Arab spring, a revolution for dignity and democracy that left its trail of violence and chaos. The story begins in Tunisia, a small country situated in northern most point of African continent. Tunisia was ruled by a dictator, Zain Al Abdin Bin Ali. He was in power from last 23 years. Twenty three years of oppression and corruption for the people of Tunisia, and then something happened. On 17th of Dec 2010 a street vendor unwittingly changed everything. This man was 26 year old, his name was Mohamed Bouazizi. He sold fruit on his cart, local officials confiscated his cart because he did not have a licence. He offered to pay fine but was harassed and humiliated, and this is what he did. Mohamed Bouazizi stood outside a local government office and set himself on fire. He was taken to hospital but two weeks later he died. By then he was a national hero; the Tunisian people declared him a martyr. His act of defiance set of a revolution, something that the country had never witnessed before. Thousands of people who were suffering due to unemployment and paying for the corruption of govt officials descended on the streets. They were armed with flags and cell phones, the movement spread on social media via facebook, Youtube and twitter and on the 11th of January 2011, a week after Bouazizi’s death the Tunisian government fell. The disgraced president fled into exile to Saudi Arabia and all of this happened in a matter of just 7 days. Videos of the revolution went viral on the internet, its speed and success inspired others across north Africa and West Asia. Protests began first in Algeria, then in Jordan, and Oman. By the 25th of January this spirit of revolution had reached Egypt followed by Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait and even Lebanon. All of these countries were engulfed in this revolution. More dictators were overthrown. On the 11th of Feb 2011 Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down. He was a man who ruled Egypt for 30 long years. Pro-democracy protesters co-ordinating on facebook brought his regime down in a matter of days. By the end of the year many governments had fallen. In Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh had to go after 20 years in power. In Libya the powerful dictator Muammar Gaddafi lost not just his regime but also his life. He was captured and killed by Libyan rebel militia. The Arab spring was a political tsunami for the region. At least four long standing authoritarian regimes fell. The speed and surprising ease with which these regimes fell gave people a lot of hope. If removing a dictator was so easy installing democracy should also be easy. But it wasn’t. The transition was tumultuous, for some it has still not ended. The revolutionaries had learnt a lesson overthrowing a regime is much easier than building a stable new system
Tunisia, the country where all this began ended up being dominated by interests of small number of families and some rich businessmen. Ten years on, the country’s economic machine is out of order. Tunisia is in a recession with zero growth, reports say the recession could reach -7% by 2021. Tackling unemployment was one of the top goals of the Tunisian revolution but as of 2020 more than 16% of Tunisia’s people don’t have jobs. Among the youth, unemployment is more than 36%. But Tuneisia has some semblance of democracy.
In Egypt the setbacks outweigh the gains. Protesters failed to politically organise after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.The power vacuum was filled by the Muslim Brotherhood, that too failed. The shortsighted petty agendas alienated the public. The army in Egypt exploited all of this. The generals took power, they placed country under the military dictatorship. There was another wave of protests the other dictator was ousted now in 2020 the current Egyptian Govt led by Abdel Fateh Al Sisi shows little tolerance for dissent. Some say it’s more brutal than previous dictators.
In other countries the protests subsided; protesters were beaten into submission or there was violence and choas. In Libya when Gaddafi’s regime fell there was little left to the Libyans. Libya collapsed into conflict, to this day it is marred by civil war. There are two rival governments and countless militant organisations. In Syria the protests led to worst fallout for everyone involved. A brutal dictatorship under Bashar Al Asad is targeting its own citizens. The citizens fled war and misery to end up as refugees. Extremists and terror groups like ISIS struck roots. Syria today is disaster and still far away from democracy and dignity for its people. The same happened in Iraq. The uprising was coopted by terror groups like ISIS. When govt. was toppled the rebel groups stepped in to fill the vacuum. They resorted to strong armed tactics. They terrorised their own people, stoked the fires of unrest, and civil war led to massive refugee crisis which continues to this day.
So were theses revolutions ill conceived or were they hijacked by power grabbers? Was the Arab spring a step forward or a step backward for the people of these regions. Whose fault is it that they fail to get the life of dignity and equality that they fought for. The fault we say is in our understanding and our expectation about what an uprising can achieve. Democratic transition is not about overthrowing individuals. Democracy is about institutions, systems which may appear mundane but form the bedrock of stability. A free press and independent judiciary, a corruption free executive system. Getting rid of a dictator is not enough, we have to clear the systemic rot. We have to build robust institutions. Politics is hard work, sweat and grind beyond idealism. It is a lesson we often forget. America and its allies made the same mistake with Iraq in 2003. The removal of Saddam Hussain alone could not make Iraq a democracy. Conducting elections alone would not ensure equal rights for all. We need institutions. So let this be enduring lesson from the Arab spring for all of us – strengthen institutions not individuals.
Maajid Khan is Lecturer Political Science