The Arab Spring Movement: History’s Unfinished Fight For Freedom
A rebellion refers to a ‘refusal of obedience or order.’ Stemming from feelings of dissatisfaction and disapproval, rebellions unite people in the collective objective of resisting or overthrowing an established authority. Possibly the greatest threat to authoritarian regimes, a solitary seed of doubt can ignite a nation’s inhabitants to rebel against the forces that suppress them. History has seen thousands of revolutions, spanning a plethora of regions and periods; some remembered as heroic battles and others, vain efforts. One such revolt seems to classify as both.
The dawn of 2010 ushered an era of uprisings, upheaval, and unrest. A time of nascent democracy, rampant civil war, and the unbridled call for freedom against the oppressive governments of the time. Who could have possibly known that an ordinary man setting himself on fire in a remote part of Tunisia would be the fated, catalysing spark that would stoke the growing flames of rebellion in the authoritarian nation, go on to become a raging inferno that would send an authoritarian President fleeing for his life, and eventually engulf Africa and the Middle East like a forest fire? And even a decade later, we see the bristling embers of the cataclysmic war between freedom and authoritarianism, democracy and monarchical regimes, stirring underneath the ashes of the past.
They were known as the ‘Arab Spring’, a wave of pro-democracy protests that enveloped countries including Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Egypt in 2010 and 2011. The uprisings challenged the region’s most entrenched authoritarian regimes hoping to culminate at the end of totalitarian governments and cultivate the desire and need for a democratic future. The self-immolation of the Tunisian vendor, which later came to be known as the Jasmine Revolution, catalysed street protests, uprisings, and a rebellion so strong that it prompted authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to resign and flee the country. He had ruled the country for more than 20 years.
The success of the Arab Spring movement inspired people to look at the intrinsic flaws in their governments and societies and rebel. Economic causes such as widespread unemployment, and low living standards fuelled the anger of university graduates forced to do menial work due to lack of opportunity. The loss of faith in the prevailing Arab dictatorships and the corruption where the state-led development gave place to crony capitalism that benefited only a small minority left most of the population deeply cynical and unsatisfied. The Arab Spring Movement called upon the common man to take back their country away from the corrupt elites. Protesters held national flags as they marched in the streets, with the iconic rallying call: “The People Want the Fall of the Regime!”. Seeing as the protests were largely spontaneous and leaderless, the regimes found it difficult to immobilise them.
Egypt saw street demonstrations on the streets on January 25th, just a few days after the democratic elections in Tunisia, held in 2011. The government tried to curb the protests - after several days of massive demonstrations and clashes between protesters and security forces - by using both violence and minor concessions like the Tunisian government. Egyptian President Mubarak left office on February 11th after nearly 30 years, after having lost the support of the military in favour of the protests. Invigorated by the rapid successes in Tunisia and Egypt, nascent revolts emerged in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, however, the rebellion in these countries led to bloody, prolonged struggles between opposition groups and ruling regimes.
Social media can be largely credited for the success of the movement, especially in Egypt and Tunisia. People created pages on Facebook to raise awareness about crimes such as police brutality and human rights violations and to organise protests. Social media was an outlet for people to vent their frustrations without governmental interference. The population of Egypt referred to themselves as “the Facebook generation”, and Facebook was credited for the nationwide labour strikes in Tunisia.
YEMEN & BAHRAIN
The new government that followed the fall of President Pres. Ali Abdullah Saleh was unable to improve conditions or maintain stability devolved into a civil war in 2014.
Protests demanding political and economic reforms in Bahrain in February 2011, were violently suppressed. The uprising was successfully stifled that very month. Consequently, dozens of accused protesters were convicted of treason and imprisoned.
In Libya protests against Muammar al-Qaddafi in February 2011 quickly escalated into an armed revolt to the extent that a NATO-led international coalition launched airstrikes targeting Qaddafi’s forces. Qaddafi was able to cling to power in the capital, Tripoli till August 2011 after rebel forces took control. A Council was set up by rebel forces who took power, but it struggled to exert authority over the country and ultimately propelled the outbreak of civil war in 2014.
Protests calling for the resignation of Pres. Bashar al-Assad broke out in Syria in March 2011 and was met with a brutal crackdown by the Assad Regime. The escalation of violence, rain of bombs and the emergence of ISIS culminated in the devastating civil war and massive refugee crisis that we know today.
Although the Arab Spring Movement united various countries struggling for democracy across the region, the drive to end corruption and improve the standard of living did not end with the Arab Spring. Rebellions and uprisings in Algeria ousted the government of Pres. Abdelaziz Bouteflika in February 2019, Sudan’s military ended the 30-year rule of Pres. Omar al-Bashir after months of protests. From a human-rights perspective, While the uprising in Tunisia led to some improvements in the country, most nations that witnessed social and political upheaval in the spring of 2011 did not change for the better. Most notably, in Egypt, where authoritarian rule has returned.
Circa 2021, Libya has remained in a state of civil war. Divided in half, the country is ruled by two opposing governments. Libya’s civilian population has seen thousands fleeing with hopes of seeking asylum in Europe.
Similarly, the civil war in Syria forced many to leave the country to seek refuge in Europe. At one point, the militant group ISIS had established a caliphate—a nation governed by Islamic law—in northeastern Syria. The rain of bombs and warfare has destroyed both the city and the hopes of having a better future.
The rampant rise of jihadism, stagnation of economic development, democracy, and freedom of the press has also persisted in most if not all regions, leading experts to question the effectiveness of the movement in the first place. Most countries are still grappling, crippled, or completely ravaged by the aftermath of the rebellion, and the hope for a better life and freedom remains but a distant dream. Although the movement was largely successful in over-ruling autocratic regimes, the repercussions came at a cost. Most dictators found asylum in other countries and the expected democracy and quality of living was a brief stint in time. People might argue that they might not have brought the success they promised, yet the Arab Spring Movement will go down in history as a precedent of rebellion and revolution in the face of adversity.