The buds of the Arab Spring
It was the beat of a butterfly’s wing that set a tsunami in motion. On 17 December 2010, street vendor Mohammed Bouaziz set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. The self-immolation of a 26-year-old man claiming years of harassment at the hands of the police and local authorities led to mass protests across the region.
Initially in Tunisia, later in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and almost every other country in the region, thousands of people joined anti-regime demonstrations. The dam holding back decades of frustration at authoritarian paternalism, corruption and mismanagement had finally been breached.
Jordanian national Rawan Baybars was 22 years old at the time. She was completing her marketing degree and followed the protests on Al Jazeera. She watched as people expressed their anger at authoritarian rule and demanded freedom, bread and dignity. Baybars, who now works for the Red Cross in Amman, watched on her television screen as dictatorships were toppled and regimes imploded: on 14 January 2011 in Tunisia, just one month later in Cairo, then in Yemen and Libya.
“That was a turning point in my life,” she says today. “I grew up with a sense that there was a lot wrong with our country, for example that there are no civil rights. I thought although it was terrible, that was just the way it was. Since the Arab Spring I know that things can change.”
She believes that this realisation still applies, although 10 years on, social and economic conditions have worsened for many people. In her own experience, despite a good education and a whole series of internships, she can only find temporary jobs interspersed with periods of unemployment.
The exception of Tunisia
Hopes for a swift democratisation have been dashed. Barely any of the protest movement’s expectations have been fulfilled. Apart from in Tunisia, it has not been possible to establish wide-reaching civil rights and freedoms anywhere.
In Egypt, the first free elections put Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in power. Clearly overwhelmed, Morsi plunged the nation into chaos and was toppled by the military in 2013. Thousands of his supporters were killed. Since then, repression in Egypt is worse than it was in the Mubarak era. Civil society has little room for manoeuvre. Military ruler Abdul Fattah al-Sisi wants to turn back time and extinguish all memory of the events of January 2011.
In Syria, the protests spiralled into a bloody civil war stoked by regional and international powers. Following the deaths of more than 500,000 and the displacement of millions, dictator Bashar al-Assad remains in power thanks to the support of Russia and Iran.
Yemen’s revolution, which began in January 2011 and forced the resignation of long-time President Ali Abdallah Saleh, also developed into full-blown civil war. Here too, the conflict is determined by the geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The victims are the people of Yemen, scene of what is probably the world’s biggest humanitarian catastrophe.
In nations such as Jordan and Morocco, rulers were able to placate protesters with smaller-scale political concessions. In the Gulf region, citizens were silenced with cash, for example in the form of pay hikes for civil servants.
Tunisia may be the only success story, but there too, democracy is far from well-established. Instead, unemployment, economic decline due to a lack of tourism and national debt threaten the very foundations of this small Mediterranean nation.