The Arab Spring taught everyone that democracy, transition and political movements are not a spectator sport, but require rigour, time, planning and commitment to see them through.
In December 2010, in the quaint town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia, a fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against the corruption and intimidation by local police over where he could set up his cart and sell his produce. This act of defiance by a local fruit seller, who was considered a nobody, was the spark that set in motion large protests against long-serving leaders in the Middle East. The protests were labelled as the ‘Arab Spring.’
The results were staggering — protests moved from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Libya and other Arab countries. Fear of uprisings also gripped the likes of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even Iran, which is still visible in the policies these countries enact across the region today. The protests gained world-wide attention as millions of people, often led by the youth, rallied against dictators who had been in the seat of power for decades. Tunisia’s long serving president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to resign, ending a presidency that began in 1987. Similarly, long-serving president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, also abdicated his presidency after 30 years in power after more than a million Egyptians took over Tahrir Square in Cairo.
A change of seasons?
These political changes, led by a popular movement, were celebrated the world over as a victory of the people; and while that was largely true, the revolutions lacked depth and institution. Coupled with global euphoria as the protests became the world’s first social media-led-movement and event, even governments and world leaders who knew better were caught in between reality and public opinion. And public opinion often won.
The outcomes were not great. Egypt held elections in 2012 and Mohamed Morsi backed by the Muslim Brotherhood won. However, Morsi was eventually deposed in a coup in 2013 by the Opposition, which was predominantly backed by the Army and religious groups as a democratic outcome was unpalatable to many — both in the region and abroad (the Muslim Brotherhood was banned in Egypt the same year). Cairo was back under military rule in 2014. Meanwhile, Syria, Yemen and Libya also slipped into civil war, all still continuing to this day.
The US under the administration of the (then) President Barack Obama saw the protests as a natural and organic movement for change in the Middle East, a region where American foreign policy had been ingrained into for decades. In fact, many of the leaders who were now kicked to the curb, had in fact very good relationships with Washington, DC. The option for Obama was either to support public opinion — which was not a regional issue as the Spring had captured people’s imagination the world over — or continue to support the status quo in the region as moulded by decades of US foreign policy. In 2009, a year before the Arab Spring, the Obama administration had, in fact, asked social-media site Twitter to delay any scheduled maintenance downtime in an effort to aid anti-government protests in Iran. Hence, it is safe to say, the Obama administration was quick to recognise the increased entanglement of social media as a tool for people to organise around. With access to telecommunications, the internet and smartphones were becoming an integral part of society by this point of time, and politics, by association — as was being used by dissenters in the region.
However, while the moral and ethical support for the Arab Spring by the global community was in tune, the reality was a bit more translucent. In most cases, there was no political ‘Plan B’ or institutions and leaders that were strong enough to not only take over after the fall of a delinquent, but to build a democratic process in one of the most politically unstable regions, with or without foreign intervention. The dash of idealism and euphoria that surrounded the intense images of people’s push against decades of misrule, such as in Cairo, misread and misjudged the region’s actual capacities to herald a new, stable era of democratic politics, and the world did not step in to help, other than with platitudes and non-committal economic giveaways.
Syria, today, is perhaps the example that stands tall of the Arab Spring having gone wrong. The challenge to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule spiralled into a hodgepodge of insurgencies, some against the government, some aided by the government, and some against each other. Amongst these failures, groups such as Al Qaeda and the formation of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh) moved into the sectarian fissures (mostly between Shias and Sunnis) being left behind due to political vacuums, with struggling local populations often forced to find solace and safety amongst these militant groups.
Searching for democracy from democracies
There is an underlying opinion across the board, including in India, that democracy just does not work in West Asia, and that stability often only comes through autocracy there. India’s views on the Arab Spring also emit from what its foreign policy wants to achieve, which on the cusp of it is stability in oil production, delivery and prices along with the overall safety of its more than 8 million strong diaspora peppered across the Gulf and beyond. At some level perhaps New Delhi, home to the world’s largest democracy, has also believed for a long period of time that stability in the region does not come from orchestrating democratic transitions in the region, but letting the Arabs decide what the Arabs want. In the end, interests need protection, everything else is diplomacy.
Throughout the process of the Arab Spring, India’s relations with Syria offered a good view of the above-mentioned approach. New Delhi maintained a “normal” relationship with Damascus and was one of the few countries’ to continue an embassy (barring a few months in between due to security concerns) throughout the civil war. Initially, even New Delhi viewed the protests as purposeful if the transition of power was swift such as in Tunisia. However, despite the global upheaval, India’s approach to the crisis remained traditional, that New Delhi would engage whoever was in power in Damascus. By 2016, it was clear that Assad’s future was going to be determined not by the protests, but his supporters in Russia and Iran.
Perhaps, India’s former Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon put New Delhi’s concerns and approach around the Arab Spring most succinctly for that time. Menon said in 2011-12: “The Western developed economies can now afford the chaos that the so-called Arab Spring is bringing to the Middle East. They can actively encourage regime change in the area. The main victims in uncertainty in (oil) supply will be emerging economies like India and China who are still to diversify their sources of supply into long-term flexible contracts with others outside the region.”
Ultimately, the Arab Spring was the release of anger, frustration and aspirations of a population that has lived largely under the rule of autocracies. However, the eventual outcomes were far less than desirable. The fallout only created more failed states amidst an already precarious geo-political environment, gave birth to newer, more extreme radical groups and made the larger region more prone to political fallouts. The noble attempts of the Arabs, predominantly the youth, aired worldwide via social media, was consumed as a spectacle across the world. However, no one, including those leading the protests, stepped forward with acumen, experience or power to lead democratic transitions into institutional change from the ground up. Perhaps more than anything else, the Arab Spring highlighted that building a democracy is hard work, not just for government and leaders, but for the citizenry as well, which becomes the most involved arm of the polity in such a system. And in the end, the Arab Spring taught everyone that democracy, transition and political movements are not a spectator sport, but require rigour, time, planning and commitment to see them through.
In December 2020, Tunisia, one of the only few who inherited some change into a democracy in progress, is facing similar challenges once again, propelled further by the COVID-19 pandemic. Protests are erupting in the same regions, around similar issues, as they did in 2010. A new survey conducted across nine Arab states has shown that people believe they now live in more unequal societies than before the Arab Spring (though most who were part of the survey did not believe the protests were a bad thing). Finally, journalist Gregg Carlstrom colours in the complex decade of the Spring well; “History is not linear. Revolutions fail; bad guys sometimes win. There is no reason to expect that the next round of uprisings will produce happier results than the previous ones. Equally, though, there is no reason to believe the autocrats when they can say they can prevent it.”