Five years ago, the Arab revolutions, with the massive participation of social network-savvy youth, ousted dictatorial rulers, in what some people called ‘the Facebook revolution’. A wave of unprecedented and well-coordinated protests took place in several countries of the Middle East to manifest the anger of the population, mainly about the youngsters suffering from marginalisation, unemployment and harsh and difficult living conditions.
The protests and rallies during this phase of the Arab Spring forced various rulers to leave power, seemingly opening the doors to a new era. The move in some cases seemed smooth and the casualties were limited. Many were optimistic about a promising future. The revolutions forecasted a bright future and changes for the better for the youngsters, who were just asking for a job and a decent life, to have their dreams come true.
Most of the groups behind the revolutions emerged outside of the dominant ideological forces that had imposed deep political and social divisions. The initial revolutionary wave mobilised and urged millions of Arabs to seek and ask for freedom, social justice and democracy.
As usual, the revolutions were challenged by counter-revolutionary forces that used all means and tactics to have their say in the new political scene. Yemen was a case where counter-revolutionary forces used insurgency and the dismantling of state institutions. In Syria, these forces, with the aid and conspiracy of outside powers, are fighting to stay in power and annihilate the revolution.
Therefore, it has been argued by some that socioeconomic changes require more than just street protests and rallies; social media are not enough to drive serious changes in any country. Getting rid of a dictatorial and corrupt regime is not enough. Building democratic institutions, balanced media, a strong economy, fair justice system, rational governance and restoring confidence in a flawed state, are much more complex and difficult tasks.
After five years, the most promising experience among the Arab Spring countries, namely Tunisia, is now witnessing riots and anger from those who believed that their days were going to be brighter. Tunisia is seen as the country that has achieved most political change since the Arab Spring at the lowest human cost. The regime though it fell, did not just disappear because of Ben Ali’s departure, and the army standing by and protecting the Tunisian people from Ben Ali’s loyal police. That was just the beginning. Within the country a long struggle began, not just to replace the most corrupt and incompetent adherents of the old regime but also to devise a new constitutional order. This took two years, and only succeeded because there was a measure of trust among the parties involved. The new rulers in place succeeded in producing a new constitution. However; things in real life haven’t changed much. Terrorist incidents have hindered both economic progress and deeper political reform. The slow economy has been unable to provide jobs for the hundreds of thousands of well-educated young men and women in Tunisia. The new government in place could not yet help to realise the dreams of the late street vegetable vendor Bouazizi. Getting rid of dictators is one thing, but developing a strong and competitive economy is altogether a different one and is a long-term challenge.
As for other Arab Spring countries, the situation for citizens is worsening day after day. Yemen is living through an atrocious civil war where living conditions are much deteriorated. Syria is not any better than Yemen, where the country is becoming a battlefield for superpowers to show off their military prowess. Libya is another fiasco of the Arab Spring experience. The country is facing a score of difficulties and problems with several factions fighting each other and Daesh taking over several provinces, although recent peace agreements may prove fruitful. Egypt, the most populated country in the Arab World with 90 million inhabitants, is experiencing a revolution without a change. A status quo has been forcibly imposed by the current president.
In short, Arab Spring countries have rarely lived in darker times. The hopes raised by the Arab Spring for more inclusive politics and more responsive government, for more jobs and fewer cronies of the rulers carving up the economy, have been dashed. Terrorism is becoming a part of the daily life as Daesh and other terrorist outfits menace their security and peace, halting investment in the Arab economies. Despair is gaining ground. Things are getting worse than the days of older regimes. Life is becoming more difficult for those who marched in the streets five years ago. Their life hasn’t changed as there are no jobs and no better life. Prices, especially of food, are skyrocketing.
This is not to say that the events of 2011 came from nowhere. Algeria’s Islamist uprising in 1991, two intifadas in Palestine, the “Independence Revolution” that ousted Lebanon’s government in 2005, all ushered in the region’s desire for change. The world’s democracies were, by and large, correct in judging that what they were seeing in 2011 was something broader, more potent and more difficult to steer than a set of national crises that happened to coincide. They were not naive enough to think that an empowered “Arab street” would actually immediately move Arab countries closer to global norms of good governance. However, it was the demand that the demonstrators made in protest after protest, from the Atlantic to the Gulf.
Just as the spring itself was more than just a set of national events, so the current period of counter-revolution is an international matter. The big looser, of course, are the people of the Arab Spring countries who, after five years, haven’t seen what they have dreamed of.
Syria is the most complex and complicated experience in this regard. It is simply a civil war where world powers and those of the region are involved in a war that has degenerated into a monumental free-for-all involving dozens of belligerents, again with devastating results for Syria’s citizens and ancient civilization. Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria are the biggest failures of the Arab Spring which is called by many nowadays the ‘Arab Fall’. Hoping that Tunisia will be a success bearing in mind that change needs time; and democracy need decades. It took the French Revolution over eighty years to see its goals achieved.