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The Arab Spring? Eight Years Later; Hopes and Challenges

In 2011, millions of people from different backgrounds and orientations filled the region’s streets, chanting for ‘bread, freedom and social justice’. Eight years later, did they achieve their demands? Have the region’s authoritarian regimes learned anything from the revolts? Ultimately, were they successful revolutions or mere protests doomed to failure?

By Kareem Gerges

In 2011, millions of people from different backgrounds and orientations filled the region’s streets, chanting for ‘bread, freedom and social justice’. Eight years later, did they achieve their demands? Have the region’s authoritarian regimes learned anything from the revolts? Ultimately, were they successful revolutions or mere protests doomed to failure?

These are few questions out of many that demand reflection eight years after the protests. Many claim that the revolts are nothing but a series of failures, others, albeit fewer, consider it a success. However, instead of succumbing to cynicism and hopelessness or to daydreaming of an idealistic utopia, it is important to go beyond a binary labeling, while examining and acknowledging both, the successes and failures. Although the region’s authoritarian regimes have persisted, yet the hopes and dreams of the revolts persist as well.

The case of Tunisia’s experience during the past eight years shows the importance of moving beyond a binary judgement and that the road of democracy is full of complex challenges. It is no secret that Tunisia is widely considered as the only success story of the Arab Spring, yet the country continues to face significant challenges while some authoritarian practices reminiscent of the Ben Ali regime continue to persist. After toppling its longtime dictator, the country held its first free parliamentary elections, in 2011, enabling the once-banned Islamist party, Ennahda, to win and form the cabinet. The following year has been tumultuous, as the new government tried to control protests and violence throughout the country.

In 2013, after the assassination of two prominent secular politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, huge protests erupted against the harsh living conditions and the threat of Islamization of the state and the curtailing of human rights. The crisis, however, was resolved when Ennahda agreed to organize new elections, thanks to the negotiations among the political parties facilitated by the Tunisia National Dialogue Quartet, in 2013, – a group of human rights activists, labor union leaders, and lawyers –  which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for facilitating a peaceful and democratic transition of power, in which the secular parties won the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2014, albeit with low-turnout. And in the same year, a new constitution was accepted, considered as the most progressive in the region. However, since 2011, public frustration has increased, as the country continues to face significant political, security and economic challenges.

Since 2014, the socio-economic situation has worsened, as the unemployment rate – particularly among the young and educated- increased from 23 percent in 2010 to 30 percent in 2018, while the corruption index, according to Transparency International, improved by only one point, from 2012 to 2017, taking into consideration the allegations of corruption and in-fighting within the president’s party, Nidaa Tounes. Several terrorist attacks shocked the population and heavily damaged the country’s tourism industry.

Since 2011, nearly 100,000 highly educated and skilled workers have left the country, and Tunisia remains one of the largest contributors of foreign fighters to ISIS. The Transitional Justice Commission, created in 2013 to address human rights violations committed between July 1955 and December 2013, has faced significant obstacle: parliament’s attempt to prevent the extension of its mandate, the government is accused of obstructing the commission’s findings, and the passage of a government-supported amnesty law for civil servants who committed acts of corruption threatens the effectiveness of the Commission.

Moreover, human rights violations remain a major issue. Since the government declared a sate of emergency in 2015, security forces have carried out thousands of arrests and house raids without judicial warrants, arrested bloggers and activists, restricted civil liberties, allowed for torture and abuse in prison to take place without accountability. These are some of significant challenges facing Tunisia. However, In 2019, the country will hold its second direct democratic presidential and parliamentary elections, representing an important opportunity for civil society and progressive leaders to push the country a bit closer to the hopes of the 2011 revolt. Tunisia’s experience shows that that road of democracy is anything but straight, full of set-backs and challenges, but also of opportunities for a positive change.

Compared to Tunisia, Egypt’s case seems grimmer, yet strings of hope endure, nonetheless. The country witnessed its first free elections in 2012, bringing in the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the once-banned moderate-Islamist organization, into the forefront of the Egyptian political arena, as it dominated the parliament and its nominee, Mohamed Morsi, won the presidential elections. However, during its year in power, the MB missed a golden opportunity as it played by the repressive and exclusionary Mubarak playbook.

In July 2013, after mass protests against the MB, the military intervened and detained Morsi, while dispersing pro-MB protestors in August, through an extremely violent and bloody operation, resulting in, at least, 1000 deaths, considered as one of the largest mass-murders committed in one day. After the election of Sisi, the former defense-minister, who led the military’s coup, in 2014, the regime has steered the country into a state of unprecedented severe repression.

In the name of security and the fight against terrorism, the regime has led a violent crackdown on civil-society, pushed for draconian laws allowing for unaccountable surveillance and prosecution of journalists, peaceful activists and any form of opposition, whether expressed online or not. Through extrajudicial killings and rampant corruption, the government’s security campaign has claimed the lives of hundreds if not thousands of civilians and security forces, led a coopted Parliament into passing bills in effect solidifying the president’s control over the judiciary, which has consequently, issued mass-execution and prison sentences in sham trials. In addition, thousands of peaceful liberal and Islamist activists have been detained, often without charges, while subjected to unimaginable torture and abuse.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 60,000 people have been arrested on political grounds. Recently, the regime has forced the passage of constitutional amendments removing the four-years two-term presidential limits, and a extending the term into six years, in effect allowing Sisi to remain in power until 2032/34. Additionally, the socio-economic situation has not improved, in fact it worsened particularly since the government devaluated the currency in 2016; losing more than half its value and skyrocketing inflation into 30 percent, while wages stagnated.

In spite of these grim realities, the hopes of the Arab Spring are not dead, on the contrary, they remain alive, even if they did not materialize, yet. By observing social media trends and public opinion across the region one can see how many people are engaged in political discussions and holding on for the hopes of a brighter future. Of course, not everyone on social media is pro-democracy, however, it is worth remembering that it was the social media generation which organized and led the Arab Spring.

Moreover, even in a severely censored environment such as in Egypt, on-ground dissent has been witnessed. For example, hundreds protested the government’s highly contentious sale of the two islands, Tiran and Sanfir, to Saudi Arabia, and dozens were detained as a result. And following the disastrous train crash in February 2019, Ahmed Mohy stood by himself in Tahrir square holding a sign reading: “Step down Sisi”. Within minutes, he was detained and prosecuted by trumped-up charges. These couple examples show that many are still resisting and fighting for change, even if on a small or micro-level.

Witnessing the revolts in Algeria and Sudan, toppling long-time dictators, and how they are learning and adapting from the mistakes of the prior revolts shows that people across the region still believe in the vision of the Arab Spring. A vision for a new social contract between the ruler and the ruled founded on respect for human rights, social justice and democratic principles. These are not mere utopian ideals; however, they represent the values of the vision which thousands of people across the region have sacrificed their lives for.

As long as the region’s authoritarian regimes remain, neither security nor peace can ever be achieved, as these regimes cannot exist without manufacturing the insecurity and conflict they claim to fight. It is their raison d’etre, and it is inherent in their structure. As long as these regimes remain, conflicts in Syria and Libya, and the horrific war led by Saudi Arabia on Yemen, creating the worst humanitarian crisis, will continue, in one form or another. If there is anything the region’s rulers should learn from history, it is that doubling-down on the same playbook of the Mubaraks, Assads, Bashirs, and so on, will only perpetuate instability, conflict and insecurity. The road to the vision of the Arab Spring is far from linear, and the revolts of 2011 did not go in-vain; they are not dead but are part of a continuing pattern of resistance and fight for a better future.

This article was released in the first print publication of the Graduate Press. Download the Spring 2019 print edition here.

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