10 years after the ‘Arab Spring’, a mixed bag for democracy

Hope for freedom and democracy kindled by the Arab Spring were not entirely misplaced. Some countries have allowed people more liberties. But the outcome has been a mixed bag

10 years after the Arab Spring
10 years after the Arab Spring

Abhijit Shanker

As we discussed in this column earlier, the Arab Spring brought hope and optimism to the region and to many countries outside of the Middle East. It showed us citizens can still embark upon a revolution and make a difference. Who would have thought that Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi would be deposed through a series of protests, lit by a street vendor, Bouazizi, in Tunisia?

History is replete with examples like the Arab Spring. What we do, however, need to remember is how to escape a cycle of repetition, and how to keep democracy and people’s voices at the centre of governance. Any attempts to silence citizens eventually lead to dictatorship, and it is our duty never to give up on speaking out, and raising our voices, even if it’s a solitary one to begin with. Let’s examine the rest of the countries which felt the sparks of people’s revolution, a decade ago, in the Middle East.

Morocco (20 February 2011): Largely a monarchy, Morocco has been ruled by King Mohammed VI since 1999, when he ascended to the throne upon the death of his father. Protests started on the streets of Rabat, the capital, and Casablanca. The streets were flooded by young people who realised they could have a say in reframing the constitution of the country, allowing for democratic reforms.

After months of violent protests and failing to quell the voices, the King promised reforms in March and then again in June. He followed up with a national referendum in July 2011, which was unacceptable to some in the opposition. He also rescheduled the national elections and pushed it a year earlier to November 2011. A decade later, the King continues to wield the most power in Morocco, but due to the constitutional reforms, the country went up by 20 points on the EIU index.

Saudi Arabia (January 2011): The monarchy of Saudi Arabia was one of the least affected in the Arab Spring. The protests started with self-immolations in Jeddah and Semtah in late January 2011. As the protests threatened to engulf the country, the monarchy tried to quell them by promising infrastructural reforms by investing $127 billion to enhance job growth and standards of living conditions. Hundreds of people were arrested, and special courts were set up at the time. Manal-al-Sharif famously drove a car, eventually getting the monarchy to allow women to drive in the kingdom.

Since then, the monarchy has given in to cautious reforms, allowing women to vote and to stand for elections. This was a major victory for women in the kingdom, perhaps why the EIU index has gone up by three points for Saudi Arabia.

Syria (March 2011): This country can be agreed upon to be the worst recipient of the Arab Spring, which prompted a civil war, made space for ISIS and made refugees of seven million of its citizens. Another seven million are displaced internally and seeking to get out of the country. According to World Vision, 11.1 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance.

The country is in shambles, with its history wiped out in the internal war. The superpowers have kept their hands out of the imbroglio, leaving Syrians to handle their misfortune by themselves. Bashar Hafez al-Assad continue to rule the country with an iron grip, leaving no opportunity for his power to slip away.

I had visited the Zaa’tari refugee camp in 2015, then the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, and all I had seen was hope among the residents. It’s a fully functioning town, replete with schools, water transportation, barber shops, and sewage systems. The country slipped by 12 points on the EIU index, perhaps deservedly so, though unfortunately for its citizens.

Yemen (January 2011): This country is another recipient of global inaction and the greed of its leaders. A local humanitarian officer told me in 2017 that when he went to get permission to have a plane full of aid land in Sanaa, the capital, the Minister’s office asked him to send half of the aid to his home. He had also told me that people were dying on the streets, with the hospitals overflowing, after Saudi Arabia continued to bomb the country.

When protests started in Yemen in late January 2011, President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had the protestors arrested, which included the Nobel Prize winner, Tawakil Karman. After surviving an assassination attempt the same year, and recuperating in Saudi Arabia, Saleh returned to clamp down on the protests. A year later, however, he gave up his power and handed it to his second in command, Abrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who continues to rule Yemen. On the EIU index the country has gone down by -11 points.

As we have seen, not all protests achieve everything they set out for, but even if we are able to shake up one dictator, another wannabe strongman, it should be reason enough to protest.

(The author is a former Chief of Communications with the United Nations in New York, where he worked for more than a decade. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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