Ten years after the Arab Spring – what happened to the dream?

On 17 December 2010, a young Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, immolated himself as a sign of protest in the small town of Sidi Bouzid. This dramatic, isolated act led to mass protests across Tunisia and much of North Africa, Yemen and Syria, eventually dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’.

Ten years on, while several leaders have been ousted, the hopes of those participating in the mass protests have been shattered, with far fewer political and economic gains made than initially expected.

Yet, it has to be said, these countries have also all witnessed the important development of civil society groups, especially in Tunisia, where there is far greater freedom of speech than ever before. Civil society is using social media to speak out against abuses. These are notable positive achievements.

The African Union (AU) did not play a major role in these events, although it has been tasked with managing the fallout from crises resulting from the conflicts and unconstitutional changes of government that followed in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Uneven outcomes

Each country should be judged on its own merits. In Egypt, for example, real change has not occurred. The presidential elections of June 2012 saw the victory of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi was, however, rapidly ousted by the military in July 2013.

In Tunisia, despite undeniable improvements in terms of freedom of speech, people are struggling to consolidate their political gains. Even here, phantoms of the old regime remain present in the political sphere, with many people nostalgic for the Ben Ali days.

The Islamists and the Ennahda party and their religious views are slowly penetrating Tunisian society, using similar coercive methods as the regime of ousted president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The economic deterioration in all these countries is striking. In Egypt, the economic situation of most Egyptians has worsened.

Positive achievements include the vital development of civil society groups, especially in Tunisia

After having been one of the most competitive countries in Africa, Tunisia’s economy has declined dramatically since 2010, reaching negative growth of -7% in 2020. Socio-economic frustration and dissatisfaction among Tunisians have led to countless demonstrations over the past 10 years.

A total of 15% of the active population is unemployed, peaking at 30% for university-educated youth. In an attempt to resolve the high unemployment rate, the government embarked on a massive public employment drive, with public servants today constituting 18% of the total workforce. There were 600 000 civil servants in 2016, against 450 000 in 2010.

Meanwhile, since the fall of former strongman Muammar Ghaddafi, Libya has been torn apart, with two different governments in Tripoli and Benghazi vying for power, putting the country at a risk of an implosion. Countless militias have imposed their own rule while the national economy has weakened. This situation is further complicated by the intervention of different regional actors supporting either Tripoli or Benghazi.

Carrying the movements forward in Sudan and Algeria

Importantly, despite these outcomes, the recent examples of Sudan and Algeria show that these socio-political movements did not end in 2011.      

The Sudanese protests demanding more freedom and democracy, which started in December 2018, are a clear indication of this. Following months of protests, former president Omar al-Bashir was ousted in April 2019, replaced by the Transitional Military Council (TMC). The TMC signed an agreement with the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) for a transitional democratic phase of 39 months that would eventually transfer power to civilians. 

Likewise, in February 2019, Algerians decided to protest against then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s attempt to run for a fifth mandate. Extremely ill, unable to speak and wheelchair-bound, he could not sustain a campaign. Following protests every Friday, Bouteflika was eventually forced to resign in April 2019.

Yet, Algerians wanted more – their slogan ‘Yitnahaw gaah’ (‘they must all leave’) acting as a reminder that they wanted the entire political system to be dismantled and changed. The mass protests in Sudan and Algeria must therefore be analysed in the context of a continuation of the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in Tunisia and even before. For Algerians, it is another step in the country’s nation building since independence in 1962.

Foreign interference

Foreign meddling also negatively impacted the Arab Spring process in these countries. Such interference in the AU's search for a peaceful solution in the early weeks of the Libyan uprising undoubtedly worsened the situation. And the current military presence of France, Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in Libya has further complicated attempts to find a solution to this conflict.

A decade on, the AU has still not managed to make its voice heard in the Libyan quagmire. Likewise, economic reforms in Tunisia have been obstructed by foreign interference and partners are less than eager to see the country reforming its economic sector to its own advantage.

Foreign meddling also negatively impacted the Arab Spring process in North African countriesIn addition, the Arab uprisings lacked what French political scientist Bertrand Badie calls a ‘transformer’, a political organisation able to transform the people’s anger and frustration into a government programme. This has prevented the emergence of a new political elite, says Badie.

This is in contrast with the French revolution, for example, where the bourgeoisie was able to manage the gains made by the revolution, preceded by wide-ranging public debate. This lack of an elite project is probably best seen in the Hirak movement of Algeria, which despite considerable support, has slowly waned, unable to build on its initial political gains.

A long path to democracy

Ten years on, the conditions that led to the Arab uprisings remain in place. In Egypt, where Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – elected in 2014 and 2018 – rules with an iron fist and prevents people from speaking out, freedom of speech is increasingly in danger, even more so than under Mubarak. In Libya, foreign interference has hobbled its political and economic reconstruction.

According to a 2020 Arab Youth Survey, nearly 89% of 18–24-year-olds are mainly concerned about the high unemployment rate, and only 49% of them trust their government to find a solution to this. As a result, an increasing number of young Arabs dream of migrating elsewhere.

The path to democracy is a long and tedious process consisting of many steps and micro-revolutions

In 2010 young Tunisians were asking for jobs and that their dignity be respected. While there undeniably has been political progress since then, unemployment remains a thorny issue. The migration trend is also acute in a country where, for instance, Tunisian doctors prefer to migrate, in turn crippling the healthcare sector.

The path to democracy is a long and tedious process consisting of various steps and ‘micro-revolutions’. As political scientist Antoine Basbous states, ‘democracy must be anchored in minds before texts’. Moreover, these transitions are fragile and must be adequately supported by all political parties and institutional actors such as the army, usually an unavoidable force in the political life in the region.

Regarding the ‘return’ of figures from the old status quo, well-known Algerian scholar Hasni Abidi underlines that these political systems are deeply rooted and able to regenerate themselves. Moreover, Badie states that most revolutions experience what he calls a ‘phase of Thermidorian reaction’ ­­– the re-establishment of old political figures and a return to the initial authoritarian political order, as has happened in Egypt.

The Arab Spring’s greatest achievement is perhaps that, in this era of social media, Arab leaders are now aware that their people will not remain silent indefinitely. They are willing and prepared to raise their voices again.

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, ENACT, West Africa

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