Canberra, 3 August 2012
In January 2011, the people of Tunisia overthrew the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who had ruled for 23 years with little care for the development of the state and even lesser care for the betterment of the population. By all accounts this was long overdue. The Tunisian Revolution led to popular uprisings against autocratic rulers—outright monarchs or secular dictators—elsewhere in North Africa, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula. Academics, analysts and the international press were quick to find a catchy title—The Arab Spring—for this contagious articulation of the frustration of a large swath of humanity regarding their inability to improve their lives and to find a conduit to better express and achieve their aspirations. Following the cycle of seasons, the Arab Spring promised a fresh beginning after a terrible winter of autocratic rule for the nations of the region. Very obviously there were also catalysts to this movement—the omnipresence of the internet and telecommunications that created greater awareness of the lifestyles and freedoms enjoyed by other people, the large percentage of population in the Middle-East that are below the age of 30, while being far better educated and more exposed to the world media than the previous generation, and the lack of any visible opportunity to better themselves and improve their standard of living within the confines of the existing order.


Tunisia was followed by Egypt and then Libya, while in the meantime Yemen’s despotic President Ali Abdullah Saleh had been removed after a protracted struggle. Essentially, only four autocrats have been brought down and that too in different ways—not purely by the power of the people. This is not to denigrate the efforts of the population of Egypt, Libya and Yemen who suffered a great deal in their struggle for freedom, an accepted fact. The point here is that in order to club the uprisings under a common title they need to have some basic commonalities in all the nations affected, and more importantly, they should spread far into the region at an appreciable pace. This has not taken place. At the moment there is a civil war going on in Syria, the fifth country to be engulfed, and the future of the Assad regime hangs by a thread now. The fall of the Syrian regime is certain, and sooner rather than later. The departure of the Assad regime, when it does take place, will usher in some fundamental and destabilising changes to the region. It is also certain that more uprisings will follow in the region. The uprisings—a term that better encapsulates the movement rather than the grandiose ‘Arab Spring’—will change the face of the Middle East, it already is doing so. However, they are being perceived as events that would bring about overarching changes to the governance—from autocratic to democratic rule—of all the nations in the region. This is not a credible proposition. Admittedly, there will be changes. But they will be gradual and may not even be perceptible in the short-term.


There are major differences in the manner in which the dictators were deposed. In Egypt, the military found it necessary to dethrone Hosni Mubarak so that his son, who had never been a military officer, would not automatically assume power on his father’s death or incapacitation. In Libya, the Western powers, through NATO, found the opportunity to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi by taking the liberty of reinterpreting and thereby far exceeding the UN mandate by openly fighting on the side of the rebels. In Yemen the removal of the President was relatively painless, although his supporters still remain extremely powerful and influential. On the other hand the common factor is that only the most tyrannical of the dictators have fallen, while the more moderate—if there is indeed an autocrat who could be called a moderate—have so far managed to survive. After nearly two years from its beginning in Tunisia, the Arab Spring is still not blowing across the region.


There are two aspects of Arab Spring that needs to be marked as important considerations in any analysis. First is the issue of democracy. At the start of the uprisings, notably in Egypt, there was a prevalent belief in the Western world that this was the moment when the balance would shift and the Middle East would embrace democracy as it is understood in the Western interpretation. Events have proved this belief wrong. Undeniably democracy has made inroads in the countries that have deposed their dictators. An elected government is shakily in place in Tunisia. Elections were held in Egypt, but the result has been undermined by the continued control exercised by the military of the executive, legislature and judiciary, which are the three essential pillars of democracy. The Libyan case is even more complicated. While elections have been held, the elected moderates do not have the wherewithal to ensure that their writ runs across the entire country. Merely holding elections does not automatically bring in democracy. For democracy to be established, the legally elected government must not only be permitted to exercise its authority but must also possess the capacity, bolstered by sound and structured organisations, to ensure that the entire nation can be effectively ruled within the law. The Arab Spring has only succeeded in removing old and authoritarian governments in a few countries without having produced a workable alternative to replace it.


The second aspect stems from this unstable situation. In all the nations concerned a new and different political order is struggling to emerge. The process of developing a new order is beset with challenges. In the Middle East the primary challenge is to neutralise the age-old constraint on free thinking that is superimposed by the strict enforcement of a religious creed which is anathema to the development of a system that clearly separates the government and judiciary from religion. In these circumstances, true democracy will struggle to gain a foothold and advance its cause further. Therefore, democracy will be a long time coming in the wake of the Arab Spring, contrary to what was generally believed even as late as in mid-2011. The outcome of the process—of overthrow and elections—is less savoury; destabilisation, complexity and if not carefully controlled, a slide into further chaos. It is to be seen how long it will take for democratic traditions to make a mark in the Middle East, if at all they ever do.


There are also some positive aspects to these popular uprisings, if one is inclined to accept the fact that democracy is going to be a far cry, at least for the mid-term, in the Middle East. The uprisings have led to political reform in Morocco, Oman and to a lesser extent in the Gulf States, countries as yet not directly affected by the Arab Spring. They have also led to all regimes in the region becoming more cognisant of public opinion, with noticeable changes in the ruling elites’ attitude and behaviour towards the general population. There are also overt moves to provide greater largess to the masses in the oil-rich nations of the region as yet unaffected, in an attempt to buy the loyalty of the general population, in something that is an open bribe. However, it is doubtful whether such measures will have long-lasting effects.


It is indisputable that the uprisings have provided the opportunity for Islamist forces to come out in the open. Most of these groups were banned and often oppressed under the autocratic, and in their own fashion secular, rulers. Therefore, they claim to be the bearers of the true nationalistic spirit, which is considered the underlying impetus for the uprisings. The popular uprisings are in sharp contrast to the manner in which regime change had taken place in the Middle East so far, which was invariably through military coups or palace intrigue and were aimed at replacing leaders who had assumed their positions in the immediate aftermath of independence from colonial rule or actual or claimed hereditary right. A number of these new autocrats had hidden behind the concept of nationalism to sanctify their rule. However, nationalism, claimed or actual, cannot be considered a mandate for these autocrats to abuse human rights within their nation’s borders in the pretext of maintaining national sovereignty. One of the results of the popular uprisings has been that the nationalism of these autocrats are being openly questioned and publicly debated. There is also a visible trend to demystify the aura that surrounded most of these dictators and demolish the myth that had been perpetuated over the years regarding their selfless ‘love’ for the country. The Islamic force, until now functioning as a non-entity, has suddenly found itself in a position to greatly influence the outcome of elections and also to create their own version of an independent state. Democracy perhaps does not fit into their calculations. The hopes vested by the Western world on the Arab Spring are not likely to be realised.


In a region that is as varied and complex as the Middle East, it is always a folly to make generalisations regarding political upheavals, societal changes or religious freedoms as was done in the case of the so-called Arab Spring. Therefore, it is by no means a surety that Islamist forces will come to power in the states that have already been affected by the uprisings or that they will be successful in holding on to power if they do manage to obtain power through the ballot box. It is true that in Tunisia and in Morocco (where the King introduced a constitution that institutes an elected head of government to share power with the monarchy) Islamist parties have won the elections. Both these governments have not been able to further their ambition to impose conservative Islamic mores on the society, primarily because of a real push back from the general public. In Egypt, the military continues to act as a check and balance to the aspirations of the Islamic parties. It seems likely that in the next turnover of power these nations will move to a government with a more secular stance.


The Arab Spring—actually independent uprisings—was interpreted differently and meant different things to the West and to the local Islamic forces, both of which have not been proven right. It did not also become the powerful flood that was meant to sweep across the entire region drowning the old and finally bringing in a new age of freedom and stability. The uprisings were just that; uprisings by people frustrated by the lack of freedom and participation in the governance of their nation, with no end in sight—similar to uprisings that have happened across the world throughout history, when the yoke of brutality and intolerance becomes too heavy to bear, even for the meek. It was and is, not a spring, autumn or winter, but people standing up for their God-given rights.            

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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