The story of Mohammed Bouazizi provides deep insight into the contemporary politics of the Middle East. A vegetable vendor and the breadwinner for his family of eight, Bouazizi hoped to save enough money to buy a pickup truck that would simplify his work.
On Dec. 17, 2010, a police officer seized Bouazizi’s unlicensed cart, rejected his fines and abused him. Frustrated, Bouazizi complained to the local municipality officials, but his request was denied. Hopeless and forlorn, he set himself on fire , which subsequently triggered widespread protests in Tunisia that led to the Arab Spring.
Initially, the Arab Spring was an optimistic transformation of the Middle East, much like the Revolutions of 1989 that toppled communism. Authoritarianism and political corruption were exacerbating social inequality and hindering economic growth. Democracy seemed to promote socioeconomic advancement and defuse global tensions.
The 2011-12 phase of the Arab Spring appeared successful. The authoritarian governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were overthrown in protests ranging from peaceful to violent. Governmental changes were observed in Jordan, Iraq and Bahrain, while autocrats in Saudi Arabia and Algeria assured social reforms.
With the oppressive regimes ousted, the Middle East should be much better off under a democratic transition. Tunisia is a shining example of progress, since it adopted a new modernist constitution and held parliamentary elections in 2014. Thus, it’s no surprise that The Economist designated Tunisia as the 2014 Country of the Year.
Tragically, Tunisia is the lone exception to what is actually happening in other places. The Islamist Mohammed Morsi narrowly won the Egyptian presidential elections in 2012, succeeding the ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak. As president, Morsi sought to develop a major industrial hub connecting the Suez Canal as a way to alleviate the struggling economy.
Yet, Morsi’s political reforms were disastrous. He worsened relations with the military, reestablished the Islamist-dominated parliament and issued a decree that protected him from any judicial prosecution. In 2013, Morsi was overthrown by the military. The new president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi essentially restored Egypt to its pre-2011 revolution state, while promoting “democratic” reforms.
Yemen is a failing state due to its worsening ethnic tensions. In 2012, the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh resigned in exchange for immunity from prosecution. His successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi sought to unify diverse social groups and strengthen the military, while fervently combatting al-Qaida.
Sadly, Hadi failed to defend against the growing Shia insurgency known as the Houthis. Claiming discrimination and government aggression, the Houthis overthrew Hadi and captured the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, Jan. 22.
Libya and Syria are plagued by endless civil wars. The 2011 Libyan Civil War was clearly a Western-backed success. The deposed and executed autocrat Muammar Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, displayed hostility to the United States, and supported insurgencies in the 1980s.
After Gaddafi’s overthrow, the National Transitional Council held parliamentary elections in 2012. The Islamists won only few seats, but strengthened their power due to a weak central government. In 2014, General Khalifa Haftar organized the Council of Deputies to oppose the Islamist Libyan Dawn, triggering a second civil war.
The twin civil wars in Libya are rivaled by the factional Syrian Civil War, which has been in a deadlock since March 2011. The war was initially between Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition. However, the Islamic State seized power in much of Syria and Iraq, before being opposed by the Kurds seeking independence from Syria.
What happened? The Arab Spring initially showed signs so similar to the Revolutions of 1989. Bouazizi’s self-immolation symbolized a protest against corruption, social inequality, and authoritarianism. Instead, the opposite happened. Egypt returned to authoritarian rule; Syria, Libya and Yemen are in a political mess; and Islamic State is becoming stronger.
There are several reasons as to why the Arab Spring failed. One explanation is the absence of political alternatives to Islamism and military rule. Taking advantage of anti-authoritarian protests, Islamists provide social relief and education for the working class, as a means of strengthening political power to establish a theocracy.
Compared to Islamism, military rule is a better alternative despite defeating the central purpose of the Arab Spring. First, Islamism is strongly anti-imperialist, since colonial powers seemingly created a split between the minority elite that was privileged and modernized, and the frustrated “commoner” majority.
Second, Islamists opposed the creation of Israel, since they feared the Jewish state created a physical split among the Arab countries. With such zealous anti-Western and anti-Israeli sentiments, Islamist domination in the Middle East would only lead to a geopolitical catastrophe.
Economic prosperity explains why the Arab Spring exerted its greatest impact in only few nations. After all, we don’t see revolutions raging in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, whereby wealthy autocrats would remain popular, while suppressing dissidents through bribery.
If anything, Western support for the Arab Spring was geared towards political realism instead of democratic ideals. Triggering democratic protests in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain would clearly be a foreign policy disaster, since these countries are major allies in combatting Islamic State.
Lack of education and high illiteracy rates in many Arab countries are barriers against democracy. Instead of rote learning and cultural intrusions, public education must emphasize critical thinking and analysis. Successful education reforms will engender a new generation of independent, rational citizens that are critical to maintaining a stable democracy.
It is also possible that the Arab Spring was doomed to fail from the start. Two intellectual movements shaped the Middle East in the early 20th century. The al-Nahda movement was inspired by classical liberalism, and accordingly supported public education, women’s rights and an open society.
On the other hand, Salafism emphasized a return to Arab roots and supported a much purer form of Islam. Unfortunately, Salafism shifted from intellectual ideas to physical force over time. Not surprisingly, many Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Qatar identify as Salafists.
Tunisia being the sole success of the Arab Spring can also be explained historically. Habib Bourguiba secured Tunisian independence from France, abolished the monarchy and established the modern Tunisian state. Although he was a dictator, he improved public education, strengthened women’s rights, curtailed Islamism and promoted a state-run healthcare system.
In 1987, Bourguiba was overthrown by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who promised greater democracy. However, he was notorious for various human rights violations, most notably being suppression of press freedom. Unemployment worsened, and Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011.
The new Tunisian government seeks to expand Bourguiba’s social reforms and promote significant democratization, a resounding success for the Arab Spring. Containing Islamism, combatting socioeconomic inequality and strengthening education are the main approaches to form a sustainable democracy.
Egypt, despite its authoritarian rule, seems to follow Tunisia’s lead. Hopefully, the rest of the Middle East can join along, so that the Arab Spring can finally succeed.
Badri Karthikeyan is a senior biology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].