The Arab Spring,10 Years On…

I believe that one of the most important political/cultural/social movements of the last ten years was the Arab Spring. Therefore, I thought it deserved the initial post here at the relaunch of STL. But as I tried to put something together as a coherent argument on something about it, I realized that I am at a loss. The way in which it did not substantially work for the better leaves me lost even after ten years. I have no sure feelings, beliefs, or convictions on the period, or what is now called the “Arab Winter.” I can say I was so hopeful at the time that it almost lent itself to elation, but now I feel nothing but such dense disappointment; almost hopelessness. I have read books, articles, and saw many documentaries and news pieces on this most important set of events, yet I cannot put my finger on any argument to be made. Maybe it’s because I am a Westerner; a Roman Catholic. Maybe it’s because I was not there on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, or the destroyed streets of Aleppo, or at the Libyan storm drain where Qaddafi was found and killed. Maybe it is because I do not want to believe something negative. I don’t know. But below is a strategy, something I hope that can salvage the movement using the stories of the those times. Maybe something to look to inspire the future.

Simply put, What happened between the end of 2010 and the end of 2020? My thoughts are scattered below: 

Up until December 2010, the North African country of Tunisia was as typical of an Arab state as it gets: a history of empire and colonialism; a hopeful independence; a state-centered, socialist economy; a slide into dictatorship implemented through secret police (Feldman, 2020). This small, coastal nation on the Mediterranean Sea did not seem out of the ordinary in any way compared to its’ neighbors..

Then on December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself afire to protest against police harassment. He died on January 4, 2011, but not before his gesture went viral, sparking protests against the country’s authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the people’s poor economic situation. Ben Ali’s 23-year-rule ended 10 days later when he fled to Saudi Arabia, becoming the first leader of an Arab nation to be pushed out by popular protests. What happened next across the Arab world, what we now refer to the as the “Arab Spring,” followed something like this:

On January 25, 2011, thousands of Egyptians marched in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities, demanding the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for 30 years.  Then on February 11, as more than a million took to the streets, Mubarak resigned and handed control to the military.

The Muslim Brotherhood-linked government of Mohammed Morsi was then elected in 2012, but was overthrown the following year by the military led by the general, now president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

On February 15, in Bahrain, protesters took over the Pearl Square roundabout in the capital which they renamed “Tahrir Square”, and demanded a constitutional monarchy among other reforms. But their camp was stormed by riot police three days later, killing three people and injuring many.

The same day the Bahrain protests started, the Libyan police used force to break up a sit-in against the government in the second city, Benghazi. The country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi pledged to hunt down the “rats” opposing him. The uprising turned into a civil war with French, British and American air forces intervening against Gaddafi. On October 20, 2011, Gaddafi was captured and killed in his home region of Sirte by rebels who found him hiding in a storm drain. The country is now split between rival eastern and western-based administrations.

On March 6, a dozen teenagers tagged the wall of their school in southern Syria with “Your turn, doctor”, referring to President Bashar al-Assad, a trained ophthalmologist. The torture of the youths sparked mainly peaceful protests at first, and calls for democratic reform. But with violent repression by the government, the revolt turned into civil war. Syria’s war also contributed to the rise of the ISIL (ISIS) group and renewed conflict in neighboring Iraq, culminating in a genocidal attack on minorities in the north of the country.

On October 23, 2011, Tunisians streamed to the polls for their first free election, in which members of the Ennahdha movement triumph.

On February 27, 2012, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled for 33 years, handed power to his deputy Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, after a year of protests. The Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen also descended into violence following initial protests.

Russia, who with Iran is al-Assad’s biggest ally, started air attacks against Syrian rebels on September 30, 2015, changing the course of the war. After 10 years of fighting, which left 380,000 dead, al-Assad was able to claim significant victories.

Ten years after Tunisia, It all seems for nothing when put together like that, does it not? All those aspirations for a more liberal-democratic pan-Arab region. A Guardian-YouGov poll published on December 17 even finds that a majority of populations of nine countries across the Arab world feel they are living in significantly more unequal society today than before the Arab Spring. And read here about Bouazizi’s legacy in his own country.

But maybe not all is lost. Let’s look at some social movement theory from Han and Wuk Ahn (2020) that may pick up the Arab Spring up from the canvas someday:

“Studies of social movements have benefited from the examination of narratives. Social movements are defined as networks of informal interactions between a plurality of individual, groups, and/or organizations engaged in political or cultural conflicts, on the basis of shared collective identities. Activists use stories to make sense of the reality surrounding them, motivate collective action by forging collective policymaking. Narratives unite participants in social movements and are utilized as tools. To be effective…social movements should not just mobilize financial and human resources, utilize political opportunities, and present solid transition plans but should also adopt effective frames. Narratives provide actors with tools to turn themselves into heroes with a powerfully mobilizing identity when they lack established organizations or coherent ideologies [38]. Narratives translate feelings of shame and individual responsibility into feelings of empowerment, efficacy, and entitlement.”

So maybe the people of the Mid-East will someday be able to launch a new uprising, one taken from the stories of the those contentious politics that have occurred over the last decade. At this point, I admit I really do not know. I feel as if I’m just clinching at straws to pull something positive out of it all, something positive in this Arab Winter.

What do you think? Leave comments below. 

Here is a good video piece from Al-Jazeera I find particularly moving that centers on the professional and amateur reporters who documented the movement. Maybe those reports and films will serve to inspire those of the next Arab Spring, if it ever occurs. 

Difference in Egypt and Tunisia Transitions Affected by Education More Than Religion?

A recent op-ed in Foreign Policy discusses the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt becoming more ‘Islamist’ as time goes on as they seemingly increase their power in government but notes a slight difference between Egypt’s transition and Tunisia’s:

In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda movement quickly found that, despite a landslide election victory in 2011, secular parties and a vibrant civil society would resist any attempts at “Islamization,” particularly when it came to writing the country’s new constitution...Ennahda decided to withdraw several proposed clauses, including one that would enshrine sharia as a “source among sources” of legislation…Tunisia…is generally seen as the closest thing the Arab Spring had to a success story. One reason is that Tunisia — unlike Egypt — has been able to take its time. The drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution has been a slow…process.  But slowness is the price of consensus. Once the process is completed, Tunisians will be able to point to a constitutional document that enjoys broad support across the political and ideological spectrum.(Emphasis added)

New democracies but what government awaits?

The author warns that some believe Tunisia will still be debating how much “Islamization” is allowed for some time to come but there seems to be a more tolerant tone in the country than in Egypt.  What might explain this more moderate process when debating the infusion of religious values in their new governments?  The answer could be education.

If we look at some of the rankings where education is a key factor, we see Tunisia ranks higher (albeit somewhat slightly) than Egypt in education index, human development index, and school leaving age.  Comparing the two at Nation Master also shows Tunisia better in nearly every education category given.

The debate over level of education versus level of religiosity goes back and forth at times but the more important factor possibly playing a role here is religious tolerance.  As noted in this polling data from Gallup a decade ago:

education level correlates positively with the likelihood to be tolerant of other faiths, even if they don’t actively seek to understand them.

But the most interesting and, maybe, the most relevant info to this case is in this article of polling data from Gallup.  It finds:

even though they do not belong in as great a number or attend as frequently as their more highly educated counterparts, those on the lower end of the educational scale have much more faith in religious institutions, perhaps reflecting a broader tendency to rely on institutions in other areas of their lives — unions, HMOs, government agencies, etc. Those in this group have far less faith in the individuals at the head of their religious institutions — the clergy — than in the institutions themselves.

This reality coupled with the tolerance data suggests more education leads to a more active push from people of their direct leaders for what they want instead of a more passive faith in them.  In other words, the people in the institutions are forced to be more responsive to their better educated constituents because they tend to be more active and vocal.  And this verbalizing may tend to more tolerance of other religions and skepticism of religious implementation in government, as seen in Tunisia, while lower education levels may tend to more passivity and more allowance of religious fervor in government, as seen in Egypt.

There is still a long way to go before things have settled in both of these countries and their governments could take paths to either more “Islamization” or more secularization in the years to come.  Only time will tell.  But there certainly seems to be, at the very least, a more gradual and more moderate movement toward creating a new government in Tunisia while Egypt continues its apparently more conservative path with increasing inner turmoil still disrupting the country on a regular basis.