Anet McClintock | Middle East and North Africa Fellow
When 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi committed self-immolation in order to draw attention to the dire situation of himself and his fellow Tunisians, it set off a chain of events which would have a lasting impact on the region. It has been ten long years since the event that sparked the Arab Spring–the wave of democratic protests that washed over the Middle East and North Africa.
Many people will look back at the inhumane oppression, the war, the famine, the displacement, and deem the project a failure. Yet there is cause for hope; despots fell, some marginalised groups won key rights, and headway was made for democratic rights in some countries. The glass-half-empty types would also be well versed to remember that large-scale, meaningful change may often take years before the true extent of their impact is revealed.
Since that unassuming Winter’s day on the 17th of December 2010, change started happening quite quickly. Dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fell first, and his 23 year-long grip on Tunisia came to an end. A month later, Hosni Mubarak was ousted after two-and-a-half weeks of protests in Cairo. The joy in the air was palpable–Egyptians shouted: “Lift your head high, you’re an Egyptian!” President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya were also casualties in the months of protests that followed. Collectively, 142 years of dictatorship was overturned in a little more than seven months.
Looking at these numbers, it perhaps a little shocking that the legacy of the Arab Spring is described as a failure, with dashed hopes, and agony. And understandably, many look back on the movement and look at what followed. There are more political refugees currently in Egypt than in 2011, press freedom is demonstrably worse in the Middle East than a decade ago, and several countries, including Syria and Yemen, plunged into devastating civil wars that sparked one of the largest displacements in modern history.
Perhaps these thwarted dreams were because of the high hopes placed on the revolutions at the time. There was incredible momentum associated with the movement; Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni human rights activist and leader during the protests against Saleh, won the Nobel Peace Prize in late 2011, in a not-so-subtle nod to the perceived success of the Arab Spring. Record turnouts were seen in elections, and many believed a ‘radical revolution’ was taking place where the Middle East would adopt European-style democracy overnight. But when all these expectations inevitably weren’t met, the movement was deemed a failure.
Revolutions are rarely linear and progress is more complicated than we would like. Looking back may give us some perspective. Since the mid-1920’s Syrians struggled against French occupation in a struggle of independence called the Great Syrian Revolt. It was only after World War Two, in 1946, that Syria was granted independence. I suspect that the stories of history tell us that we have not seen the end of the Arab Spring.
It is also essential to look at the crucial gains that were made post-Arab Spring that may not have grabbed the headlines as prominently as ousted dictators. For example, in 2010, only 2.5 per cent of Bahrain’s parliament were women. By 2020, that number increased six-fold to 15 per cent. In Egypt, in 2011, only 1.9 per cent of the parliament were women, and this year it skyrocketed to 15 per cent. In Egypt, LGBTQ rights came to the forefront after the fall of Mubarak. Young and queer Egyptians felt safer than they did in decades in public spaces. And while rights for women and LGBTQ people in these countries are often still highly oppressive, there is increased awareness internationally about the rights and experiences of these groups.
The aftermath of the Arab Spring has also seen a fundamental shift in the way foreign governments interact with the region. In late 2019, the American government announced a total withdrawal of all troops in Syria. While many Syrian citizens, including members of the Kurdish community, felt abandoned by this decision the withdrawal came from the recognition that the presence of the American military in Syria has had little strategic or political benefit, least of all for the Syrian people. As Robert Wright wrote in the Washington Post, “the best-intentioned military interventions tend to make things worse”. The experience in Syria should be a wake-up call for America and its allies that military intervention is not, and should not, be the foremost policy direction. The hope in the Syrian situation should be that America and its allies will accept that bullheaded military intervention will often only serve to exacerbate existing tensions, giving rise to extremist groups such as ISIS, and that more creative and thoughtful policy solutions are at their disposal.
For now, much of the unrest in the countries involved have subsided. In the decade since the Arab Spring came to life, many will look at the state of the region with a degree of despair. But the world has seen the drive and desire of people in the Arab Spring countries for self-determination, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and for democratic rights, and we know they are willing to speak out to achieve these outcomes. These desires are going to last well after the memory of the Arab Spring has faded.
Anet McClintock is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.