syria and Yemen, there is still no light at the end of the tunnel, or even any indication of when these civil wars may end. 

The Arab fall

By Sam Feierabend

Photo by worldatlas.com.

Such widespread protests gripped the world’s media, as a region of oppressed people stood up to their oppressors in acts of defiance which looked, for the most part, to change the course of history for a troubled region. Yet a decade on, the collateral damage from the Arab Spring is still in our daily headlines, with democratic elections scarce and civil wars still pitting ethnic groups at loggerheads in struggles for power.

Let’s not forget the western world’s involvement in the events. For years, an agenda of ‘othering’ has been conducted by the so-called hubs of democracy; this reared its head in a simple good versus evil narrative, whereby the Middle Eastern people needed liberating from their oppressors. Inevitably, this was done through bombing and invasion – the typical peacekeeping actions.

From a Western perspective, there is quite rightly an attitude of shock and horror to the actions seen in the Middle East and North Africa at the time. However, the most intelligent politicians – the ones that are elected to uphold our values – seem to have a blind ignorance for historical reasoning behind the troubles that are playing out in the 21st century. This stretches back as far as 1918, in the aftermath of the First World War and subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, where the victors of the war (the UK, US, and its allies) drew up borders for existing countries without a consideration for their ethnic breakup. As a result, minorities are oppressed and cannot escape the confines of their country’s border. The authoritarian rules seen in the region are merely the easiest way to control such violent tensions.

Many viewed the death of Muammar Gaddafi as the end of the Arab Spring. However, intervening Western countries failed to learn from the mistakes of the Iraq War, and did not implement a full plan to reform the country. This was mirrored across the region, as hope for a smooth transition into stable democratic systems were quickly dashed. Deep divisions started to emerge over hap-hazard constitutions and the speed of reform – especially evident in Egypt and Tunisia, where society split into Islamist and secular camps at a stalemate over Islam’s role in politics.

Similarly, a ‘winner takes it all’ attitude began to emerge within parties, meaning any scope for compromise over political policy was severely narrowed. This ushered in the start of political instability, akin to scenes seen in post-Soviet Eastern Europe in the 1990’s, with the key difference being that Arab regimes refused to back down to opposition pressure. Whilst armed conflict in Libya was swiftly shut down by a NATO-led coalition, conflict in Syria has descended into a power-struggle that exists to this day.

The protests aimed to bring peace and democracy to the region at the expense of authoritarian rule. None of the six countries that started the movement have achieved this since. Since 2014, Egypt has slid back into authoritarian rule under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who implemented methods of oppression that bear resemblance to Mubarak. The Bahraini ruling family of Al Khalifa have violently put down threats of rebellion on multiple occasions and have strengthened their grip on power. The people of Kuwait have also experienced oppression and tyranny despite protesting heavily, urged on by Lebanese and Iraqi rebels to do so more frequently since 2019. Whilst Jordan was not subjected to scenes of violent protest, economic austerity from 2011-2018 has galvanised problems for their people.

The anomaly in this situation is Tunisia, perhaps helped by its geographical isolation from the Middle East itself. It has been able to uphold a multi-party democracy and hold relatively transparent democratic elections throughout the decade. However, its weak economy has not drastically improved which may provoke further social unrest in the near future.

The most physical impact of the Arab Spring on the West is that of the mass migration that has long been a key political debate across the globe. The UK referendum on leaving the European Union in 2016 featured immigration at the forefront. The Leave campaign placed emphasis on ‘taking back control’ of the nation’s borders. They inspired many to back their cause and ultimately won the vote. Those beating the drum of that particular message failed to acknowledge the role the UK played in displacing citizens in Libya and Syria; the people of these countries were forced to flee bombs dropped by RAF planes, and run from bullets fired from guns that had been supplied by governments in the West.

Therefore, the Arab Spring has had lasting effects on our way of life. In the region itself, thousands of innocent people are still being killed every year as they fight for a future just to live in peace. These citizens have fled for a ‘better life’ and have, in some instances, been cruelly oppressed and outcast by certain sections of the European population – the very people who view themselves as the epitome of peace and justice.