A special review of what is commonly known as the Arab Spring including reflections of these uprisings and their impact on social and economic environments within the Muslim world. It also offers insights into the influence and stances of different western and eastern countries towards the situation in the Middle East.
Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi was a young Tunisian man who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that he reported was inflicted on him by a municipal official and her aides. The death of Bouazizi on 4 January 2011, due to this customary act by the government officials, was the catalyst for the Tunisian revolution which extended later to other countries in the region forming what has been termed as the Arab Spring. The revolutions uncovered inconceivable levels of corruption in the governments which people knew about but could not act or react against it out of fear. Following Bouazizi’s incident many people felt they must stand up for their rights and put an end to the oppression of their leaders, who do not show any concern or interest in the public’s welfare. Ten days after Bouazizi’s death the then president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was forced to step down after 23 years in power.
Simultaneously, the people of Egypt were demonstrating in the Liberty Square in Cairo and also in many other cities across the country. The people’s determination to get rid of the president, Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak, and his regime resulted in him announcing leaving his position in 11 February 2011. Several people were killed in Egypt before he announced his abdication. The first free democratic presidential election in Egypt was held in 2012 bringing into power the Muslim Brotherhood party, which had been banned in the country for extended periods of time. Soon after having some hope of a brighter future with the newly elected president Mohamed Morsi, but without giving the man the chance to implement his plans, a military coup took place in July 2013. The president ended up in prison and the constitution was suspended. The experiences in both Tunisia and Egypt, where people demonstrated peacefully in the streets, have not been the case in Libya, Yemen and Syria where armed civilians started to fight against the governments’ armies.
Perhaps what pushed people to carry their guns and fight back was the aggressive reaction of these armies against protestors. In Libya, for example, the peaceful demonstrations started on 17 February 2011 but quickly turned into armed clashes. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and displaced during the first few months of the revolution and the intensity of fighting increased day after day until 20 October 2011, when the president Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed. Libya was then announced liberated. However, until today the situation in Libya is still unstable in most aspects of life. This delay in reestablishing a government that puts people and their welfare as the top priority, and was the major reason for which they protested, is questionable.
A similar situation is occurring in Yemen. On 23 November 2011, Saleh flew to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to sign the Gulf Co-operation Council plan for political transition, which he had previously spurned. Upon signing the document, he agreed to legally transfer the powers of the presidency to his deputy, Vice President Abdu-Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, within 30 days and formally step down by the presidential elections on 21 February 2012. He did all this in exchange for immunity from prosecution for him and his family. Yet, the current situation in the country is not much better than how it was during the early days of the protests. In fact, the ongoing sectarian conflict between Sunnah and Shia’ah followers, influenced by the social tribal constitutions of the population, has fired up the fight.
The most vicious among all Arab Spring’s revolutions is the Syrian’s. Presidents in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were forced to step down. Regardless of the means used – peaceful protest in the case of Tunisia and Egypt and armed clashes in Libya and Yemen – they are no longer in power in these countries. But Bashar al-Assad who took over the country in 2000 seems unsatisfied with the short period of his tenure so far and is able and willing to do whatever it takes to keep himself in power for a longer time. Since 15 March 2011 more than 150,000 Syrians were killed and over 2 million migrated as refugees to different parts of the world. Additionally, more than 7 million are displaced within Syria. There are several foreign parties involved in the conflict in Syria which look for materialistic benefits or wider sectarian representation in the country.
The protests, requesting rectification of the government system and amendments in constitutions, extended in many other countries such as Jordan, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco and Kuwait. In these countries protests did not last for long either because leaders responded to people’s demands – at least part of them – or due to the intensity of the government’s reaction which forced people to stop. While many commentators and critics in the Middle East and around the world applauded the Arab Spring and expected it to be fruitful, others saw that it was all made by hidden hands in the West, which benefits the most if the Muslim world is divided. In turn, each country is busy with its own problems instead of focusing on the more important goal of economic development through collaboration between these countries.
No doubt the purpose of the revolutions was genuine in their aim to remove corrupted individuals, who are controlling and benefiting from these countries’ abundant resources, and this in turn improves the living conditions of people. Perhaps one of the most important reflections of the Arab Spring is the affection and connectivity between the Arab nations, which was meant to be eliminated through dividing the one big nation into small countries divided by borders. But even with this noble aim, another type of local and foreign corrupt people and organisations interfered to pass their agendas and fulfil their personal interests and these are commonly known in economics as free riders. In fact, their effect on the progress of the revolutions – in terms of delaying success by making them deviate from the path – has been significant.
The prospects of the recent future seem hazy based on the slow progress of change, which in some cases is perceived to be worse than the situation before the start of revolution. Take the current situation of the economy and social bonds in Egypt, for example. The country’s economy is far worse than how it was during the time of Hosni Mubarak, even though it was starting to take off during the few months after Mohamed Morsi was elected as the president. This probably tells something about the free riders we have just talked about. Tourism has been the first source of government income but now it is in a stage of severe recession.
Nevertheless, these figures should not hold the nonaligned protestors back from continuing their movement towards achieving the objectives of their revolutions. This deferment may not even be notably significant if we look at decades of corruption in which the whole government systems have been designed to serve a group of depraved individuals. They have created wide bases of supporters who sold themselves in exchange of some benefits of status in the government. It is not easy to demolish all this and establish new systems in a short time. It has only been five years since Bouazizi’s incident and the defensive reaction of the corrupt regimes’ supporters has been harsh and this distorted the reconstruction efforts.
Another possible reason why the progress of the Arab Spring is slow is that fact that protestors were very excited to remove the bad leadership but when these people were eventually out of the equation, there were no guidelines to govern the process of establishing the new ruling system. People are not used to be asked what they need, want or prefer. So when the chance to express came, they were confused to make the right decision. Even worse, the existence of free riders among the “good” protestors themselves, especially some political parties who claim to be more affected than others during the previous period. No one is authorised or has the right to steal the dream of people who sacrificed a lot to make it happen.
It has been, and will always be, a problem of leadership. Wise and passionate leaders are the ones who organise the process smoothly and bring about the desired outcomes. It will not be easy to fully satisfy the needs of every individual, but there should be a progress towards that in the long-run. All the activities must be initiated from within the country without any external influence unless it is a genuine assistance from another nation, who has passed a similar experience, without expecting or constraining their help to any materialistic return. This comes in the course of collaboration between nations who are connected through blood, race and religion relationships – a thing that will have great impact on the future of the whole region not only specific countries.
The concept of Ummah or one nation is very important to the unity of the Muslim world countries – the majority of them are located in the Middle East. There are several Arab and Muslim countries that are doing fine and have not been affected by the ongoing situation. The role of these countries in shaping the future of the whole nation is significant. If they do not take an action, they might not only lose great opportunities but the negative impact might reach them as well. Just to name a few, countries like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Qatar, Malaysia and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been providing different kinds of support. But this role should be increased and extended to include other countries until the lost unity of the Ummah is retrieved.
Assistance in political issues may be perceived as interference in national affairs, but economy and trade is one very important aspect of collaboration between the Muslim nations. Almost all Muslim countries have natural resources and can bring great improvement to their national economy if they were able to utilise them the right way. Here comes the role of industrialised countries to help developing viable infrastructures in other Muslim countries and encourage mutual investment in the available resources. It would not be a difficult task if it was performed professionally with passion. Muslim trade events and forums where businesses can showcase their products and services and learn about others’ are very effective in this regard. Examples of such events are the Muslim World Biz and the World Islamic Economic Forum which are organized annually to enhance the cooperation within the Muslim world and beyond.