When Mohamed Bouazizi, a jobless graduate in the provincial
city of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, about 200km southwest of the capital Tunis, set
himself on fire on December 18, 2010 after police had confiscated a cart from
which he was selling fruit and vegetables, few would have predicted that this
event would spark the phenomenon we now refer to as the Arab Spring. Protests
quickly escalated in Tunisia and within four weeks Tunisian President Zine
al-Abidine Ben Ali had to flee to Saudi Arabia having failed to stop the
protests either by repression of promises of reform.
On 17 January, one day after Ben Ali’s departure, another
young man set himself alight near the Egyptian parliament. Within a week,
coordinated mass protests began in Tahrir Square, and forced the resignation of
long-serving Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who handed power to the military
on 11 February.
Since then, the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt have made
at best incremental progress in some areas. In Tunisia, the first elections
anywhere as a result of the Arab Spring went ahead in October and the newly
elected parliament had its inaugural session on November 22nd. The election
winners, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda (Renaissance) will have a
coalition arrangement with a liberal and a centre-left party. While Tunisia
avoided the appalling violence that characterised the uprisings in Egypt,
Libya, Syria and Yemen, the new government and parliament still face an up-hill
battle in the transition to a more democratic political system, including
drafting a new constitution.
In Egypt, the military was instrumental in pushing Mubarak
out of office, but the slow progress towards democratic reforms, several deadly
sectarian clashes between Islamists and Christian copts, tensions and violence
on the border with Israel, and a heavy-handed police crack-down on continuing
protests in Tahrir Square do not bode well for the country’s immediate
future—even if parliamentary elections go ahead on 28 November. While the army
seems keen not to want to actually govern the country, they seem equally determined
not to give up their privileged position that gives them political influence
and control over significant economic assets.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, it seems as if the old regimes
are determined to hold on to power at all cost, and despite diminishing chances
of success. In Yemen, a crisis that had engulfed the regime of President Ali
Abdullah Saleh long before the Arab Spring began is nowhere closer to a
resolution even after Saleh at long last agreed to a transition plan sponsored
by the Gulf Cooperation Council. This plan saw Saleh hand over power to his
Vice President (not the opposition), allows him to retain the title of
President for another three months, guaranteed him immunity, and left his
assets untouched and members of his family in charge of most of the
government’s hard power. Forcing Saleh out of office does also not address at
least two of the country’s major crises—the Houthi rebellion in the North and
the secessionist insurgency in the south, the latter of which has formed an
alliance of convenience with al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula.
Unsurprisingly, violence in Yemen has continued unabated since Saleh signed the
GCC transition plan on 23 November.
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In Syria, Bashir al-Assad has, so far successfully, clung
onto power regardless of the mounting death toll among protesters. Like
elsewhere in the Arab Spring, an initially peaceful protest movement has turned
into an armed insurgency, but one that lacks a unified political opposition.
The Arab League has increased pressure on the Assad regime, albeit not
unanimously and so far only threatens sanctions, while France, in an eerie déjà
vu of events in Libya, has called for humanitarian corridors and safe zones
inside Syria to protect civilians from an ever more violent regime crack-down
and has recognised the opposition.
Libya continues to stand apart from all other countries in
the Arab world in which people took to the streets to demand freedom, jobs and
democracy. But the reasons for this are no longer all positive. The country
remains divided and an Interim Government was only sworn in on 24 November,
after weeks of protracted power struggles, tensions and occasionally serious
violence between various armed groups that once made up the patch-work of rebel
factions that ousted Gadhafi. Already Berber groups have suspended any
cooperation with the National Transitional Council as they resent what they see
as their under-representation in the new cabinet. At the same time, question
marks remain over the apprehension and killing of Colonel Gadhafi and whether
the Libyan justice system is able to give a fair trial for his son, Saif
al-Islam, even after the International Criminal Court has accepted that he can
be tried in Libya. On top of all that, serious and credible allegations persist
about abuses of former regime supporters. Libya might yet turn a corner toward
a stable and more democratic political system, but the obstacles in the way of
such a transition are mounting.
Almost one year on from the beginning of the Arab Spring it
may be too early to judge its outcome, but some crucial lessons should be borne
in mind on the road ahead:
1. Transitions from authoritarian rule are, for the most
part, violent affairs in which all sides are likely to commit abuses. Pushed
into a corner regimes desperately cling onto power; once victorious, rebels
find it hard to resist exacting revenge on members and supporters of the old
2. Disparate rebel movements are united at best in their
desire to get rid of the old regime, but what motivates their members is a
whole range of different causes and more often than not there is no common
vision for the future among them.
3. As a result, the departure of the old regime does not
automatically lead to peace, stability and democracy.
It will take years, if not decades, for us to understand in
full the consequences of the Arab Spring. But local leaders and activists in
the Middle East and North Africa, regional and international organisations like
the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, the European Union and the
United Nations all have a responsibility to make sure that the revolutions of
the Arab Spring in the end improve the living conditions of the people in the
region rather than install just a different brand of self-serving rulers that
only pay lip-service to human rights, democracy, and individuals’ well-being.
This will be a long and at times frustrating endeavour, and
while we must remain realistic about the speed and comprehensiveness of its
success, we should remain equally committed and determined in our support of
the genuine democratic aspirations of the people who have started these
(Stefan Wolff is a Reuters Analysis & Opinion
columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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