In 2011, the Arab world was swept by uprisings unseen in previous decades. Arab regimes were taken by surprise when the first dictator, Tunisian, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, was toppled as Tunisians revolted against his thirty-year dictatorship marred by corruption and lack of opportunities for the young generations. The roads in Tunis swelled with protesters triggered by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who set himself on fire after the police destroyed the very means to his existence. The army refused to back Ben Ali, and together with his family and a couple of millions from the Central Bank, he fled to Saudi Arabia.
This was the very beginning. Protests followed, from Morocco to the Gulf States.
The civil war in Syria erupted as Syrians rose against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, with the Islamic State capitalising on the chaos it created.
Egypt and Libya were not sparred either.
Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981 in Egypt, was toppled after the army forced him to move aside in an attempt to remain in power. And in power it did remain, as following the election of Mohammad Morsi, he was removed from office and the army assumed power once again, dashing the hopes of those protesters who braved violence and strong-armed tactics to force change. Change did happen but was immediately stifled.
Libya was another sad story in this wave of hope spanning the Arab world. Muammar Ghaddafi was overthrown, but a bloody civil war soon followed, marred also by the emergence of the Islamic State in central Libya, filling the void left by the collapse of the regime. Libya is still reeling from the effects of civil war and is, today, far from stable.
The Gulf states managed to quash any protests that emerged rather successfully, and managed to retain the status quo.
Tunisia was the only ray of hope. Its experiment with democracy seemed to have taken hold as elections were held twice since Ben Ali was toppled and a change in government was secured rather smoothly, albeit with some incidents.
This seems to have all been lost however, as last weekend Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed Parliament, fired the Prime Minister, and revoked Parliamentary immunity, effectively taking control in what amounts to a coup. Tunisia’s economic woes worsened since the revolution, and the COVID–19 pandemic made the situation much worse. People took to the streets, protesting against the supposed incompetence of the government to tackle the pandemic.
A return to dictatorship will be the final nail in the coffin of the Arab Spring.
Is democracy incompatible with the Arab world?
Is democracy incompatible with the Arab world? Many believe this assertion. However, there may be many versions of how democracy should be implemented in a country. Definitely, the West cannot impose its own version of democracy, as our democracies have been achieved after taking the world to two world wars and after many European countries had experienced dictatorship, be it monarchical, civil or military.
There is a path to democracy which should be arrived at not imposed by external forces. Societies are not homogenous. Some are more avert to drastic changes while others are more embracing. History has demonstrated that whenever democracy was either imposed by external forces or achieved quickly, the success in these societies was somewhat limited as the people could not digest the changes required. Even if we look at the former Soviet Union. Perestroika and Glasnost failed as the people who were supposed to implement them did not appreciate and digest the changes. This can be applied to many other countries where experiments with democracies floundered. Various Arab countries have never had the institutional experience to manage democracy. Democracy should be arrived at in small steps as it is not simply voting every five years. Democracy is a mentality, a state-of-mind where one acknowledges the varied opinions of others and all the values that are contained within democratic principles, such as the values of transparency.
What does the future behold for Tunisia? Is it all lost?
The answer to this question lies with how ingrained democratic principles are within the Tunisian people. If Tunisians have the stamina to fight another time for what they truly believe, then Tunisia can once again become the beacon of hope for so many other people around the world who are supressed by their regimes.