Seven years later: The Arab Spring's messy endings

Most in the region are not looking back at those momentous events. Instead, they are dealing with the aftereffects.

Men shout slogans during demonstrations on the seventh anniversary of the toppling of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunis, Tunisia January 14, 2018 (photo credit: YOUSSEF BOUDLAL / REUTERS)
Men shout slogans during demonstrations on the seventh anniversary of the toppling of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunis, Tunisia January 14, 2018
On Sunday protesters clashed with police in Tunis. Some young men threw stones and police used tear gas, local reports said.
The protests were staged in the run-up to the seventh anniversary of the ousting of President Zine El Abiding Ben Ali in 2011, an event that signaled the beginning to the Arab Spring.
Most in the region are not looking back at those momentous events. Instead they are dealing with the aftereffects and many governments appear to hope that not discussing the Arab spring will mean the causes of the frustration that led to it will go away.
In December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, burned himself to death in an act that led to protests sweeping the capital. Many of those protesters were angry at a laundry list of problems, including poverty.
The protests in Tunisia over the last week have sought to capitalize on this memory. Some of the clashes this week took place in the capital’s working class suburb of Ettadhamen, where protesters had also torched cars and buildings in 2011.
According to the BBC, unemployment in Tunisia among youth is around 35%. Thus, the economic issues underpinning some of the demands of the Arab spring have not been met. Tunisia is often held up as the one successful example of the Arab Spring. After the dictator fled, the country held elections in October 2011 and the right wing Islamic Ennahda party won a plurality of 37% of the votes.
Three years later, the secular and centrist Nidaa Tounes party triumphed. The successful elections and peaceful transition of power are a sign of healthy democratization. But economically the country has stagnated with no GDP growth since 2010. GDP per capita has even declined from around $4,000 a year to $3,600.
In neighboring Egypt, the Arab spring initially produced the same result as Tunisia. Hosni Mubarak was ousted, and the Muslim Brotherhood won the subsequent elections. However within two years, in July 2013, the military was back in charge. In May 2014, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won presidential elections with 96% of the vote. However, Egypt’s economy has lumbered on, reaching a revised GDP forecast of a healthy 5.5% growth rate for 2017-2018. Per capita earnings have increased 35% since 2010 to $3,500 per person. Although the data may not reflect the lives of ordinary Egyptians, as a benchmark it shows that one of the region’s largest economies is expanding.
The Arab Spring served as a bookend to one hundred years of a certain cycle of the Middle East’s history. The region was carved up by European powers at the end of the First World War as the Ottoman Empire retreated. The monarchies imposed by the colonial powers were overthrown in Egypt (1952), Iraq (1958) and Libya (1969) leading to an era of Arab nationalist strongmen who dominated during the Cold War.
The Arab Spring ate away and destroyed the legacy of those regimes.
Muammar Gaddafi was lynched in 2011 and Mubarak put out to pasture. Ali Abdullah Saleh hung on in a limited role until he was gunned down by his Houthi rebel allies last year. Only the Assad regime has survived.
If Arab nationalism proved a feature of the 20th century, ossifying in the 21st until it crumbled in 2011, its replacement has not been the Islamic parties that initially benefited from nationalist demise. In most countries in the region, right wing Islamic parties challenged the nationalists on anti-corruption bonafides. They argued that religious piety and decades of repression by the thuggish state security of the old regimes gave them the street credibility to govern. In election, they were successful. Hamas was supposed to come to power after the 2006 elections. The Brotherhood in Egypt and its fellow travelers in Tunisia seem poised for power. They thought that they might govern the ship of state as the Justice and Development Party had in Turkey after its form of Islamic conservatism came to power in 2002.
Instead, the Islamic parties failed or were pushed out of office. The democratization drive of the 1990s and early 2000s seemed to meet its fate with the Arab Spring. Demands for democracy in Bahrain in 2011, which would have brought to power the Shia majority and toppled with Sunni monarchy were crushed by the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, leading members of the GCC, saw that if one Gulf monarchy fell, their own days might be numbered.
This fits the general pattern of the monarchies in the region which have fared well since 2011. Morocco, Jordan and the Gulf Kingdoms appear stable, even if they don’t all see eye to eye. Their economies face issues such as stagnation and the need, in the Gulf, to diversify from the addiction to petrodollars. The current changes in Saudi Arabia ushered in by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman are poised to bring Riyadh into the next century.
Overall though, these regimes have not opened up much for fear that an opening will lead to chaos.
Syria’s regime has also successfully defeated most of the remnants of the Arab Spring. Its trajectory has been different due to the fact that its regime is a non-Sunni minority dictatorship that has successfully navigated the complexities of the region with stunning brutality. Allied with Iran and Russia, the Assad family has held on in the way others could not. Syria became the springboard for the rise of Islamic State as well as the rise of a Kurdish-led polity that have been two of the outcomes of the last seven years. The Syrian war has also empowered Iran and its allies such as Hezbollah.
Iraq, which was initially unaffected by the Arab Spring, was scarred by years of war against ISIS which brought genocide and destruction to its Sunni Arab cities where the group was based. As Iraq heads to elections in May 2018, its fifth since the US-led invasion of 2003, it will be in the shadow of the war against ISIS and the dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdish region.
Israel has looked on the chaos unleashed by the Arab spring with skeptical eyes.
Change in government in Egypt took Cairo’s focus off Sinai which led to an Islamist terrorist insurgency which has now allied with ISIS. The extremists in Sinai have benefited from arms flows from Libya after the weapons stocks of Gaddafi were looted in 2012. Libya’s ongoing civil war feeds tensions in neighboring Egypt where Cairo seeks to bring security to its long border.
The Syrian regime’s need for aid to fight Sunni jihadists led to Iran and Hezbollah forces growing in Syria and along the border with Israel. A million Syrian refugees have come to Jordan, Israel’s neighbor where Jerusalem has a vested interest in the Kingdom remaining stable.
The Arab spring has also brought Israel and some of the Gulf states politically and militarily closer in their common opposition to Iranian hegemonic designs on the region.
In some ways, the last seven years helped integrate Israel into the region’s troubles, but in other ways it is still very much an outsider. It is not invited to peace talks in Astana or Sochi where Russia sits with the Turkish and Iranian leaders. It is also not involved in the US-Jordan-Russia brokered ceasefire that affects southern Syria and the Quneitra region near the Golan. One thing unites Israel with the region and some of the Arab Spring demands. Economic and anti-corruption protests affect people in Tunis as much as Jerusalem or Tehran.