In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor, set himself on fire in protest against the appalling economic conditions and robbing of personal liberties by the government. Fast forward to June 2020, when protesters in Lebanon set their central bank on fire. It’s time we investigated what has changed from the Arab Spring of 2011 to today, and if any of it was sustainable.
The first of its kind: Arab Spring 2011
Following Bouazizi’s sacrifice, protests ensued in Tunisia. This inspired a Mexican wave of protests in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, and Oman.The common theme across these countries was loss of jobs, lack of quality in basic services, and denial of personal liberties. Autocratic rules of leaders who had been in power for more than two decades in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen ended.
The soldiers of this revolution were the youth, armed with fearlessness, social media, and a quest for democracy. In 2012, the Middle East and North African (MENA) region had a greater population of people below the age of 30 than any developed region. They made sure that this time, it wasn’t just Al Jazeera who cared. The entire world stood up and took note.
The part of the story no one talks about
Let’s face the facts now. How much can an unprecedented breakout of discontent change? After the protests ended, Egypt was taken over by the military. Syria broke out into a civil war and had to face an ISIS rule. Libya got broken into pieces with multiple entities vying for nationwide control. International policy experts started asking terrifying questions on the lines of “Was it better under Mubarak/Gaddafi/Assad?”
Protesters lacked an answer to “What now?” They had destructive goals but no constructive solutions. Rigid governments are popularly seen as a necessary evil for stability. These regimes were exactly what continued instability even after they ended. They had set up enduring systems which were inherently weak, and these continued to make change harder even after their heads collapsed. So enduring that it became easy for the pro-rigidity camp to dismiss democracy as impractical, the way almost everyone dismisses communism.
Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had filled policy offices with political loyalists. He had made the judiciary a puppet of the government. Assad’s Syrian military was a sectarian body filled with loyal Alawites who were capable of carrying out domination even after he lost central control. There wasn’t one Mubarak, one Gaddafi, or one Assad. There was a network of them spread across policy and executive bodies. When these systems crippled, protestors didn’t know how to fix them, because they were not backed by policy goals. The mere absence of autocracy isn’t democracy. The void was immediately filled by military and militant powers, who had armed power but no governance expertise.
The lone success story: Tunisia
Tunisia isn’t a prospering democracy. However, it achieved far more than any other nation after the first Spring. The country held multiple democractic elections, introduced a free press, and gave women rights and protective laws. The difference was the ‘national dialogue quartet’ which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. Tunisia’s top trade union, business organisation, lawyers association, and human rights body came together, drove settlement between rival political factions and rewrote the constitution. It takes a lot of dull, dirty policy, strategy, and administrative struggle to follow up violent outburst with meaningful progress.
Tunisians are protesting in 2020 as well. This time, for economic reasons. The youth don’t have jobs, and the pandemic score has crossed a 1000 cases. Once again, the terrifying question has emerged in protestors’ minds - What use is democracy when I can’t feed my family? The last Prime Minister resigned within 6 months. Such is the state of the rest of MENA that Tunisia’s corrupt democracy is better by miles than any other country’s warlike state.
Why a II Arab Spring is neither surprising nor a bad sign
The medical systems in the countries still under civil wars- Libya, Yemen, and Syria were never in good shape. The pandemic has laid this bare, along with economic issues. Countries like Jordan and Lebanon which house thousands of refugees from conflict areas have been in their own financial turmoil. The medical emergency has only made life more uncertain for the masses, giving a new spark to the second Arab Spring which had begun blooming in 2019. In 2020, Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, and Sudan have forced problematic rulers out of power. This, however, is also an opportunity for authoritarian rulers to win back public support by mobilizing healthcare. Once again, the importance of policy backing comes to the fore.
This time, the job is also tougher for the digital revolution. The pandemic is easily going to take up most of the digital share of voice for another few months. Anti-racism protests in the USA, the presidential elections, the worldwide concern about China’s evil rise to power are sweeping media attention.
There is, ultimately, a sense of understanding amongst the youth that this isn’t a fight of a few years. It is a fight that will last a generation and its real fruits will perhaps only be reaped by the next one.
Who next? A more important question than what next?
What the second Arab Spring needs is leadership that focuses on institutional reform, and has the expertise to fight for it, bargain for it, and strategize it. Whether this leadership emerges from within or with international aid, is what will determine what happens after the pandemic. Basic reforms such as shifting to a digital system in place of largely paper-based government processes are needed to keep corruption in check. Youth who have the resources to flee to Europe and other countries in search of a better future, need an incentive to stay back and commit their energies to the revolution.
It is very easy for people like us in democratic, developing or developed nations to take our liberties for granted and decide that a democracy is the answer to a peaceful life for MENA citizens. The unglamorous truth is that democracy is far more than a constitution. Maybe, we can all start by realizing that this is not a fight for a democratic shift of power, but one for a strong system of capable administration under democratic principles. The day when democracy turns from merely an emotional and intellectual pursuit to a more structured system, autocracy will stop holding water.
Snehal is Columnist at GGI.
She is a writer, poet, music aficionado, Oxford comma proponent, and a lot of other things. She also writes on personal finance for 'Qrius Creative Labs'. She has worked as a copywriter, content writer, scriptwriter, creative strategist, and direction assistant at multiple organisations in the past.
Snehal is a graduate from the Bachelor in Mass Media, Advertising from St.Xavier's College, Bombay.