x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Arab Spring repercussions still resound, 2 years on

It was two years ago today that Mohamed Bouazizi stood in front of the governor's building in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, poured gasoline over his body and set himself on fire.

A protester sits outside his makeshift hut at a pro-democracy protest camp in Sanaa, Yemen.
A protester sits outside his makeshift hut at a pro-democracy protest camp in Sanaa, Yemen.

It was two years ago today that Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate, stood in front of the governor's building in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, poured gasoline over his body and lit himself on fire.

Bouazizi's immediate complaint was the bribes demanded by authorities in exchange for allowing him to sell fruits and vegetables in the market without a permit. His broader grievance - and one shared by thousands of other unemployed Tunisian youth - was an economic system that appeared to benefit a small number of families close to power and leave ordinary citizens behind.

Bouazizi died from his burns eighteen days later, but not before his act of despair sparked in millions of Tunisians and other Arabs its opposite: hope.

Amid mounting protests, Tunisia's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country 28 days later. Within months, the leaders of Egypt and Libya were ousted, too. The repercussions of Bouazizi's act still resound across the Arab world, representing the most significant sea change in the region since the heyday of European decolonisation. On the second anniversary of Bouazizi's fiery protest, The National's foreign correspondents reflect on its impact and the tide of change it has inspired.

Tunisia

Tunisia was the first Arab country whose leader fell and the first to hold euphoric elections, in which the moderate Islamist Ennahda won a plurality of seats. Two years on from the fateful events in Sidi Bouzid, it also has been the first country to witness the flammable results of 60 years of unequal economics and repression of religion.

The interim government has struggled with the economy, especially in the neglected interior of Tunisia where the uprisings began. The unemployed clashed with police and Ennahda supporters recently. There is a rise in hardline, Salafist groups, which Ennahda seem to find politically - and perhaps ideologically - difficult to quell.

Secular Tunisians are horrified by the emergence of extremist brands of Salafism, and by the debate about Islamist-shaded clauses in a new constitution. Still, while the transition from the authoritarian rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been messy and the country is divided, the problems of violence and poverty in Tunisia are less acute than in its post-uprising sisters, Libya and Egypt. The new year should see a new constitution and fresh elections. The optimistic scent of jasmine lingers yet.

– Alice Fordham

Libya

Although Libya's move from eccentric, often brutal, one-man rule to post-conflict democracy has been cushioned by its small population and vast oil wealth, the problems of building institutions in an isolated country with an under-educated populace, no tradition of structured government and a profusion of proliferation of heavy weapons became painfully apparent this year.

Militias rallying outside the government building and firing anti-aircraft guns have influenced policies and slowed the establishment of a central government. Tribal and regional rivalries colour political debate and decision-making.

Security problems - car bombs, tribal fighting, urban shootouts, attacks on foreigners - have increased as wartime militias operate freely, out of the control of the ministries that pay them.

In coastal cities, life for Arabs - rather than unwelcome African migrants - is still better on the whole than it was under Muammar Qaddafi. But 2013 will be a crucial, tough test for the new Libya. – Alice Fordham

Egypt

Nearly two years after Hosni Mubarak was forced out of power, Egypt is a polarised nation still coming to grips with the challenges of democratic government.

The inspiring display of unity in Tahrir Square, where Copts stood beside Salafists and shopkeepers joined arm-in-arm with bankers and university students to protest Mubarak's tyranny, has vanished.

The divisions now besetting Egypt are partly rooted in a poorly conceived roadmap designed by the army generals who took power after Mubarak resigned. They opted to schedule elections before the writing of a new constitution.

Islamist forces, who spent decades planning for a chance to run Egypt, dominated that balloting and the process of drafting a new national charter that followed. Liberals, secularists and moderate Islamists now have little say in governing the country.

The recent massive demonstrations by the opposition to president Mohammed Morsi prove one lasting impact of Egypt's Arab Spring: people are no longer afraid to shout their beliefs in the streets of the cities and villages. Can Egypt create the modicum of a functioning democracy? Can its economy be lifted out of the doldrums? No one is certain. But say this for Egyptians: they are no longer apathetic. - Bradley Hope

Palestine

For many Palestinians, it has been 24 months of false dawns and doused hopes. Once the bearers of the Arab world's revolutionary mantle, they were consigned to the backseat of history, watching fellow Arab overturning autocratic regimes even as they looked to their divided leadership for fresh direction.

Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian political factions, are still no closer to mending their differences than when they struck a landmark reconciliation accord in May 2011 – an agreement inspired partly by the Arab Spring.

With the ascent of Islamist political parties in the region and its confidence boosted after Israel's war on Gaza last month, Hamas appears to be holding out for a better deal. Meanwhile, Fatah is burdened by two decades of failed peace talks with Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah's chairman, won the Palestinians recognition as a non-member state at the United Nations last month. But the chronic weaknesses of its dealings with Israel became immediately evident when Israel cut off the transfer of Dh440 million in taxes it collects for the Palestinians and  announced it would expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem by more than 3,000 housing units.

While the fervour of reform and revolution bubbles elsewhere in the Arab world, the Palestinians, far from being at the forefront of change, remain frustratingly stuck. – Hugh Naylor

Syria

The face of Syria today is unrecognisable from two years ago, when the Arab uprisings began.

Stability, calm and the all-powerful, incontestable grip of the government's security apparatus have vanished. Those realities, once regarded as givens, are now as inconceivable as the western tourists who, hard currency in hand, once flocked to Syria's ancient cities.

Instead, there is civil war - thus far, 42,000 killed, tens of thousands more wounded and missing - a terrible firestorm taking over from the first protests of March 2011. Those demonstrations now seem to have taken place in another universe, where hopes of political reform had not been washed away in a sea of blood, fear and anger.

The one obvious constant in this period of tumult has been the regime's world view, an outlook featuring Syrians who unquestionably love their leaders and proudly pay for their defiance of Zionist-orchestrated international conspiracies.

Damascus, its suburbs now war zones, is no longer the city of jasmine. But, in truth, that has long been true. Those images of tradition had become threadbare long before this uprising began.

Perhaps then, less has changed with the coming of the Arab Spring than a superficial glance might suggest. Rather, the deep seams of malevolence and bright courage that roiled below the surface have risen and, no longer shrouded in secrecy, they are boiling in plain view. So often inscrutable, Syria now wears its troubled heart on its sleeve.  – Phil Sands

Iran

Iran is poised to be one of the Arab Spring's big losers as it braces for the likely collapse of the flailing Syrian regime, its only government ally in the Arab world. That would threaten Iran's supply lines to Hizbollah, which gives Tehran a proxy presence on Israel's northern border. A new Syrian government could also tilt the balance of power in the Gulf in favour of Saudi Arabia, Iran's main Arab rival which has funded Syrian revolutionaries.

Shiite Iran's staunch support for Bashar Al Assad already has battered Tehran's image in the predominantly Sunni Muslim Middle East. Unlike Hizbollah, Hamas has distanced itself from Tehran because of Syria. For partly the same reason, the new Islamist government in Egypt is politely keeping its distance from Tehran, which has ardently courted Cairo to help ease its international isolation.

The Iranian regime still portrays the Arab uprisings, which toppled US-backed dictators, as an anti-western "Islamic awakening" inspired by its 1979 revolution.

But if Iran can claim authorship of any Arab Spring precedent, it is the huge protests ignited by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "stolen" re-election in 2009 that were ruthlessly crushed. Iran is concerned such protests could erupt again.

– Michael Theodoulou

Turkey

After being caught off-guard at the start of the Arab Spring, Ankara distanced itself from authoritarian rulers in the Middle East and, after some hesitation, backed efforts to unseat Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Bashar Al Assad in Syria.

The policy shift in Syria was the most radical of all, because it came after years of close cooperation between Turkey and the Syrian government that included joint cabinet meetings.

At the same time, the government has been trying to capitalise on the wave of changes by presenting Turkey's Muslim majority and secular republic as a model for the region.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, can point to some successes, such as blossoming ties with the Morsi government in Egypt. But Turkey's approach has not been welcomed everywhere, with regional rival Iran expressing anger at Ankara's efforts to become a dominant regional player and relations with Iraq deteriorating rapidly.

Critics at home say Mr Erdogan has pushed Turkey to the brink of war with Syria and into an alliance of Sunni states confronting Shiite powers in the region.

As ties with Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus become more strained, government critics say Mr Erdogan's much touted strategy aiming at "zero problems" with Turkey's neighbours has resulted in a "zero friends." – Thomas Seibert

Jordan

For Jordanians inspired to Arab Spring-style protests in Amman's streets, regime change has never been the goal. Rather, they are keen for an effective anti-corruption campaign and for a broader share of political power in the kingdom.

Some 22 months after events in Tunisia and Egypt gave fresh impetus to those demanding reform in the Hashemite Kingdom, there is a lingering belief that the reforms adopted by King Abdullah II have not gone far enough.

Cuts in fuel subsidies and an impending increase in electricity rates - both aimed at ameliorating record budget deficits - have compounded the sense of discontent not only among Jordan's Islamists but inside the ranks of the king's traditional supporters, too.

There is growing skepticism about the argument, often advanced by King Abdullah's supporters, that Jordan's governments - not the king - are to blame for the country's woes. However, it is said that Jordan pays a geographical tax, with the country forced to deal with the problems of its larger neighbours.

The fear of instability spilling across the borders keeps Jordanians from escalating their demands. The season of simmering discontent continues. – Suha Ma'ayeh

Yemen

The target of Yemen’s Arab Spring protests - Ali Abdullah Saleh - still casts a long shadow over the country, ten months after he was forced from president’s office. In exchange for giving up the presidency, Mr Saleh was given immunity from prosecution and allowed to continue leading the country’s largest political party.

“We were betrayed by senior politicians who accepted a big share of the country’s wealth and power in return for cosmetic change,” says Khaled Al Anesi, one of the leaders of the protests.

A promised national dialogue among political factions has not started. Meanwhile, unemployment is rampant, police stations and courts are barely operating and gunmen roam the streets of the capital with impunity.

For the thousands of unsatisfied Yemenis still encamped in Sanaa’s “Change Square”, Yemen’s Arab Spring is still incomplete.

– Hakim Almasmari

The Gulf

When Bahrainis of all political persuasions look across the causeway to Saudi Arabia, they often remember March 14, 2011, the day Saudi troops operating under a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) mandate helped put down protests in the kingdom.

To the country's ruling family and pro-government political blocs, the intervention pulled the country back from chaos. Opponents and critics of the government say, however, it was an excessive response to the reasonable political demands of most demonstrators.

Whether or not the GCC saved Bahrain from anarchy, it has played a key role during the Arab Spring. Money from GCC members has helped stabilize some governments in the region and aided the opponents of others. Of the US$17.5 billion donated to the Middle East and North Africa between January 2011 and June 2012, $7 billion came from the GCC, the International Monetary Fund says.

Saudi Arabia alone has so far dispersed $3.66 billion to countries in the region, including Egypt and Yemen, and pledged $14.26 billion more. Kuwait is funding massive housing projects in Bahrain.

After supplying aid to the rebels who overthrew Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Qatar is doing the same for the opponents of Syria's Bashar Al Assad. The foreign aid, as well as increased social spending at home, is a recognition that economic grievances have helped breed instability across the region. – Elizabeth Dickinson

United States

Barack Obama, the US president, chose early on to side with the first revolts of the Arab Spring. But in the second year of upheaval in the "new" Middle East, his administration has shown limited ability to shape the outcome in Tunisia and Egypt, where Islamist governments have been voted into power.

While the long-standing pillars of US policy in the region – backing Israel and safeguarding the flow of Gulf oil - remain intact, Washington is cloaked in an air of caution, even ambivalence, about change in the region and the Islamists who are its forefront.

The administration was reassured when Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi played the role of mediator in the latest spate of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

At the same time, worries about Islamist militancy and about advanced weaponry falling into the Islamist hands have kept Washington from matching its rhetoric vilifying Syrian President Bashar Al Assad with full-fledged support for those fighting him.

The deaths of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans during a siege of the US consulate in Benghazi in September have compounded those worries. Indeed, the Arab Spring's second year has underscored how the uprisings have created significant new openings for Islamist militants, who for now seem to have turned their attention away from the US. – Taimur Khan

Europe and The United Kingdom

European countries look on with a mixture of foreboding and hope as the Arab Spring rumbles on and the region's political landscape shifts.

Largely sympathetic to popular Arab demands for better and more responsive governance, Europeans are nevertheless wary of the Islamist parties that have emerged to supplant former authoritarian allies and sweep aside old certainties. They are less fearful about political Islam than Americans, however, and Europeans have been reaching out to the region's new rulers even their financial troubles constrain their traditional means of diplomatic influence - financial aid.

As Syria descends into more bloodshed, Russia for the first time has acknowledged officially that the Syrian regime is unlikely to last. Europeans - some, such as the United Kingdom, more eagerly than others – are looking to hurry the endgame.  – Omar Karmi