One fine day in the late of quarter of 2010, when the whole of the Arab world was totally immersed in harsh and inhuman political absolutism and, almost, lingering in limbo, a young Tunisian university graduate by the name of Bouazizi — turned into fruit street vendor because of staggering youth unemployment — protested the confiscation of his merchandise and wares by local police by pouring kerosene on his body and igniting a match that has by ricochet sparked the Arab uprisings and, most importantly, the dream of democracy, for 350 million Arab people.
Consequently, Arab dictatorships crumbled under the pressure of the youth-led revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen and, almost, swept away the military dictatorship of Syria if it were not for the precious helping hand of Iran and Russia. The faltering revolution of Syria, nevertheless, led to thousands of deaths, the destruction of the country and the biggest population exodus since WWII.
This upheaval, with a domino effect, seemed to affect, in appearance, republican regimes only, nevertheless, its tremors shook monarchies, too, if it were not for their immediate action to check the anger and smother it by nimble political moves. Thus, the monarchies of Morocco and Jordan made important reforms that curtailed the monarchs extensive power and brought the Islamists to the government, for the first time, in the case of Morocco. In Bahrain, the uprising of the majority Shiite population almost brought down the Sunni minority government if the Gulf States under the leadership of Saudi Arabia had not intervened swiftly to quell the popular revolution and pushed away the danger. To avoid social unrest, at home, rich Gulf monarchies gave directly substantial cash handouts to the population to buy social peace and stifle any possible political discontent.
Seven years later, the so-called Arab Spring has not brought the much-hoped for democracy, but, instead, it has made substantial changes in the psyche of Arab society and, most importantly, in the balance of power, in the following ways:
- Empowerment of the people: It has empowered the masses forever and future governments have to put up with this new reality and take it into consideration in political decisions;
- Demolition of the wall of fear: in the past, the people feared the backlash of the mighty and lethal secret police (mukhabarat) of the governments, now governments fear the people and their vociferous and virulent civil society because thanks to social media they can reach the world and report instantly any wrong doing or breach of human rights;
- Political activism: growth in political activism which leads, consequently, to political participation, emancipation and freedom.
Because of all this the governments in place know deep down that they have to be accountable to the people though this does not equate for the time being, at least, with fully-fledged democracy for lack of constitutional checks and balances.
Youth in the vanguard of the uprisings
The Arab uprisings are the diligent work of the Arab millennials, who, armed with their PCs, tablets and smart phones, rallied the masses to topple the dictatorships; one has in mind the endless protest rallies of the Tahrir Square that led to fall of Houssni Moubarek in Egypt.
Thanks to the digital revolution of the third millennium, the Arab youth liberated themselves, duly, from the long-time shackles:
- Religious conservatism that always considered the young people minors and encouraged them to obey blindly their parents and elders and abide by religious tenets;
- Tribal allegiance which denies people whatever form of individualism;
- Patriarchy in which age is seen more rewarding than youth and vigor;
- Respect of seniority that denies youth any say or any individual initiative within society ruled and regimented by the elder;
- Rebellion against ruthless established authority, and
- Social taboos: sex, dress, music and drink.
Thanks to the Internet, the youth were able to date freely, expose their bodies openly in the net, celebrate their charms, criticize politicians and denigrate their behavior, propose alternatives and call for political reform and change.
With time and up-to-date innovations in the social media, they gained in power, willingness to step into action and a predisposition to lead much-wanted change and, consequently, the uprisings occurred.
The Islamists usurped the Arab millennials’ revolutions
It is true that the Arab Spring is the result of the rebellion of the youth against the political gerontocracy in power that was corrupt and absolutist, but the youth in spite of their vigor and drive were not organized politically and lacked, somewhat, political discipline. The Islamists who, joined the uprisings from the word go, usurped the outcome and became to the general public the political alternative.
They owe their astounding success to several reasons, mainly:
- Political discipline;
- Proximity to the masses and swift reactivity to their needs;
- Allegiance to the party equated to allegiance to God;
- Brainwashing of the general public, mainly among the emasculated poor, that they are God-sent to save them; and
- Willingness to re-establish past Islamic glory by re-Islamizing society.
As a result, they took power in Tunisia and Egypt through free and democratic elections, flexed their muscles in Libya and imposed severe conditions for the formation of a coalition government, took power in Yemen as Shiite Islamists and engaged in a deadly civil war in Syria, not to forget of course the infamous ongoing tribulations of the anachronistic Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The Islamists, in power in Tunisia and Egypt, failed to deliver because they diligently wanted to impose a stringent Islamic code of conduct on the people, as a prelude to the all-out Islamic state, austere and undemocratic. They failed miserably in both countries.
Indeed, in Tunisia, the arrival of Ennahda to power led indirectly to the empowerment and the emboldening of the Salafists, who set out to attack publicly women for not wearing the Hijab and various other symbols of modernity. These events created fear that sent tremors in all parts of society.
Fearing the coming of conservative theocracy to power, worse than the dictatorship of Ben Ali they brought down, the Tunisian people rejected the Islamists in the elections and brought to power the party of Nidaa Tounes, a patchwork of political tendencies, modernist in philosophy but weak in discipline. Since then, the Islamist party Ennahda, seemingly, gave up its Islamist repository, and apparently became secular.
In Egypt, the Ikhwan won massively the legislative and presidential elections, but because of their lack of political experience they were unable to rally under their banner all the Egyptian people. They set out to draft an Islamist constitution curtailing freedom and setting up foundations for a theocracy ignoring the presence of the Copts and secularists in Egyptian society and their needs. Fearing social fracture and consequent economic downslide, the army staged a coup and put one of its generals in power.
Today, Egypt referred to popularly, hitherto, as oumm dounya “the Mother of the World” is no more the leader of the Arab world. It is socially wounded and economically weakened and has serious problems getting up on its feet and regaining its past mobility.
In Yemen the ousting of Ali Saleh from power, pushed the latter in the arms of the Shiites of the North emboldening them to take power in the country with the logistical help of Iran. Frightened by the presence of its Shiite arch enemies at its southern border, Saudi Arabia hurriedly put up an Arab military coalition and started a war to re-conquer the lost land for the Yemeni government. Today Yemen is a moribund and divided country, more than ever and might slide into a state of coma.
In 2011, the end of the rule of Qaddafi, sent millions of people in the streets expressing their boundless joy at the end of dictatorship and looking forward to a bright future, but this dream never materialized, it became a nightmare, instead. The myriad of armed factions are unable to agree on a coalition government, in spite of the relentless efforts of the UN and neighboring countries.
Currently, Libya is in total limbo and the Libyans are regretting the rule of Qaddafi with much bitterness.
Probably, the worst failure of the Arab Spring is Syria. After six years of civil war, financed by Saudi Arabia and encouraged by the West, the Islamists were unable to bring down the dictator Bachar al-Assad who is shouldered militarily and diplomatically by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. The civil war has caused the destruction of the country, the death of thousands and the flight of millions to Europe and elsewhere. As of today, things are back to square one with Assad still in power.
Today, six years after the Arab uprisings, the Arab world is tormented, fragmented and in total disarray. The revolutions did not bring democracy and, worse; they have made getting bread in many countries difficult, if not to say impossible.
The dream of democracy is marred by the following players and factors:
- The army which sees in any sudden change and in democracy the loss of its preeminence in the affairs of the country and consequently loss of benefits;
- The Islamists for whom democracy s a Trojan Horse of the West to set up modernity and rule of law that is not religiously-inspired (Shari’a);
- Patriarchal and tribal traditions; and
- Nobility and traditional powerful families feeding on rentier privileges.
But the nightmare scenario in full action today is that the gerontocracy continues to be stronger than ever and the youth is muzzled by a collusion of tradition and religion and, as such, the sick Arab body is not getting the much-needed young blood to serve as medicine to heal its numerous ailments.
Nevertheless, hope for democracy remains strong and willingness for another bout of uprisings is still alive and kicking.
*Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.