Ten years ago, the countries of North Africa, alongside their Middle Eastern counterparts, were rocked by a dramatic popular revolution. Sparked by the public self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, and carried on by insistent protestors, the Arab Spring toppled dictators, destabilised economies, and ignited civil wars, upending order throughout the ancient region.
Like all events of its kind, the Arab Spring was, in fact, a collection of many particular revolutions. Though tied together by the common quest to remake the governments of the region, the movement was different in each country. This should be no surprise; the Arab world’s countries are as different as they are similar.
Consequently, the Arab Spring also left unique legacies in each of Africa’s Arab countries. It will no doubt take more time and the talents of better thinkers to characterise these legacies. Nevertheless, this year, being the tenth anniversary of the revolution, is as good an opportunity as any for us to look back and attempt a preliminary outline.
And what better place to start than in Tunisia, where it all began? It was there, in the town of Sidi Bouzid, that Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor, set himself on fire on 17 December 2010. Because he was operating without a licence, his electronic weighing scale had been confiscated by an official, and he had been frustrated in his efforts to repossess it.
Though his act bore deep political and historical significance, there are no indications that he expected protestors to gather on the spot of his self-immolation just an hour later and, even less, that they would persist and be joined by comrades around the country over the following days and weeks. But that is exactly what happened.
They cried out about high unemployment rates, chronic government corruption, and lack of democratic freedoms, among other grievances. The regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali attempted, and failed, to quell the protests using force and promises of reform. When even the armed forces got hesitant about intervening, Ben Ali realised the game was shot. He fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, barely ten days after Bouazizi died without regaining consciousness.
Ben Ali had been president for almost 24 years; he ascended to office in a 1987 coup and had survived multiple threats to his grip on power. His removal after barely a month of protests was a spectacular turn of events. But what is perhaps more spectacular, and useful for our purposes, is that the people of Tunisia didn’t waste the opportunity to remake their political system.
Since the departure of Ben Ali, they have turned their country into one of Africa’s most solid democracies. In its latest report, Freedom House, a thinktank, ranks it as “Free,” with robust protections for political rights and civil liberties. In Africa, only South Africa, Namibia and Botswana ranked higher. None of its Arab colleagues got the tag. None came even close.
The journey hasn’t been without difficulty. As in other Arab countries, there was a counterrevolution. Reactionary forces have often tried to scale back reforms by, among other methods, legislating an amnesty for the lackeys of Ben Ali’s regime, undermining constitutionalism, and rolling back media freedom.
Fortunately, the people have been awake, and have often taken back to the streets to revive the spirit of the revolution. Thanks to their tenacity, Tunisia, the cradle of the revolution, can look back on its progress through the last decade with a healthy pride.
Beyond Tunisia, unfortunately, the Arab Spring’s legacy is much more mixed, if not downright negative. Take, for example, Egypt, which gave the revolution its most dramatic images. Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the heart of the revolution, throbbing in the twilight with the energy of thousands of protestors. Inspired by the ouster of Ben Ali, they gathered there from 25 January 2011 till the downfall, on 11February 2011, of the 30-year old regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Unfortunately, the revolution was hijacked in the post-Mubarak period. Unlike in Tunisia, where the departing Ben Ali, and the constitutional court after him, handed transitional power to a civilian government, Mubarak left power in the hands of the armed forces. In addition, unlike in Tunisia, Islamic fundamentalists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, convincingly associated themselves with the revolution and thus earned legitimate rights to its outcome.
As a result, when the first post-revolution elections came in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood, being the most organised element of the revolution, swept the deck, earning the mandate to form the country’s first civilian government in eons. True to form, led by President Mohamed Morsi, the new government immediately set about redesigning Egypt into a less secular, more confessionally Islamic country.
By mid-2013, disillusioned by the Islamist’s capture of the revolution, protestors took to the streets again. This time, the armed forces, not being on the side of the regime, promptly stepped in and overthrew it, thereby associating itself in turn with the revolution.
The next year, following sham elections, a former general and minister of defence, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, became the president of Egypt.
He has crushed dissent and emasculated the opposition and is busy paving the way for himself to rule for the rest of his life. The man, no doubt, has his virtues. For instance, his stance for religious freedom, which is especially salutary for Egypt’s Christian minorities, is admirable. But there is also no doubt that Egypt, run as it is by a strongman of military extraction, is right back where it was on 24January 2011, before Mubarak’s ouster. It’s as if the revolution never happened.
An even worse fate befell Libya. Protests calling for the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi instantly ran into an armed response. With the right context, it’s easy to see why this happened. By the time the first placard slashed the air in Benghazi, on 15February 2011, both Ben Ali and Mubarak were out of office. Mr Gaddafi rationally considered the situation and realised that a quick and brutal response was his only option.
As it happens, some factions of the opposition were prepared. Libya’s revolution, therefore, was armed from the beginning, and it quickly morphed into a civil war. Into the melee marched the powers of Europe and America, who had long held a grudge against Gaddafi, on account of his sponsorship of terror and human rights abuses. They bombed his positions from the air, and supplied arms to the rebels.
After holding on for months, Gaddafi was eventually captured and brutally killed, like a dog, in the streets of the city of Sirte, his lifeless body desecrated. On the surface, this was supposed to be a triumphant moment for the people of Libya, and many celebrated.
However, the manner of Gaddafi’s murder was also the clearest sign that revolution was already poisoned; it wouldn’t deliver any meaningful freedom.
It still hasn’t. Today, Libya remains in the throes of civil war. No one has yet managed to establish sustainable control of the country and, barring dialogue, no one is likely to do so any time soon. The opportunistic crows of war from the east, Turkey and Russia, have waded in behind different camps. The Western powers that enabled the overthrow of Gaddafi seem to have forgotten their role in the mess.
In the vacuum left by the absence of central authority, opportunistic outfits have carved out spheres of influence, engaging in all sorts of sordid business, from human trafficking to slave-trading. Once some of the most pampered people in Africa, Libyans are now some of our most unfortunate. Like Syria, Libya the fruits of the Arab Spring never matured.
All this gloom notwithstanding, there is still reason to hope that the Arab Spring will deliver robust democracies across North Africa over time. Aside from Tunisia, two other countries embody that hope. Algeria and Sudan, which saw short-lived protests during the heyday of the revolution, only recently achieved the first symbolic markers of success by ousting their own prehistoric dictators in early 2019.
Civilian activists in Sudan, being acutely aware of the failures of the revolution in Egypt and elsewhere, are dragging out the transition to a new government. This tactic has kept the military, which participated in the ouster of Omar al Bashir, from monopolising the transition while, in the meantime giving civil society, long stymied by an autocratic regime, to organise itself.
It has also reduced the chances that the reins of the country would be seized by more organised fundamentalist Islamists, which would have happened if the elections had been held too soon, as happened in Egypt. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, it has allowed substantial time for debate over a new constitution, which protestors insist must make the state secular.
Ultimately, it is along this route that the vindication for the Arab Spring is most likely to be found. In short, the revolution, if it is to deliver real change, must remain secular and civilian. The repudiation of autocracy is incompatible with fundamental Islamism or the participation of the armed forces in civil affairs. This was the path taken by Tunisia, and it is the most sustainable in the long term.