Opinion | From Arab Spring to Powder Keg
By Jena Musmar
Known for making headlines, the Middle East and Northern African region have become increasingly unstable throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While the region certainly suffers from instability, authoritarianism, corruption, and the unwanted influence of foreign powers, it is necessary to highlight the Arab people’s counter efforts to these problems. Marking the Arab Spring’s tenth anniversary, the series of protests have left a noticeable mark on the region with some countries improving their stability and unity while others remain devastated by war. As far back as 1958, Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Gaza-Strip) demonstrated attempts at regional unity through the United Arab Republic. The pan-Arabist movement, although unsuccessful, introduced the notable Arab regional players we see in headlines today, such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, and Kuwait. With discontent growing in the region, a historical analysis of the MENA’s attempts at stability and unity since 2011 demonstrates the true impact of the Arab Spring and answers the question, was the Middle East always this unstable?
Catalyzed by Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian man setting himself on fire as a form of protest in front of a government building in Central Tunisia, the Arab Spring revolution began and quickly spread to neighboring Arab countries. With the primary goals of the revolution being changes in authoritarian leadership and improvement in livelihood and democracy, many Arab countries experienced protests; however, only four experienced a change in leadership, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. While many debate over the causes of the protests, it can be assumed that it includes but was not limited to high fluctuations in food prices, high youth unemployment rates, and economic disenfranchisement of the formally educated. Socially, general unrest under the dictatorships was high during this time with a lack of democratic inclusion on the part of the citizens. Factors influencing these causes are credited to the rise of social media and larger platforms for activists as well as the rising literacy rates and education of Arabs.
With the Arab Spring capturing the attention of the entire region, to what extent did the major countries of the revolution achieve their goals? Tunisia, the country where it all began, experienced the most positive and significant progress towards its revolutionary goals. With a change of leadership and effective democracy, Tunisia experienced the most progress in increasing female representation in governmental positions, democratic progress, and significant internet freedom. Other goals of youth unemployment, standards of living, and jailing of journalists, although stagnant, remain significantly better than other countries in the Arab Spring. While this may be credited to Tunisia’s significant role in the revolution, many credit the removal of the authoritarian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and brokered talks between Tunisia’s trade union, lawyers association, and human rights organization that helped draft a new constitution. The constitution, although having its weaknesses, established a semi-presidency alongside three branches of government with checks and balances. Despite experiencing a change of leadership, other countries failed to establish new constitutions and a post-revolution plan for government. Egypt is a perfect example of such. Due to their proximity to Tunisia, they were one of the first to participate in the revolution and successfully removed authoritarian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak’s authoritarian rule ensured no political institutions would compete against him, making it difficult to follow the same post-revolution plan as Tunisia. Instead, a military coup against Mubarak took power and since then Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has become a corrupt president in the region. The protests, although successful in their goal of removing an authoritarian dictator, only led to another, allowing for limited democratic progress, internet freedom, and freedom of journalists while youth unemployment and corruption continue. The standard of living and number of peoples displaced have remained stagnant and although there is substantial female representation within Sisi’s government, the goals of Egypt’s Arab Spring remain incomplete.
Significant countries regionally farther from Tunisia, such as Syria, Yemen, and Libya, also experienced some leadership changes but unfortunately, follow the similar post-revolution aftermath of Egypt. Libya experienced some improvement in female representation in government positions but worsened in aspects of corruption, internet freedom, democracy, and youth unemployment, partially due to a lack of a post-revolution plan for a new democratic government and the civil war of 2014. Rates of those displaced, the standard of living, and the jailing of journalists remain stagnant as of 2021. Syria faces similar instability due to their civil war of 2011 inspired by the Arab Spring, but unlike other countries, Syria’s Arab Spring never ended and still strives for the removal of authoritarian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Also shaken by civil war, Yemen was able to remove its dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh but was quickly replaced by his vice president, Abdarabbuh Hadi who faced political opposition from Houthi militants and growing rebels within the country. While Yemen achieved partial success in the removal of a dictator, the already high political tensions and rise of rebels only transitioned Yemen from an authoritarian regime to civil war. Because of this, Yemen has made little to no progress in women’s representation, freedom of the press, and youth unemployment rates. The standard of living, rates of those displaced, and government corruption have all worsened to the extent that the United Nations considers Yemen as having “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
Tunisia, although facing economic struggles, was the exceptional state that truly achieved its goals of the Arab Spring. While other countries attempted to follow suit by removing their dictators, they failed in maintaining long-lasting democratic progress due to a lack of post-revolution political organization, civil wars, a lack of democratic successors in the presidency and prior authoritarian control of institutions.
Since the Arab Spring, many Arab countries continue to suffer from instability and civil war. The civil wars of Yemen and Syria continue as of 2021, with Libya’s civil war ending just last year in a ceasefire. Authoritarianism continues to dominate Egypt and Bahrain while other countries who participated in the Arab Spring without a change in leadership are dominated by fears of security and economic decline. Furthermore, threats to national security prevail as Syria and Iraq’s domestic security is threatened by terrorist groups and Yemen’s sea and air borders forcibly close under Saudi Arabia’s blockade. Countries such as Israel and Palestine often make headlines for threats to national security over borders and humanitarian issues. This conflict in particular is used to examine the general unity of the Middle East as more Arab countries in 2020 and 2021 began to formally recognize Israel as a sovereign state. The pan-Arab movement inspired by the United Arab Republic is also being diminished as we see Saudi Arabia, arguably one of the most stable countries in the region, frequently engage in conflicts against its Arab neighbors Iran, Iraq, and Yemen. The foreign intervention of western powers such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia also plays a key role in the instability of the region, whether it be through humanitarian aid or fueling the tensions through military aid. Many Arab states have abandoned the pan-Arab ideology of unity out of necessity and instead develop realist ideologies of securing personal interests: prioritizing the state’s overall interests above other countries or the personal interests of a dictator.
As economic conditions worsen and demands are still not met, protests continue in the region. Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt are facing economic declines, and in turn civil unrest, due to the worsening Covid-19 pandemic and lack of government response. Although not to the same extent as the Arab Spring, Arabs continue to use the same peaceful means of protest used in the Arab Spring against government repression especially in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Significant changes are yet to be made; however, it is necessary to note that the Arab spirit for unity and better living has not died in the face of violent repression and censorship.
With the Middle East and Northern Africa struggling to find unity, improvement of living, and democracy, some benefit from their realist ideology and break the stereotype of Middle Eastern instability. Saudi Arabia, the largest country in the Middle East, although a monarchy, is moving towards economic prosperity, more female representation in government, and generally more freedom. Israel, while fearful of threats to national security and frequently violating international human rights law, has substantial democratic government and freedoms for its Israeli citizens. Tunisia, the most improved country from the Arab Spring, has a democratic government with increasing education, development, and freedoms. The country still faces issues of security with terrorism and slow progress towards economic reforms but remains somewhat stable. Other countries, as analyzed previously, came out of the Arab Spring experiencing civil war and extended dictatorships. Although these countries did not achieve all their goals during the Arab Spring, the Arab ambition towards security and unity has yet to disappear and continues to persist under dictatorship and repression. The authoritarian leaders of these unstable countries attempt to silence the current protests using police brutality, open fire, censorship, limited internet freedom, and increased imprisonment of human rights journalists, but the attitudes of the Arab people remain the same. Arabs will not stop their demands of democracy, unity, and stability until they are heard.
Jena Musmar is a freshman in college and a blog writer for Youth Upholding Democracy. The views reflected in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Youth Upholding Democracy.