The year Arab nations lost their fear


The challenges in Libya are far greater than those faced by its neighbours in Tunisia and Egypt

IN DECEMBER 2010, 26-year-old vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi, in despair after his cart was confiscated by police, set himself on fire outside a government building. His self-immolation triggered protests in his hometown calling on president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to step down. Within days they had spread across the country. The following month, Ben Ali had fled, and the Arab world would never be the same again.

What happened in Tunisia, where a people shrugged off decades of fear to challenge the status quo, prompted a series of uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, dislodging dictators in Egypt and Libya in what became known as the Arab Spring.

That spring’s exhilarating sense of possibility has now slipped into a winter of uncertainty as to what happens now.

Questions abound. What leader might be the next to fall? What follows after an Arab regime crumbles? Who or what will fill the vacuum in societies where political discourse has long been smothered? The Arab world is anything but homogeneous and the fallout from this year’s tumultuous events will play out very differently in each country, depending on its political history, culture and demographic profile.

Each uprising had its own unique triggers and circumstances, but some of the ingredients that fed into the Arab Spring were similar: restive young populations, chronic unemployment, a lack of civil liberties, rocketing food prices – all overseen by sclerotic and greying regimes.

Hosni Mubarak presided over Egypt for 30 years; Ben Ali was in power for 23 years; and Muammar Gadafy had ruled Libya since 1969.

More than 10 months after Mubarak stepped down in the face of huge protests inspired by what happened in Tunisia, Egypt struggles to cope with its new realities. Mubarak may be no more, but the generals who propped him up before persuading him to go are still in place, facing accusations that they have stolen the revolution. Staggered elections, which have seen the rise of a rainbow of Islamists, have been punctuated by more demonstrations, which the authorities have violently attempted to snuff out.

In Tunisia, where higher levels of education and better functioning institutions have contributed to a smoother transition, the country’s first post-Ben Ali elections in October were hailed as a success. The most powerful political force is now the Islamist Ennahda party, whose candidate has become prime minister. The example of Ennahda will be observed closely throughout the region as long-suppressed Islamist movements seek to adapt to the new political landscape.

The challenges in Libya are, in many respects, far greater than those faced by its neighbours in Tunisia and Egypt. The end of Gadafy’s regime, brought about by a motley opposition crucially aided by Nato’s intervention, has laid bare the fissures in a society all but atomised by his brutal and eccentric rule. Libyans face the daunting task of building from scratch a unified nation with proper political and civil infrastructure.

In Yemen, poorest of all Arab nations, president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who came to power around the same time as Mubarak, agreed in a November peace deal to relinquish power after months of protests. His departure, however, leaves behind a power structure that has calcified over decades. The prospect of further unrest in a country already riven by regional and tribal divides cannot be ruled out.

Tremors continue to be felt in the tiny Gulf island state of Bahrain, where the so-called Pearl revolution was crushed with the help of Saudi Arabia.

The grievances that underscored Bahrain’s protests have not been addressed, however, and the country’s Shia minority continues to chafe under the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty, which in turn has accused Iran of fomenting sectarian unrest. In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah introduced limited voting rights for women and dispensed funding in an attempt to stave off any hint of dissent. The monarchies of Jordan and Morocco, mindful of the Arab Spring arriving at their door, have set tentative reform initiatives in train.

The most troubling – and troublesome in terms of the difficulties in resolving it – act of the Arab Spring has unfolded in Syria, where the UN says more than 5,000 people have been killed since protests against president Bashar al-Assad erupted in March.

The Syrian leader has become increasingly isolated, with the Arab League and Turkey turning against him. But his regime has dug in its heels despite tightening economic sanctions. With no prospect of external military intervention given Syria’s reputation as a regional hornet’s nest, the Arab Spring’s bloodiest uprising shows no sign of abating any time soon.

In each country, one of the most pressing questions is what role Islamists may play in the brave new world created by this year’s uprisings and revolutions. As well as Ennahda’s victory in the Tunisian elections, Islamist parties and movements have made such significant gains across the region that many within the milieu speak of an “Islamic awakening”.

The intra-Islamist debate promises to be just as important as that between liberal secularists and those who clamour for religion to have a greater role in the workings of the state. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest winner in the country’s piecemeal elections, has found itself competing with more hardline Salafists who garnered an unexpectedly large chunk of the vote. Those who inhabit the more pragmatic end of the Islamist spectrum speak of the lessons offered by Turkey and Malaysia and insist they are committed to a pluralistic, democratic vision.

The year ahead promises to be just as unpredictable as 2011, but without the sense of elation that marked the extraordinary domino-like fall of regimes this year. The region faces long and difficult power struggles between a wide range of actors as newly empowered citizens strive to establish a new order after decades of authoritarian rule.

One thing is certain, however: the people in the streets have lost their fear and no Arab leader can ever hope to rule as Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gadafy did.