Arab Spring 10 Years On (Part 1) | Sarah Stook
On the 17th December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi had enough.
A young Tunisian street vendor, his family lived in near-poverty and he was working to keep the family afloat. His problem was that the authorities were demanding bribe money and he made nowhere enough. One case saw a female officer slap him and destroy his stall, which his family said humiliated him due to the gender of the official.
Bouzazi was angry that the local governor refused to see him, so he stood in the middle of the traffic, poured gasoline on himself and lit a match. He suffered 90% burns and whilst, there was initial optimism, he died on the 4th January 2011.
It was the literal spark that set the revolution alight. Months later and it seemed as though the Arab world was on fire. Protests turned into riots and riots turned into the overthrow of regimes. Every section of society screamed for change as rulers who had been unchallenged for decades hid inside their homes. Years of economic instability, poverty and stifled freedoms had gotten to the people. Some marched the streets as others used social media in order to spread the word.
It’s been almost a decade since The Arab Spring. So much has changed- or has it? Let’s explore the legacy of each country affected by the change.
Prior to the Arab Spring, Tunisia had been controlled by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali since 1987. He’d overthrown the previous government in a coup and the subsequent elections had him win essentially unopposed. A popular tourist spot, Tunisia was fairly stable for the region, mainly due to strong background forces.
The self-immolation of Bouazizi immediately created protests. Within days, extra security filled the streets and several protesters killed themselves. Nearly all teachers and lawyers went on strike. Violence soon followed. Ben Ali attempted to quieten the issue by changing some of his cabinet and promising new jobs, but he also refused to resign and called the rioters terrorists. A state of emergency was declared in January 2011 and Ben Ali set new elections, but it was clear that his role was impossible. Only a few days after he announced he would stay, Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia after France refused his request for asylum.
Ben Ali’s self-imposed exile did not quell the protests, but there were some improvements, such as the announcement of fresh elections. Issues still remained and protesters still took the streets, with the election being delayed. In October 2011, Moncef Marzouki was elected. A state of emergency remained for several years later, but Tunisia is the only country considered to have become a fair democracy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
The biggest legacy is the Tunisian Constitution of 2014, which provided milestones such as universal elections every five years, fair trials and an independent judiciary. Women also saw their rights greatly improved- in 2017, Tunisia became the first country in the Arab World to outlaw domestic abuse, banned the marry-your-rapist loophole and allowed Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. The Freedom House has given Tunisia a ‘Free’ rating, the only Arab nation to receive it. Sadly, Tunisia is still not perfect- the tragic shooting at a hotel saw 38 killed in 2015 is one such example. Still, it is moderately successful and we can only hope things will improve from there.
Protests over a huge increase in living costs and the prices of food, especially basics, were the trigger in Algeria. High unemployment existed among the youth, who make up the majority of the country, and they were the ones most angered by the government. A wave of self-immolations followed, obviously inspired by Bouzazi. Opposition figures and unions banded together in order to protest, with students later joining in.
The resignation of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak triggered a new wave of protests. Thousands of police were deployed to the streets. The state of emergency was waived not long later, but protests remained in the capital Algiers. Many also blocked roads and attacked police because of unemployment and infrastructure issues. People died, but the protests were not as bloody and far-reaching as in other countries.
The 2012 parliamentary elections, the first held after the Arab Spring, were deemed to be fair, and they have been held regularly since. Unfortunately, Algeria still has its fair share of issues. There is a huge lack of freedom of speech and media, as well as association and assembly. Women also face discrimination.
The Jordanian people struggled with a sky high deficit, unemployment and poverty. Protests began when the Muslim Brotherhood led the calls for Prime Minister Samir Rifai to step down. He was sacked soon later, but the new appointment wasn’t popular either. Protests continued but turned a corner when the motorcade of King Abdullah was attacked- he’d previously been left alone.
Riots and protests continued into the next year but faded until there was a 10% hike in fuel prices- there were demands for the newest PM to resign. This PM resigned, but the next one also increased fuel and other basic prices, leading to a new wave. Even the previously popular king was insulted, adding to calls for his abdication.
Constitutional reforms resulted from this, including the king announcing he’d no longer appoint the PM. Proportional representation was added for parliamentary elections and the judiciary was reformed. Jordan was never truly damaged and the country remains relatively stable.
The rise of protests in tiny Oman was quite the shock- it’s a small country with more foreign workers than native residents and no history of open discontent. Oman’s protestors wanted higher salaries due to the relatively high cost of living, along with political demands such as cabinet ministers being term limited.
Protests were originally small, peaceful and quiet- they were also well organised and supported the Sultan. Not long later, the city of Sohar became the breaking point. When protestors blocked traffic and threw stuff at security forces, the police used tear gas and rubber bullets. Several protesters were killers after this point, though there is no precise number. As the movement spread across the country, issues of massive corruption and problems with the oil industry became more apparent among workers.
The results of the protests mainly involved political changes and welfare reforms. Sultan Qaboos dismissed a large amount of his cabinet and reshuffled it several times more, as well as creating independent authorities for oversight. In order to help citizens, an unemployment benefit was installed, another public university created and the promise of 50,000 public sector jobs. Since then, Oman has been relatively stable and good on the world stage, though the recent death of Sultan Qaboos has created some uncertainty as he had no children.
Known as one of the world’s most oppressive and secretive regimes, Saudi Arabia looked as though it might initially be bypassed. This changed when a Saudi man set himself alight, which coincided with a set of floods that killed nearly a dozen people in Jeddah. Several political activists were arrested for organising these protests, which in turn led the people to ask for their release.
The later months saw women’s issues come to the forefront. After being unable to participate in municipal elections, a suffrage campaign was started. Not long later and a right to drive campaign was also started. Though the women were given the right to vote in the next municipal election, those female protesters were imprisoned and punished. This continued as the months wore on. Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority is deeply oppressed and the arrest/injury of the popular Sheikh Nimr caused even more chaos. Further protests were violent and several were killed.
Whilst some concessions were given overall, such as the right to drive, the government essentially killed the protests and maintained its stranglehold on its populace. The new Crown Prince has claimed to be a moderniser and has enacted some liberal reforms, but the country still remains as it was 10 years ago.
A popular holiday destination and Western ally, Egypt was ruled by Hosni Mubarak for thirty years. The country had been under emergency law ever since Anwar Sadat was assassinated, giving extra powers to the authorities. Among other things, habeas corpus was completely abolished, the police had larger powers and demonstrations were heavily limited. Egypt had been suffering under heavy corruption, poverty, censorship, unfair elections and police brutality for decades
The Tunisian Revolution was the start for Egypt, with several Egyptians practicing self-immolation. National Police Day became the chosen day of revolt for anti-government activists. The Muslim Brotherhood joined left and right wing activist groups and other allies in protesting. Protests spread like wildfire across the country over the next few days, with Tahrir Square in Cairo being the centre of it all. Though Mubarak resisted resigning initially, he finally did on the 11th February 2011, 17 days after protests started.
That wasn’t the end.
A military council took over, promising that it would rescind power either after six months or an election. Though a new constitutional referendum passed, the council also effectively banned protests and demonstrations. Protests continued for months, even as Mubarak and his cronies were imprisoned. In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood swept to power when candidate Mohamed Morsi won the presidential election.
Morsi gave himself new powers and was immediately unpopular. A major protest occurred on the year anniversary of his ascendancy and he was overthrown days later. 2014 saw a new constitution and the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former Head of the Egyptian Armed Forces, in a resounding victory.
Unfortunately, Sisi has faced calls to resign due to use of autocratic powers, showing that Egypt was not quite as lucky as Tunisia.
Part 1 has shown that the Arab Spring has had a mixed legacy. Tunisia managed to turn itself into a free and fair democracy, with Egypt not quite getting there. Algeria has moved slightly, but not quite enough. Jordan and Oman remain stable if not truly free, having had significant governmental changes. Saudi Arabia crushed protests and remains almost identical to before, with any progress independent of the Arab Spring.
Part 2 will discuss Syria, Yemen, Djibouti, Sudan, Palestine and Iraq.