Did Arab Spring produce meaningful democratic reforms?

Introduction

When measuring the criteria of a democracy against the reforms made during the Arab Spring, it is evident that most of the participating nations did not produce long meaningful achievements. The revolts were by driven inequality, corrupt governments, and abusive governmental security forces. In most cases dictatorships were strengthened and the revolts failed.

The 2011 Arab Spring and ensuing events raised important political reform issues. Citizenship rights were one area of concern. Failing to achieve democracy in all North African and South West Asian participating countries except for Tunisia, a less challenging goal has been sought. This is the increased involvement of citizens in decision making in areas that affects them directly (Alessandri, Balfour, Bouchet & Youngs, 2016).

The EUSPRING research project has discussed issues surrounding rights and citizenship with representatives from Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia. The monarchy of Morocco has codified a new constitution that is more liberal, but it falls short of citizen expectations. Egypt has fallen into a repressive regime far worse than that of Mubarak and this has led to numerous protests. While Tunisia’s democracy is fragile, this country is the only one which has achieved democracy (Alessandri, E., Balfour, R., Bouchet, N. & Youngs, R. 2016).

Success vs Failure in Achieving Democratic Rights

How has Tunisia succeeded in achieving democratic rights while other SW Asian and North African countries have failed? In an Al Arabiya news interview with Tunisian President Beji Casid Essebsi discussed how his country achieved results and prevented bloodshed unlike the others. He called the term “Arab Spring” a western invention and described his country as having a “Tunisian Spring” because Tunisia has achieved true democracy. While Tunisia has rejected political Islam, there is danger of destabilization due to terrorism. Sleeper cells exist because they attract the unemployed and poverty stricken and are exploited by terrorist organizations. The stabilizing countermeasures are more freedom for everyone including women, economic development and education (Al Arabiya, 2016).

In Tunisia, Arab Spring resulted in the first free election held since the county’s independence in 1957. Compromise is the essential factor that secured the nation’s stabilization. In December 2013, unrest soared after the assassination of leftist leader Mohamed Brahmi. Four institutions called a quartet negotiated a new constitution earning them the Nobel Peace Prize (Malsin, 2015). The participants belonged to the Tunisian Human Rights League, the Tunisian General Labour Union, Tunisian Order of Lawyers and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (Sharma, 2015).

In 2015, the quartet of workers, employers, activists and lawyers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This highly functional group served as a platform for dialog and political compromise between the Tunisian Islamists in the existing government, opposition and secular groups. Effective compromise is what drove the county’s success in creating a democracy and avoiding instability, violence and continuation of dictatorships (Faiola, 2015). The Tunisian Quartet competed for the prize in a group of 273 contenders including Pope Francis and Angela Merkel (Sharma, 2015).

While Tunisia’s success is impressive, analysts have advised that the underlying causes of the revolt have not been resolved despite implementation of a procedural democracy. Government corruption, inequality and abuses of governmental security forces are still in play. The Director of Human Rights Watch Tunisia, Amna Guellali called this “a double-faced situation” including political progress and continuing civil liberties issues (Malsin, 2015).

Tunisians have a new constitution which defines guaranteed human rights, democratic election of a new parliament and president, and participation in civil society groups which did not exist before. Government authorities are improving their accountability with a commission intended to address past human rights violations, although it has little power (Amnesty International, 2016).

In Egypt, political instability is a function of a floundering economy with an inflation rate of over 15%. In 2016 new laws resulted in a devaluation of the pound, introduction of a VAT and frozen government salaries. Egypt is considered to have a dysfunctional economy where more than 25% of the people live below the poverty line. Even so, many people must be living above the means of the economy because there is a large workforce of low earners, few exports and many imports. The current rate of subsidy is $1.5 billion (Hessler, 2017). The missing economic imbalance factor may be US subsidies which have been given to Egypt since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel which ended 30 years of hostilities (IMFA, 1979).

            During the 2011 uprising in Egypt, 800 protesters were killed and thousands were injured by Mubarik’s security forces. On June 30, 2012, Mohamad Morsi became the first president ever elected by voters. He was kicked out of office one year later in July 2013. The army conducted reprisals against Morsi and his supporters. Army general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was elected president in May 2014. The new government has been accused of committing torture, unfair mass trials and unwillingness to investigate unlawful deaths. They have also been accused of restricting or shutting down civil society groups and human rights organizations (Amnesty International, 2016). With the upcoming 2018 elections, there is little to be cheerful about. In an interview with Robert Siegel of Northeast Public Radio, Khaled Dawoud, deputy editor of Al Ahram weekly, described how anti-terrorism law in Egypt restricts the media (NPR, 2015).

While there have been some slight improvements, corruption and secrecy continue to coexist unabated as if there had never been an Arab Spring. Even in Tunisia, the only official success story, this is also the case. As in Egypt, there have been restrictions on freedom of expression. Terrorism is used as an excuse for putting ugly limits on freedom of speech. Independent media reporting has been restricted and the power of security forces to arrest, detain and torture has increased. Prisoners can be detained for 15 days without access to contacting the outside. There has been excessive use of force against protesters. People are terrified and have become reluctant to report human rights violations (Amnesty International, 2016).

In Libya Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011. Successive governments failed to control armed groups allowing them to gain power and fill a vacuum created by Gaddafi’s overthrow. In 2014 there were multiple conflicts between armed groups most of which committed war crimes and abuses of human rights without any punishment. Government became dysfunctional with separate factions following independent agendas. Hostage taking and other human rights violations resulted in a need of humanitarian assistance for 2.5 million people (Amnesty International, 2016).

Syria has an oppressive and brutal government. The Syrian Center for Policy Research reported 470,000 deaths as of 2016. There are over one million internally displaced people in country and nearly 5 million seeking refuge in other nations. Since 2011, over 100,000 people have disappeared and most of these disappearances are attributed to the government. Torture is commonplace. ISIS is responsible for widespread kidnapping, execution. attacks against civilians, use of child soldiers and preventing humanitarian aid (Human Rights Watch, 2017).

In Yemen, attempted president for life Ali Saleh was ousted from office early in 2014.

Later that year, Shi’a Muslim forces made President Hadi and his government resign. The Huthis took control and have committed war crimes, human rights abuses and used lethal forces against civilians. Counter forces have also committed human rights violations.  The Islamic State armed group has attacked Shi’a mosques, killing civilians (Amnesty International, 2016).

Conclusion

The Economist called the Arab Spring the Arab Winter (The Economist, 2016) for good reason.  Arab Spring participants Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria do not have fully functional democratic governments today. Tunisia has the only stable democracy and has a constitution. Yet the government has eased on freedom of speech in reaction to terrorist activities. Egypt has a government with a democratically elected president that is relatively stable mostly due to financial contributions from the US. Yet freedom of speech and freedom of press are nonexistent.  The percentage of voters has been under 50% indicating lack of fair play and bias. Syria has a brutal and unstable government with millions of its population displaced, most in foreign countries.  Libya and Yemen are in anarchy.

Author:

This blog is my perspective on dwelling in our small village nestled among beautiful forests, farms and open landscapes. Educated in Israel and the US, I have an MS in Computer Science. My viewpoint has been shaped by world travel, friends and benefactors both strangers and people I know. Linda Kaidan