West Asia and North Africa- A Decade since Arab Spring

Updated: Dec 30, 2020 11:23 AM

By the end of 2011, the governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were overthrown by popular revolts and people power.

arab springAccording to the Guardian survey, it was found that the feeling of being worse off than before the Arab spring was noticeable in Syria, Yemen and Libya where street protests led to civil wars. (Image credit: Google Maps)

By Prof Anisur Rahman,

It was witnessed that a wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings that shook West Asia and North Africa by challenging some of the countries’ authoritarian regimes in the region a decade ago. These protests and uprisings were called Arab Spring by many scholars. It was mainly popularized by the Western media in early 2011 after the successful uprising in Tunisia against former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that subsequently led to the similar kind of anti-government protests in some other countries of the region. By the end of 2011, the governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were overthrown by popular revolts and people power. Following this wave, several authoritarian rulers were compelled to think that they could not take the people for granted any longer even if they were able to manage to remain in power. Many governments in the region have been forced to make reforms in order to save their regimes. They had realized that corruption, incompetence and police brutality would no longer be tolerated by the common masses.

But if we look back on the outcome of Arab spring, it is evident that the Arab Spring has not brought any desirable change in the region. It would in fact lead to a prolonged period of political instability, unleashing all the political, social and religious divisions that had been swept under the carpet by the former regimes. This Arab Spring had brought nominal political, social, and economic gains only for few groups/ inhabitants in the region. But as a whole, it has created a huge devastating impact such as terrible and worst kind of violence, mass displacement, and extreme form of repressions in the region. Protests that spread across the region in early 2011 started a long-term process of political and social transformation that marked in the initial stages primarily by political turbulence, economic difficulties, and even conflict. Libya, Syria and Yemen are the glaring examples. Situations in these countries are turned out to be extremely grave today.

According to the Guardian survey, it was found that the feeling of being worse off than before the Arab spring was noticeable in Syria, Yemen and Libya where street protests led to civil wars. Post-uprising civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen have caused mass displacement. In many cases, foreign military interventions have generated intense violence and disorder in war inflicted countries. Syria’s conflict alone has created more than five million registered refugees and over six million internally displaced people. This has happened mainly due to foreign intervention in the internal affairs of these countries. The rise of the US as a major power in the region at the end of the Cold War, also witnessed a major rise in the demand for democracy, curbing corruption and opposition to military or authoritarian rules. This attempt has also failed miserably.

This is true that many people sought refuge in their religious community fearing the unprecedented political change on account of these protests. Anger over youth unemployment and poor living conditions was one of the key factors that led to the Arab Spring. But the national debate on economic policy has taken the back seat in most countries, as rival political groups fought for the division of power. Moreover, ongoing unrest had also created fears in the minds of investors and foreign tourists that had impeded growth and economic development in the region. Though removing corrupt dictators was a positive step for the future, but ordinary people were left out from getting their economic opportunities. People were struggling hard due to declining oil prices, high unemployment, and corruption among political elites who thrived at the expense of ordinary citizens. Poverty rates were high, especially in rural areas. In no country has the standard of living significantly improved since the revolutions, and it has even declined in conflict-ravaged areas especially in Syria and Libya.

Even in Tunisia, there was deep disillusionment, only a small per cent of the people claimed they were better off since the revolution. This is the highest figure among the countries surveyed. The half of Tunisians said they were now worse off due to the Covid-19 pandemic; there is stagnant economic growth and high unemployment. However, there is a dramatic improvement in civil rights in Tunisia.

It is witnessed that the overwhelming majority of people said there was now more freedom to criticise the government and half said there was less chance of unlawful arrest. Almost half Egyptians felt their right to express themselves was now diminished compared to the Hosni Mubarak era, though a fifth said they were now freer to speak and more than one in three were ambivalent. There is a widespread belief that social contracts have been torn, with small elite enriched at the expense of the majority, helped to have fuel the revolutions of the era. Some of the polls showed that perception has deepened since 2010, and inequality is significantly found to be worse than before the uprising.

It is also witnessed that the freedom of the press in the region is worse today. Several regimes have taken drastic steps to suppress any criticism in the media. Eminent journalists are often put into jails for their free and fair reporting. Press freedom has been curtailed to the large extent. Journalists in Egypt have become the top victims when President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi assumed power in 2013. The internet and social media that played a vital role in mobilizing masses against government injustices in Egypt. They have been censored by restricting internet access and the laws were also enacted that put people into jail over their anti-government posts on social media.

It is noted that women took leading roles in the protests despite the gender equality was not a major attention of the Arab Spring. This is true that some countries have witnessed nominal increases in female representation over the last decade but as a whole, the region has done little to improve the status of women.

Finally, we conclude that the Arab spring has brought not much positive change in any country. Rather it has produced sectarian and ethnic conflict, displacement and refugees crisis. This is also evident that the living conditions of people have deteriorated due to the political instability that has consequently led to the rise of unemployment, poverty and inequality in the region.

(The author is Director, UGC HRDC, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Views are personal.)

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