The Arab region was a tinderbox when the Tunisian revolution erupted on 17 December 2010. However, the turning point in that revolution came with the flight of Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali on 14 January 2011. That was the moment that the ball moved into the court of the Tunisian people who had succeeded in ridding their country of over a half a century of one-man rule. However, the problem was that Tunisia, which had inspired the Arab masses with the spirit, slogans and methods of its revolution, was unable to offer those masses a model for how to establish a stable democratic system of government, because Tunisia, itself, was searching for such a model.
When Bin Ali left Carthage Palace in Tunis, he left behind major questions that needed answers. Who would assume power following the president’s disappearance, since the constitution didn’t provide for such a scenario? What part would the Ennahda movement play in the coming period? How should the Constituent Assembly be formed? Should all officials associated with the Bin Ali regime be ousted or should some be retained and incorporated into the new order?
Everyone was exhilarated by the end of the nightmare of dictatorship. Youth and women stood proud of the parts they played in bringing about that great achievement. Meanwhile, the spark of revolution spread to Egypt, ushering in an extremely influential chapter in the history of Arab revolutions.
It was no coincidence that the day that Hosni Mubarak stepped down and handed control to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was the same day that the Yemeni revolution erupted. True, the clouds had begun to gather over the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime several years before 11 February 2011; however, because of the many linkages between Egyptian and Yemeni history, revolution spread there directly. The Yemeni people marched to Liberation Square in Sanaa to rejoice at the fall of Mubarak and to pick up the famous chant, “The people want to down the regime!”
It was only a matter of days before the Libyan people followed suit. On 17 February 2011, a group of Libyan youth staged demonstrations to protest against the evils of the Gaddafi dictatorship. They were joined by families of the victims of the Abu Salim Prison massacre in 1996. It was thus that Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, lit the torch of the Libyan revolution.
February would become associated with landmark shifts and turning points in the Arab revolutions. On 6 February 2013, the Tunisian leftwing lawyer and political activist Shokri Belaid was gunned down, sending powerful shockwaves through Tunisian society. The glare of suspicion homed in on supporters of the Ennahda movement. Tunisians had grown increasingly dissatisfied by the performance of the troika that was headed by Ennahda. The disputes between its members had begun to flare into the open. The Constituent Assembly seemed to be dragging its feet on drawing up the country’s new constitution and the Ennahda Party seemed determined to chip away at the rights that had been gained by Tunisian women and was bent on monopolising power. The breakdown in security inflamed public anger. The assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, another left wing politician and member of Constituent Assembly, several weeks later triggered widespread outrage. A national salvation front was formed, as occurred in Egypt, and the future seemed open to dire possibilities. At this point, some influential civil society organisations intervened and Ennahda backed down.
February brought three landmark developments in the Libyan revolution. The first was the formation of the Transitional National Council (TNC) a few days after the revolution erupted. The second was the creation of the “February Committee” in 2014 in order to overcome the crisis caused by the fact that the term of the General National Congress (GNC) had come to an end before a new constitution was drafted. The third was international intervention in the revolution in accordance with a sanctions resolution against Muammar Gaddafi.
The creation of the TNC was precipitous in that it failed to take into account the lack of political expertise among Libyan elites.
Although poor organisation was one of the foremost criticisms levelled at all Arab revolutions, the Libyan TNC was far from the best organisational framework for Libya at the time. As for the February Committee, while necessary in order to handle legislative crisis, subsequent disputes over its conclusions would eventually culminate in a total bifurcation of governmental institutions at all levels. As for international intervention, it escalated into an open military campaign that would aggravate the situation and complicate matters further.
In February 2012, following an overwhelming electoral victory, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi was officially proclaimed Yemen’s new president. That development hit Ali Abdullah Saleh like a moment of truth. Until that point, Saleh could contrive and manoeuvre and claim that he was still the elected president even if he had transferred his authorities to his vice president, Hadi. But when faced with the outcome of the new elections, Saleh changed strategy. He approached the Houthis and persuaded them to turn against the Gulf Initiative and against the outputs of the Yemeni national dialogue.
The course of the Arab revolutions never moved in a straight path. The forces of change would run up against a counterforce, and the interaction between the two would determine the nature of government and the state. Like Februaries past, February 2017, which is nearing an end, also brought significant developments. Tunisia has overcome the problem regarding the right of army and police personnel to vote, which now clears the way for long delayed municipal elections. We expect the same development in Egypt where a new government was formed and charged with new tasks the primary aim of which is to alleviate the hardships of the Egyptian people. In addition, this month saw a remarkable rebound of the Egyptian pound against the dollar in the course of the economic reform process that was set into motion in November 2016. In Yemen, the balances of power have begun to change in favour of the camp of the legitimate government, evidence of which can be seen in the conflict over the control of Yemeni Red Sea ports. Perhaps this will generate the climate conducive to a political settlement. Meanwhile, in Libya efforts have intensified to bridge the differences between the head of the Presidency Council and the commander general of the Libyan Armed Forces, which raises hopes for an end to that country’s political impasse.
Syria is perhaps a special case because the pace of events is so fast and no month passes without some major development.
However, February 2017 brings an Astana conference and a Geneva conference along with further progress on the ground in the siege against the Islamic State in its last strongholds.
On the whole, it looks like the beginning of this year offers a surge of hope in the course of the Arab revolutions. Will February 2017 mark the beginning of the end of the suffering of the peoples of the Arab Spring?