State of democracy in the world: Winter & the elusive spring

There have been attempts by various governments to rubbish the EIU democracy index. The fact remains those governments have much to answer to their own constituents

Arab Spring
Arab Spring

Abhijit Shanker

In late 2011, the Middle East and North African region was swept with optimism and hope. A Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation started what seemed like the end of authoritarianism in several countries.

Mohamed’s weighing scales had been confiscated by the local police in Sidi Bouzid, a small town in Tunisia. He couldn’t conduct his business without them and went to lodge a complaint to the Governor at the local municipality. He was not allowed inside the offices and soon thereafter, he inferred he had had enough and set himself on fire. The flames of this seemingly isolated incident would soon burn far and wide, carried by the winds of change.

Some of Africa’s tallest and longest serving leaders like Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali and Muammar Gaddafi were deposed in coups that seemed like being led by common citizens. The social media surmised a role in the uprisings, and it almost looked like Mark Zuckerberg had a shot at resuscitating democracy in the region.

There were ten countries which experienced citizen activism – some of which continue to be ruled by the despots. Syria continues to burn, while Yemen is faced with a war with its neighbour, Saudi Arabia. Let’s look at the countries a decade after the Arab Spring – in the order of when the protests first started in the country.

In a world which celebrates democracy and citizen’s rights, this one spring was viewed as course altering historical event. Much of the promise has been subsumed by subsequent rulers but hope lives. There have also been attempts by various governments to rubbish the EIU democracy index. The fact remains those governments have much to answer to their own constituents.

Tunisia (December 17, 2010)

Following Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation attempt, the video his cousin Ali recorded and uploaded on the internet, became one of the first videos of the Arab Spring which went viral, literally. When the President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s government realised its implication, they tried to clamp down its spread and fired tear gas on protesters who were gathering in Tunis, the capital.

Bouazizi died on January 4, 2011, adding further flame to the ongoing protests in the country. Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia ten days later, which ended his 23-year stranglehold over the country. Ten years later, the country continues to have a democratically elected government, after the constitution was rewritten in 2011. The country’s rank has gone up by 90 points on the EIU Democracy index since that Spring – making it the biggest success in the Arab world.

Algeria (December 29, 2010)

This country begs a look at its background. Soon after its 1991 elections, mass violence led to the death of over 200,000 of its citizens. By the time the Arab Spring arrived, the country was largely peaceful under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Despite the widespread protests, and a clampdown by the military, Algeria was viewed as a country which the Arab Spring passed by during its time. The biggest gain for democracy in the country was the lifting of the 19-years-old emergency.

In a throwback to the original coming of democracy in the region, the country witnessed a renewed series of protests in 2019, reminiscent of 2011. President Bouteflika resigned after 20 years in power. He had been the figurehead after a stroke in 2013, absent from public life. He died earlier this year. The country’s rank has gone up by 10 points on the EIU Democracy since the original Arab Spring.

Egypt (January 25, 2011)

The country became the epicentre of Arab Spring, the public erupting after 30 years of dictatorship. Tahrir Square in Cairo saw thousands of protesters, majority of them young and social media savvy. The crowds in the square became synonymous with citizen protests all over the world. They used street art, symbols, and posters to convey their angst, which resulted in President Hosni Mubarak’s offer to leave office.

He dragged his feet and even after a few months since the protests started in December 2011, his party continued to be in power. The elections in June 2012 brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, ending Mubarak’s three-decade long dictatorship. Within a year, however, the elected government was booted out of power by the military, bringing Abdel Fateh-Al Sisi to power, which he continues to hold on to. Sisi is a former Army Chief and enjoys majority in the successive low turnout elections.

Mubarak ultimately walked free in 2017, acquitted of all charges. He died at 91 in 2017. One of the most prominent countries during the revolution, Egypt’s rank on the democracy index has remained unchanged since that winter in 2011.

Libya (February 15, 2011)

What started as protests against the longest ruling President of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli, quickly transitioned into a civil war with the armed forces on one side against the civil protesters on the other. After the freezing of the assets by the UN-backed NATO and declaration of Libya as a no-fly zone in March, the protests continued as the plans did not include Gaddafi’s deposition.

Eight months after the first protests, Gaddafi was captured and killed in October 2011. The country, however, descended into an abyss of internal strife with multiple stakes being made to the throne. In 2017, the Prime Minister of UK, Boris Johnson proclaimed that Gaddafi’s removal had been a mistake.

Its position on the democracy index went up a measly one point. There is now talk of Muammar Gaddafi’s son making attempts at making a comeback to rule Libya. It remains to be seen how successful he might be.

Next week, we will discuss Saudi Arabia, Syria, Morocco, UAE and Yemen.

(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)

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