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Requiem for the Arab Spring

By Jed Lea-Henry - posted Tuesday, 12 January 2016


A street vendor sets himself alight and the fire burns across the entire Middle East. That first spark, in what lazily came to be known as the Arab Spring. Dictatorships were expected to fall, dynasties to collapse; a politically comatose region of the world was waking-up with a jolt.

Of course, this did not happen. Sure, some of the events that played out still seem to vaguely resemble the above description, but the hope was entirely misplaced. Rather than ushering in a new era of representative governance and social development, the Arab world has suffered from repetitious waves of societal collapse and human misery.

However, as 'worse-case-scenario' as this might seem, the long-term impact of the Arab Spring will prove far more damaging to the Middle East than what we are currently seeing today – it will be felt in an attitude of incurability directed towards the region and its people.

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Yet from the outset, the Arab Spring had its moments: Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali fled Tunisia; Libya's Moammar Gadhafi was forced into hiding (later to be crudely executed); Hosni Mubarak's 30 years in charge of Egypt came to an end under the weight of Tahrir Square; Bahrain teetered on the brink (as currently does Yemen); and while Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states stood slightly firmer, from Iran to Morocco no country was immune to at least minor stirrings of unrest.

And yes, in the course of such events instability was to be expected, yet the speed and spontaneity of the various uprisings gave hope that the Arab Spring, though unlikely to be smooth, would at least be liberal, democratic, and permanent.

Tunisia got the closest to this ideal: the swift removal of long-time President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali was followed by the suspension from all political activities for Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally party (CDR) in order to water-down any kindling's of a counterrevolution. And despite stumbling heavily along the way, internationally approved of free elections were held in 2014 (both Presidential and general) coupled with the adoption of a semi-liberal and semi-secular constitution.

However, Tunisia is still nowhere close to democratic consolidation. The 'secular' constitution was very nearly an explicitly religious document due to pressure from the Ennahda-dominated transitional parliament. Yet, more worrying has been the permanent emergence of internecine violence ever since Mohammed Bouazizi abandoned his fruit stall in order to try his hand at self-immolation. Forces loyal to the former President, separatist factions, paramilitary organisations and Islamist groups have posed a constant military threat to the new government, with open civil war never looking too distant of a possibility.

In 2015 alone, 22 tourists were killed at the Bardo Museum in March, 38 were gunned down at a beach-side resort in June, and 12 Presidential guards were killed during a bus bombing in November. The response: a state of emergency was declared along with the forced closure of 80 mosques accused of "spreading venom". Tunisia's problem is clearly much more than state weakness, it is ideological and therefore considerably harder to eradicate – and this is the good news story from the region!

Incidentally, if there ever was a white-flag moment for the Arab Spring – a signal that all hope and expectations had long since died – it was the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to four separate civil-society organizations for a "decisive contribution" toward facilitating Tunisia's path to democracy. This – in the strangely poignant words of George W. Bush – is the "bigotry of low expectations". To hold a country such as Tunisia up as a regional success story is to look down upon the entire Arab world as a parent might to a child. To award such a recognition for such minimal results is to set the bar so disparagingly low that rather than being a "prize", it is an insult.

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The Egyptian people, upon over-throwing Hosni Mubarak's autocratic rule, expressed their new-found freedom by voting for theocratic rule in the form of Mohammed Morsi and the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood. A hard-line Islamist constitution was proposed, a counter-revolution was formed, and this was followed by a military coup that persists today. Egypt had come full-circle, the Arab Spring had removed an autocrat only to then usher in a new one.

On paper Libya was a no-brainer: a situation where the international community could not reasonably avoid taking a more active role. Whereas in Egypt it was sufficient for global powers to simply withdraw support from the regime in order to help facilitate its downfall, Muammar Gaddafi was a different animal altogether. After threatening to suppress local uprisings with "rivers of blood" the international community were – quite out-of-character – quick to act. Before long Gaddafi was dead and Libya was in the hands of the Arab Spring.

Once again, transitions to democracy are never straight-forward events, however Libya looks increasingly like a country that is never going to complete the process. A 2014 election in which voters largely rejected the ultra-religious parties represents the one small piece of paper over the gaping crack in the foundation of the Libyan democracy. Just as in 2012, the 2014 elections were followed by a deep, and prolonged, armed conflict.

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About the Author

Jed Lea-Henry is an Australia born academic. After graduating from La Trobe University with majors in Political Science and Philosophy, Jed completed his post-graduate education in International Relations at Deakin University. His research has covered a broad range of topics, including humanitarian intervention, civil conflict, violence prevention, regional development and moral philosophy. Jed is currently an Assistant Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences at Vignan University, and the host of the Korea Now Podcast. You can follow his work, or contact him directly at http://www.jedleahenry.org/

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