A decade after the Arab Spring, dreams of a better future lie crushed

Across the Arab world, poverty, injustice, conflict and authoritarian rule are still rife

Tunisians  gather at Mohamed Bouazizi Square in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17th 2020, during commemorations of the 10th anniversary of Bouazizi’s self-immolation which triggered a wave of protests across the North African country. Photograph: Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

Tunisians gather at Mohamed Bouazizi Square in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17th 2020, during commemorations of the 10th anniversary of Bouazizi’s self-immolation which triggered a wave of protests across the North African country. Photograph: Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

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When a Tunisian street vendor set himself alight a decade ago to protest over the confiscation of his handcart and fruit by police, he never imagined his immolation would spark unending protests across the Arab world.

Mohamed Bouazizi did not live to see the fall of Tunisia’s dictator of 24 years, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, in mid-January 2011 and the transformation of his country into a struggling democracy.

Bouazizi did not witness the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and Muammar Gadafy in Libya, or the dire consequences of these revolts. Egypt has returned to military rule under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a far more ruthless dictator than was the ageing Mubarak.

The poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen, has been ravaged by a conflict involving Houthi rebels and the government, which prompted Saudi-Emirati military intervention. Libya has been divided into warring halves.

Bouazizi did not see the human rights revolt by minority Shias in Bahrain who were crushed by Saudi-Emirati intervention, or how protests in Syria became an armed insurrection and morphed into a proxy war involving regional and international powers.

He missed demonstrations that erupted in normally stable Jordan – which has had seven prime ministers since 2011 – and popular protests in another dozen Arab countries.

Bouazizi would surely have been amazed by risings in April 2019 that forced Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika – a leader of the country’s independence struggle – and Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir to resign. The following October, he would have seen determined demonstrations in Iraq and a spontaneous rising in the streets of Lebanon.

Dictatorship

Algeria remains under an authoritarian regime dominated for 57 years by the National Liberation Front, and Sudan is between dictatorship and democracy. After weeks of unrest, the Iraqi prime minister resigned and was replaced by another; protests continue and semi-democratic Lebanon is in turmoil. Non-Arab Turkey, Iran and Israel have also been gripped by protest.

The slogan of the Arab Spring, first chanted in the streets of Tunisia’s rising cities and towns, was and is: “The people want to bring down the regime.”

This cry was raised at the end of January 2011 when Egyptians of all ages and from all backgrounds converged on Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square calling for “bread, liberation and justice”, and an end to Mubarak’s 29-year reign. The peaceful movement soon captured the country, despite the authorities’ brutal crackdown.

The 18-day uprising, dubbed a revolution by joyful Egyptians, caught the imagination of the world when it was broadcast round the globe by international satellite television channels and became the model for the other uprisings. Tragically, liberal young Egyptians who made the revolution could not unite to win power in a briefly democratic political system, and are currently in prison.

Grievances

The enduring Arab Spring has been driven by common popular grievances: decades-long one-man or clique rule, mismanagement, massive corruption, lack of accountability, repression, huge inequalities of wealth, unemployment, and poor public services.

Then, as now, many educated youth have been unable to find work, feel there is no future in their home countries, and seek to emigrate.

Arab revolutionaries had high expectations which have largely been dashed, leaving millions angry and frustrated over the Arab Spring’s failure to deliver democracy, freedom of expression, social justice and economic equality.

Millions go hungry across the Arab world while their rulers carry on regardless and the wealthy enjoy life.

In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, the poverty and hopelessness that drove Bouazizi to take his own life have not been remedied despite the country’s victory of democracy over dictatorship.

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