By Alex Yeo
"Ten years on, we are still in the middle of the Arab Winter."
Just over ten years ago, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the centre of the Tunisian city Sidi Bouzid. His actions, and subsequent death, a desperate act of protest against the corrupt local government that had taken everything from him, was an event that changed the world; his protest marked the beginning of the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring was, without a doubt, the single most important event of the 2010s. It is hard to comprehend that it has been a decade since it all began. In that time, we have seen the horrors of the Syrian, Libyan and Yemeni Civil Wars, the rise and fall of the Islamic State/Daesh, the refugee crisis, famine, sectarianism - the list goes on. There have been clashes over the Arab identity, over the importance of Islam, even over the role of Monarchy in some of the states.
Ten years on, we still live in its shadow, the ramifications of those protests still felt in many, many aspects of global society. Ten years on, we are still in the middle of the Arab Winter.
Islam, Democracy and Authoritarianism
The Arab Spring, in the eyes of us in the West, was a bright new dawn, a chance for the triumph of the people and democracy against the dictatorial regimes that have plagued the Middle East and North Africa since decolonisation.
This has only been the case in one Arab state - that of Bouazizi’s native Tunisia. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index ranks Tunisia as the only Arab democracy, one of the Middle East’s only two democracies alongside Israel. That being said, it is not as if inroads to this goal have not been made. In Morocco, King Muhammad VI heeded calls of reform and accepted changes to the constitution instituting limits on his power. While Abdullah II of Jordan has made similar changes, unlike in Morocco, little has come of this.
Indeed, instead of a Western democratic model, the most dominant ideology among protestors was Islamism. This word, Islamism, has with it a certain association in the Western mind with terrorism, violence and repression. A discussion on the finer points of Islamism is a story for another article, but for now, it suffices to say that Islamism is a blanket term and covers the beliefs of many, many groups.
"The Arab Spring was, without a doubt, the single most important event of the 2010s."
Among these groups were Ennahda of Tunisia, who came out of the country’s first democratic elections at the head of a Government, having spurred on the protests. In Morocco, the Islamist (technically, Islamic Democrat, but again - a whole other article) Justice and Development Party has led the country since 2011. Outside the Arab World, Turkey’s own Islamist movement, the AK Parti, still leads the country with it’s President Erdogan becoming a very important personality on the world stage. Islamism, particularly Islamist Democracy, seems here to stay.
However, it is in Egypt that the association of Islamism and Democracy is most visible - but not for its successes. After a widely reported revolution, that suffered the most from the Western spin of Arabs wanting a democracy exactly like ours, the Muslim Brotherhood won elections with Mohammed Morsi coming to power in 2012. Just over a year later, Morsi was overthrown by the military, with Abdul-Fateh el Sisi replacing him. Ten years on, Egypt languishes under a brutally repressive authoritarian regime. Morsi died in prison in 2019, while in 2018, el Sisi apparently won re-election with 97% of the vote.
War and Crisis
The failure of democracy often takes a backseat in discussions of the outcomes of the Arab Spring. It is the crises and conflicts that often dominate these discussions - for they have, without a doubt, had more world-resounding consequences.
There is not much I could say here that has not already been said. The Syrian Civil War has had a globe-reaching impact, as a Revolution turned Civil War turned Proxy War as world powers now see fit to struggle for influence. A “partition” of sorts is underway, with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the East, the Syrian Government in the majority of the country and various pockets of Turkish control in the North. Assad is no closer to losing power than he was at the beginning, nine years and nine months ago.
The Islamic State rose and fell in the last ten years. Though some splinters remain, some lands held, the so-called Caliphate is no more. Its legacy will endure, however, in the minds of those whom it radicalised, and those who wish to emulate it. Daesh represents the epitome of this Salafist dream - the violent and bloody end to the state will almost certainly have repercussions for Islamism (whatever the strand) for years to come.
"The failure of democracy often takes a backseat in discussions of the outcomes of the Arab Spring. It is the crises and conflicts that often dominate these discussions."
Refugee crises arising from these conflicts, among others, have sparked the rise of the far-right in Europe and America. Policies towards these vulnerable people range from misguided to purposefully negligent. All for the sake of some political capital, hundreds of thousands of people are tossed aside as an annoyance. While Biden’s victory in America may present a turning of the tide against the far right, we are not out of the storm yet. Far from it.
With Covid having ravaged the world this year, however, the conflicts in Libya and Yemen may prove to be the most devastating humanitarian crises in recent memory, let alone the most devastating crises of the Arab Spring. Food security has been shaken by the pandemic, not just in countries affected by the Arab Spring but in countries across the world. Yemen, however, is already grappling with the spectre of famine and crisis - Covid may yet prove to bring this disaster to unprecedented heights.
And yet, the bombs still fall.
Alex Yeo is a monthly contributor for Demographica. Formerly a Master's Student at the University of Glasgow, he specialises in Russian and Eastern European politics, society and culture, specifically in the Caucasus. He has further interest in Authoritarianism, Democracy, Islam and Islamism (and the misunderstandings thereof) and World Politics in general. He is currently in the process of applying for a PhD.