Wrapping up the Arab Spring (2011-2013) Part 2: Revolution And Transition

Maghrebia via Flickr

Since the beginning of what soon became known by the neologism ‘Arab Spring’ four countries have witnessed a completed change of regime. These four states, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, have witnessed mass protests which eventually led to the fall of the ancien regime. In the case of Yemen, this instigated a transition-of-power agreement, while in the other countries the previous dictatorship was entirely overthrown. While the course of events after the revolutions might differ, this is the common feature of these countries when comparing them to other states of the Middle East. Let us have a brief look at what has happened.

Starting in Tunisia, protests erupted in late 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, dying on 4 January 2011 from his injuries. Bouazizi seemed to be exemplary of many young, educated Tunisians: due to the tough economic situation, he tried to make a living by vending fruits in the streets and was harassed by the police who he did not have the money to bribe. Many showed solidarity for his fate against a state that humiliated its citizens. His self-immolation sparked a mass movement, including established professional associations and unions but also masses of youth. Consequently, longtime strongman President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali was ousted on 14 January 2011. His security apparatus, particularly the army, decided not to stand by his side but to support the people’s strive for freedom, which, at this moment in time, was crucial.

After the revolution, elections were held and the moderate Islamist Ennahda party won 37% of the vote, making it the strongest party. However, the political landscape was fragmented; it consisted mainly of many small parties without prior experience in the political process. Consequently, Ennahda entered a coalition government with the centre-left Congress for the Republic and the left-wing Ettakatol. Although the progress in Tunisia seems most promising, recent assassinations of members of the opposition, Chokri Belaïd on 6 February 2013 and Mohamed Brahmi on 25 July 2013, have had a negative impact on the government’s reputation among the people. Despite President Moncef Marzouki declaring it an act of terror by Islamic extremist group, Ansar al-Sharia, critics of Ennahda accused the party of being privy to or even actively involved in these assassinations. Also, Ennahda could not cope with growing economic woes successfully. Facing a growing public dissatisfaction with its rule, Ennahda and its coalition government decided to resign on 28 September 2013, paving the way for new elections. Rather than clutching on to power, this move by the coalition government can be seen as key to a still functioning and predominantly peaceful transition.

Hossam el-Hamalawy via Flickr
Hossam el-Hamalawy via Flickr

The developments in Tunisia soon sparked protests in Egypt as well. Here, Hosni Mubarak was toppled after the ‘18 days of Tahrir Square’ on 11 February 2011. Again, the military decided not to support the president until the end but to protect protesters; again this was a key factor in a relatively bloodless transition. As for this decision by Egyptian military leaders, there are multiple explanations, the most plausible one involves two considerations: first, military leaders could not be certain that an order to shoot nonviolent protesters would be carried out across the board, given the relation between citizens and the army’s lower ranks. who are mostly conscripted. Second, the military regarded the potential costs for backing Mubarak as too high; it would be easier to maintain the army’s corporate privileges in a post-revolution Egypt if one supported it in the first place.

Moreover, the Egyptian revolution had a region-wide impact: while Tunisia’s fall showed the Arab public that overthrowing a dictator is possible, Egypt, being the largest state in the Arab world and in many ways its cultural center, seemed to illustrate that this development was inevitable. After the ancien regime was ousted, a constitutional referendum was held, soon followed by general elections. Much has been criticized though with regards to the timing of both these steps respectively. Post-Mubarak Egypt, according to the critics, rushed into a party-based political future, meaning a major disadvantage for liberal and secular groups. These groups largely had to start from scratch, while the Muslim Brotherhood had a national party infrastructure at its disposal despite being suppressed most of the time since its founding in 1928. As well, the Brotherhood controlled a number of professional associations.

In July 2012, Mohamed Morsy, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, became president. Throughout his term, he was accused by many of slowly but steadily Islamicizing the country. His government often turned a blind eye on sectarian violence, he suspended key powers of the judiciary by executive fiat, and cracked down on free media and activist groups. Moreover, this period was characterized by a swelling conflict between his party and the military, eventually resulting in a coup d’état on 3 July 2013 following massive public protests against the government. Since the coup, Egypt is under de facto control of the armed forces, led by Deputy Prime Minister General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Members and functionaries of the  Muslim Brotherhood were arrested and removed from office. The future is not yet clear; the army announced its intention to hold elections, and Sisi declared that he will not run for president, unless the public demanded it. For now, the military has prevailed over the Muslim Brotherhood. The power struggles in post-Mubarak Egypt, however, have sharply divided the society between those supporting Morsy and those who were in favor of the military coup, including most secularists, leftists and liberals.

B.R.Q. via Flickr
B.R.Q. via Flickr

In Libya, protests erupted in early 2011, inspired by the Tunisian example. The demands were quite similar, asking for freedom, dignity and social justice. The course of events, however, was different. Longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi showed no willingness to compromise or grant even minor reforms, but rather met the protesters head-on using aggressive repression. Thus the conflict devolved into a civil war from mid February 2011 on. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the fault lines in Libya soon developed into a regionalist dynamic, with the eastern part of the country opposing Gaddafi as it has been discriminated against domestically under his rule; most oil reserves are located in the east yet Gaddafi used the revenues elsewhere. Subsequently, parts of the army defected to the rebels in and around Benghazi, the main city in the eastern region of Cyrenaica. Nevertheless, the regime’s army was gaining the upper hand and approached Benghazi.

Justified by ongoing human rights violations and the thousands of lives at stake, the UN Security Council implemented Resolution 1973 on 17 March 2011, instituting a no-fly-zone enforced by NATO intervention. According to most analysts this was, compared to Syria, mainly due the feasibility of such an intervention in Libya; Libya has few inhabited areas outside of the cities, there were much clearer front lines compared to Syria, air strikes were sufficient to defeat Gaddafi’s forces, and the opposition was relatively well organized politically. The air campaign lasted until late May 2011, helping the rebels gain ground and push Gaddafi’s troops back. The National Transitional Council, the rebel government, was then moved from Benghazi to Tripoli in August 2011, with Gaddafi himself killed on 20 October 2011. Since then, the country is in transition, and held a well-received election for a constiuent assembly. Yet it remains unstable, as heavily-armed revolutionary, tribal and Islamist militias have spread all over Libya. Disarming and integrating these forces will be key to a peaceful transition and an accepted new political system, as currently the rule of law is almost impossible to enforce.

Yemen, compared to the three previously mentioned cases, seems rather hard to categorize. President Ali Abdullah Saleh faced protests with demands similar to those in other countries of the region. At first, he tried to maneuver through this crisis with well-tried responses of repression and co-optation of important actors. However, after cracking down some demonstrations, violent clashes erupted all over the country and former cleavages, especially between the North and South, resurfaced; Yemen used to be divided into two countries, and many in the south feels discriminated with regards to the allocation of government funds.

Sallam via Flickr
Sallam via Flickr

After 10 months, this led to a GCC-brokered transfer of power agreement in March 2012 (backed by the UNSC P5 and the EU). The agreement contained two phases, both of which were planned to be completed by 2014. First, new presidential election were held on 21 February 2012 making Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, the former vice-president, the new president. Second, several reforms were implemented, including new electoral laws, a new constitution, and fresh parliamentary elections, all under the umbrella of a “National Dialogue Conference”. The latter was launched on 18 March 2013. Despite early criticism on the composition of this body, expectations were both high and low at the same time: high because there are hopes for this conference to resolve some of the most important issues in Yemen and lead the country through the transition successfully, low because existing cleavages are deep and will be hard to overcome. So far, the process seems to have fallen prey to elite politics and the fragile situation in the country, with separatist movements in the South, ongoing tribal rebellions among the Shi’a Houthi clans in the northern mountains, and a growing radical Islamist threat. Only time will show what will happen in Yemen.

From these four cases, it is clear that the most difficult part of overthrowing a dictator is not driving the strongman from office. Instead, it is putting the pieces of a potentially broken country back together again. Still, these countries are in many ways lucky. In the coming weeks, other, less fortunate countries will be examined.