When the Arab Spring revolutions erupted two years ago they ignited people’s hopes for a better future, one in which justice, freedom and dignity would prevail after decades of dictatorship and degradation. The Arab peoples were not lured to revolution by enticements from abroad or ambitions at home. They were driven by concern for their countries, which had fallen into the grips of corruption and nepotism, and by sympathy for all those whose dignity had been trampled as they struggled to procure the wherewithal for a decent life while all privileges and major opportunities were reserved for those who enjoyed the patronage of the authorities.
Under such oppressive conditions, a seething anger roiled beneath the surface and its latent energy was detonated by Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian vendor whose sole means to rebel against injustice was to set himself on fire. Little did he realise that in committing this desperate act he would set fire to tyrants and stir peoples throughout the region into action. Suddenly, central squares filled with protesters demanding freedom, and once powerful regimes began to teeter and fall one after the other. Spring had arrived with its bright promise. Processes of change were set in motion. Yet, two years later, the harvest seems so paltry, especially when compared to how great the expectations had been.
The hope was for rapid governmental reconstruction through a smooth process of democratic transformation characterised by national unity, popular consensus and the prevalence of the rule of law. In other words, people had longed to build to a modern democratic state along the lines of the democratised states of Eastern Europe. They simultaneously had anticipated an economic revival, such as was achieved by the emergent nations in South and Southeast Asia, so as to alleviate the strains of poverty, improve standards of living and realise social and economic justice.
The hope was that the new regimes would meet — at least to the best of their ability — the revolution in Arab hopes and expectations triggered by the Arab Spring revolutions. Unfortunately, developments on the ground proved otherwise. True, some countries took some great positive steps. In Egypt, for example, free and fair legislative and presidential elections were held and the army left the political fray and focused on safeguarding national security. Yet, in spite of this progress, the transition fell prey to controversy, infighting and divisions among revolutionary forces.
The chief ingredient of the revolutions’ initial success had been the spirit of unity that bound all present in the public squares. By the same token, the absence of this feature became a major cause of subsequent difficulties and failures. In Egypt, factional disputes and the struggle over power led to political rifts, the deepest of which was that between the ruling Islamist trend, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and its allies, and the liberal and secularist opposition. Between these two stood a large segment of disappointed revolutionary youth. Then, within a few months of the first presidential elections, fresh controversy erupted over Morsi’s constitutional declaration and the situation was aggravated by contention over the 2012 constitution. Thus, by the second anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, the streets and squares had once again erupted into mass demonstrations and protests, and violence flared to an unprecedented degree. It was as though fireballs were flying back and forth across the country from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Alexandria’s Qaed Ibrahim Square, from Mahalla Al-Kubra to the Suez Canal cities, from the area around the Republican Palace to the area around the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Muqattam. To compound the worsening security breakdown, all national dialogue initiatives that sought to alleviate tensions and end the crisis ran aground on the shoals of partisanship, inflexibility and lack of trust. Meanwhile, counterrevolutionary forces exploited the fragmentation to achieve their ends. As a consequence of the turmoil, Egypt — the pivotal country in the region — verged on bankruptcy and the spectre of a failed state.
The situation in Tunisia is not much different to that in Egypt. There, too, discord soon gained the upper hand and the gulf widened between revolutionary forces and the ruling coalition led by the Islamist Al-Nahda movement when it appeared that this movement intended to assert its hegemony over the political process. When, earlier this year, Prime Minister Hamadi Al-Jebali, secretary-general of Al-Nahda Party, attempted to form a technocratic government in order to rescue the country from its political crisis his own movement rejected the solution and he was ultimately forced to resign 19 February 2013. The next government, headed by Ali Laarayidh, was accused of reproducing the same policies as its predecessor, to which was added the charge that it “appeased” the extremist Salafist trend alleged to have committed a number of assassinations and other acts of violence. In the face of this mounting threat and heightened polarisation, this government— also dominated by Al-Nahda — came under intense pressure to convene a national salvation conference.
The Syrian revolution has reached a precarious crossroads. The revolutionaries have failed to topple the Bashar Al-Assad regime, which is strongly supported by Iran, China and Russia, while the West refused to intervene militarily to support them, as it had done in Libya, for fear of precipitating a regional war. What began as a peaceful revolution deteriorated into a civil war due to the regime’s recourse to excessive violence. The state crumbled, warfare spread and more than 70,000 people have been killed and nearly a million have been displaced.
In Libya, the state is still unable to assert its control, restore security and implement its policies against a backdrop of ongoing conflict over the political isolation law that bans affiliates of the former regime from the political process. The country has been rife with incidents of unrest and violence, which included a siege of the General National Congress (GNC) by predominantly Islamist forces to compel this legislative body to pass the political isolation law, an assassination attempt against GNC President Mohamed Mugariaf, and mass demonstrations to demand the empowerment of the army and police in order to end the tyranny of the militias. Such events indicate that Libya is far from attaining the aims of its revolution and is basically spinning in place.
The performance of the Yemeni revolution fares little better. Yemen still faces many formidable challenges, the most important of which is the need to rebuild its military and security establishments and to ensure their political neutrality. The Yemeni president has recently called for a national dialogue in order to establish the general principles for the country’s new constitution before elections that are scheduled for 2014.
On the whole, political conditions in the countries of the Arab Spring revolutions are grim and primarily characterised by internal conflict and poor management of the democratic transformation process.
Economically and socially, the Arab revolutions called for an end to unemployment, higher wages, social justice and controls on the prices of essential goods and services. Again, developments worked counter these demands and expectations. The deterioration in the state of security was reflected in the investment, tourism and financial sectors in Egypt and Tunisia, and in the petroleum sector in Libya. In all these countries, production declined and economic growth rates plunged, as a result of which all are plagued by fiscal crisis (mounting deficits and lack of liquidity), as well as by constant energy and fuel shortages and rising unemployment. In the hope of alleviating the financial straits, Egypt sought to renew talks with the visiting IMF technical team over a prospective $4.8 billion loan in spite of the donor organisation’s stringent conditions. The Tunisia government failed to produce effective solutions for the unemployment crisis or even to reform labour conditions and improve public services. In Syria, most of the infrastructure has been destroyed and it has become absurd to even speak of something called a Syrian economy in a country in which the search for food has become part of people’s day-to-day struggle to survive. In general, all post-revolutionary governments appear to lack a comprehensive economic vision that addresses the sectors most vital to the people.
In sum, after having achieved the momentous change of toppling despotic regimes, the countries of the Arab Spring found themselves in a vicious cycle of political strife, poor government performance and an inability to meet the essential and urgent economic needs of their people. Perhaps it would have been useful, in order to escape the clutches of crisis and surmount challenges, to revive the spirit of national consensus that had prevailed at the height of the revolution, or to forge a “national coalition”.
At the level of the Arab order, the instability engendered by the revolutions brought a decline in the performance of Arab foreign policy regionally and internationally. Simultaneously, the countries of the Arab revolutions have become increasingly vulnerable to penetration by regional powers, most notably Iran and Turkey. This applies, above all, to Syria in which the regime is backed by Tehran while the revolutionary forces are backed by Ankara. Both Iran and Turkey have been striving to expand their influence in the region in general. Turkey has been most successful, using its sources of soft strength as a means to revive its prestige and sway in areas that once fell under the hegemony of the Ottoman caliphate. International powers have also seized upon the state of instability to assert themselves in these countries.
The Arab Spring has given rise to new modes of interaction between the countries of the spring revolutions and the Gulf countries. The term “engagement” has been used to describe the various roles Gulf countries have played in their responses to the Arab revolutions, roles that foreshadow a new status for these countries in the Arab regional order. At the same time, the revolutions triggered a range of political, economic and social reforms in Gulf countries, measures their governments had largely undertaken in order to avert the spread of the revolutionary “contagion”.
In the case of Egypt, there was some strain or coolness in its relationship with Gulf countries, due to an initial impression that post-revolutionary Egypt was shifting in favour of Iran, to the sympathy that Gulf governments had for ousted president Mubarak, and to tensions over the “Muslim Brotherhood cell” that was discovered in the UAE. Still, Egypt’s relationship with the Gulf countries has always been strong and special, forged as it was by historical bonds and the closeness between the peoples. That this relationship could weather the strains was evidenced by the activities of the Intergovernmental Communication Forum sponsored by the Emirate of Sharjah, 24-25 February, which demonstrated the considerable esteem that the people of the UAE hold for Egypt and the Egyptian people, as Sharjah officials were keen to stress.
There remains the problem as to why the Arab Spring revolutions, in spite of their success at toppling regimes, and in spite of the awakening of their peoples who had broken the barrier of fear, have so far yielded such meagre results.
Although there is no simple answer to this question, it is possible to identify some causes. Prime among them is differing frames of reference. If the call for the fall of the regime had unified political forces in the squares, each faction had its own fixed political/ideological outlook that often conflicted sharply with those of other factions. Every faction believed that the revolution offered it the historic opportunity to realise its goals, and they were determined to bring these to fruition on the ground through a zero-sum approach, whereas compromise would have been possible. In addition, developments in post-revolutionary phases demonstrated that politics steered the economy. The economic collapse in the countries of the Arab Spring had its roots in political instability. Conversely, no country could realise its aims and aspirations in the absence of stability. Certainly, there were foreign parties that felt that their interests were best promoted by protracted political instability in these countries, which would make them more vulnerable to foreign influence. At the same time, it was obvious that counterrevolutionary forces were working assiduously to exacerbate the crises in order to undermine the revolutions.
This said; we must bear in mind that it has only been two years since the Arab Spring revolutions began. Two years is a very short time in the lifespan of revolutions, even if to the people experiencing them it seems like an eternity, especially in view of the sacrifices and suffering they have endured.
The writer is editor-in-chief of Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya.