It has been nearly a year and a half since the start of the “Arab Spring” uprisings — the wave of protests advocating for democratic reform in the Middle East — and despite the leaps of progress that have been made, people are still fighting for their right to democracy.
According to Professor of Political Science Malik Mufti, the Arab Spring uprisings are a historic occurrence.
“The Arab Spring is the first major manifestation of mass popular demand for more democratic government in the Arab world,” Mufti said. “As such, it seeks to bring an end to the authoritarian political order that has been in place in those countries since independence.”
The story is well known by now: On Dec. 17, 2010, in a protest against harassment by local police, a street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia.
Other residents of Sidi Bouzid who sympathized with Bouazizi began to protest. Demonstrations soon spread to cities across Tunisia, and the discontent that had been bubbling for years in the country led to mass demand for President Zine al−Abidine Ben Ali to step down. Ben Ali, who had served as the president of Tunisia since 1987, resigned on Jan. 14, 2011.
Inspired by the success in Tunisia, pro−democracy movements spread to countries across the Arab world, indicating that Bouazizi’s act of desperation was reflective of the dissatisfaction and frustration that had been growing in many Arab countries.
“There’s been discontent and shared grievances throughout much of the Arab world for years,” Assistant Professor of Religion Kenneth Garden said.
Indeed, the economic downturn that led to widespread unemployment and poverty in the Arab world, the high percentage of educated young people that made up the populations of many Arab nations and the fierce political repression in the region were are all thought to have created fertile ground for a revolution to flourish.
Garden compared the Arab Spring uprisings to the Prague Spring in 1968 and the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe.
“Then, it was socialist regimes that were unpopular with the citizens that lived under them. Once there was revolution and radical reform in one place, once something catalyzed, it became clear that most everyone shared the opinion that the current regime has to go,” Garden said. “It is a similar thing now with authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. Once Tunisia happened, people in other places realized, ‘It could happen here, too.’”
Egypt was a focal point of the Arab Spring protests, drawing enormous demonstrations that were centered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Egyptian demonstrators called for then−President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power since 1981, to step down.
According to Garden, citizens across the Arab world rose up against leaders like Mubarak during the Arab Spring.
“There were very old regimes, like Mubarak’s, that didn’t really have popular legitimacy, were ruled through fraudulent elections, cronyism, used repression and censorship and had a monopoly on power,” Garden said. “They trotted out old slogans and ideologies that nobody really believed in anymore.”
Although protests happened around the same time in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Bahrain — among many others — the outcomes have been very different, and in many places the fight for democracy still continues.
While there have been concrete successes in places like Tunisia, Mufti explained that it is too early to tell what the outcome will be in other nations that were touched by the Arab Spring uprisings.
“There’s a lot of variation across countries, with Tunisia for example apparently well on the way to a parliamentary political system, Syria in the midst of a bloody insurgency and many other Arab states still relatively untouched. It’s therefore much too early to draw any conclusions about ultimate outcomes,” Mufti said.
Assistant Professor of Anthropology Amahl Bishara echoed Mufti’s sentiment and warned against drawing uniform conclusions about the results of the uprisings.
“One cannot generalize across countries about the outcomes of the Arab revolts,” Bishara said. “Tunisia is, so far, the country where the Arab Spring has most clearly yielded fruit. In Egypt, protesters are still struggling for real democracy, and in Libya the situation continues to be in flux. Certainly in Syria, people are in the midst of the revolt.”
As Bishara explained, Egyptians are still fighting for a truly democratic government. Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt on Feb. 11, 2011, and during the elections in September 2011, an Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, won about 48 percent of the vote.
“In Egypt, there hasn’t been a clean break with the past,” Garden said. “The Muslim Brotherhood so far has been willing to cooperate with the army.”
There is a presidential election in Egypt next month, and Garden said that it would be interesting to see how the country votes.
“From an American strategic perspective, the United States had a much more pliable ally in the form of Mubarak, but he was able to do things that were not popular in Egypt,” Garden said. “Going forward, whoever is in charge has to be more responsive to Egyptian public sentiment.”
In Libya, then−Prime Minister and dictator Muammar Gadhafi was the first leader to be killed in the Arab Spring uprisings. Six months later, an interim government headed by Prime Minister Abdurrahim El−Keib is having trouble settling disputes among the ethnic groups in Libya. However, the country’s first free and fair elections are slated for June 2012.
“In Libya, there seems to have been a clean break with the past, [...] but it is too early to say,” Garden said.
Syria is currently in the midst of a bloody conflict. Arab Spring demonstrators in Syria faced a violent reaction from the government, and thousands have died since the conflict began in March 2011. Unfortunately, a recently enacted peace deal attempting to advance negotiations seems to be on the brink of collapse.
Despite the conflict and violence in places like Syria, Mufti believes that democracy in the Arab world is inevitable — though it may be a while before it can be achieved.
“In the long run, I think a gradual evolution towards democracy and even liberalism is inevitable. Along the way, however, all kinds of terrible detours and setbacks are possible, as was the case with the Western democracies,” Mufti said.
Garden added that it is essential for Americans to keep an eye on what happens with the Arab Spring movements.
“The Middle East has been at the forefront of American foreign policy for the past 11 years,” he said. “Back when the Iraq war was launched, one of the rationales for war was that a [democratic] Iraq would serve as a model for the rest of the Arab world, but we are actually seeing it happen now.”
Mufti agreed that being aware of current events in the Middle East is vital because the effects of the uprisings are not limited solely to the Arab world.
“The Arab Spring — and political change in the Muslim world more generally — are important not only because they directly involve a huge chunk of the world’s population, but because what happens there, as we have seen, has repercussions over here as well,” Mufti said.
An example of the far−reaching effects of the Arab Spring uprisings in the United States is their serving as an inspiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The website Adbusters.org, which originally called for people to occupy Wall Street last summer, used the methods of the demonstrators in Egypt as a model for its own demonstrations. According to the site, “Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum — that Mubarak must go — over and over again until they won. Following this model, what is our equally complicated demand?”
“There was a lot of excitement about the Occupy movement when I was in Egypt in the fall,” Garden said. “People were really excited and proud that people talked about being inspired by the Arab Spring.”
A year and a half since Bouazizi’s act of desperation and protest, countries across the Arab world are at different stages in their fight for democracy. According to Mufti, however, the uprisings have irrevocably changed the Arab world.
“The one thing that can be said with certainty is that there’s no going back,” Mufti said. “The Arab masses are now politically mobilized, and they will no longer accept being treated like cattle by their leaders.”