Assessing the Arab Spring Uprisings After Four Years

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Exactly four years ago, Tunisia’s corrupt autocracy pushed Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, too far. After local inspectors seized his produce for failing to pay yet another bribe, he went to a provincial governor’s office, doused himself with paint thinner, and set himself on fire. His fury inspired uprisings across the Arab world.

 

It’s sobering to see what has happened to what was once, wistfully, known as the Arab Spring. Youth, dissidents, women activists, nascent civil society groups, and others challenged—and changed–the status quo in four countries that account for almost a third of the Arab world population. But many in three of those four nations are worse off, and in the fourth some are only marginally better off.

Here’s a rundown:

Libya: The new government–elected in June, with low turnout thanks to voter insecurity and boycotts–has fled from Tripoli to remote Tobruk in the east. At one point, parliament was meeting on a docked ship. Militias fight–and frighten civilians–across the country. An Islamist militia known as the Libya Dawn controls much of the capital. Benghazi has been a battleground between another Islamist militia and a renegade general from the Libya army, among others.

This fall, a branch of Islamic State, created by Libyan fighters who returned from the Syria war front, operated out of Derna, a city of about 100,000 in the east. Most embassies were closed last summer; most foreigners have fled. The one country with a small population and large oil assets, technically able to reconstruct and afford the transition, has instead fractured, possibly beyond repair.

Egypt: The Arab world’s most populous country has gone through two military coups that included the ouster of the autocratic Hosni Mubarak as well as Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s long history. The judiciary dissolved the first democratically elected parliament.

The military, which has dominated politics since the 1952 revolution against the monarchy, is back in power under President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, a former field marshal. Mr. Mubarak was acquitted last month of many of the charges of corruption and culpability in the murder of 800 people during the 2011 uprising. Autocratic rule is back. More than 20,000 have been detained and about 1,400 sentenced to death this year.

Syria: The uprising has disintegrated into what a senior State Department official described as the most complex war in the Middle East since the modern borders were defined after World War I. A country that is the region’s strategic center is being torn apart by two wars: Rebel militias that emerged from the 2011 uprising are fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad, and Islamic State extremists are snarfing up territory, largely from the rebels.

The multi-layered conflicts, involving more than a thousand militias, pose an existential threat to Syria, its modern borders, and its people. Almost half of Syria’s 22 million citizens are refugees—in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt—or have been forced from their homes but remain trapped in Syria. More than 3 million children are no longer in school, threatening a lost generation.

Tunisia: Its uprising is the only one that has introduced more inclusive rule and a more equitable constitution that balances power between a president and prime minister to prevent the return of autocratic rule. Despite intense political rivalries, political coalitions between secular and Islamist parties emerged in the first few years.

But the Arab uprisings were all related more to a mix of economic despair and sense of injustice. Many wanted good governance that generated jobs, ended corruption, and created opportunity more than they wanted liberal democracy. Mr. Bouazizi’s protest four years ago was about needing a job to support his siblings and mother–and basic human dignity. And on that count, Tunisia still falls short.

The International Monetary Fund warned in May that the Arab world, especially countries in political transition, faced a “jarring jobs crisis.” “The unemployment rate averages 13 percent, with youth unemployment more than double that at 29 percent–among the highest in the world,” said IMF chief Christine Lagarde. Unemployment in Tunisia is greater than that already dangerous average, at more than 15%, with unemployment among youth even higher.

Other countries, notably Bahrain and Yemen, have witnessed turmoil that has either not been resolved or grown. On this fourth anniversary of the Arab uprisings, there is little to celebrate anywhere. During a trip to the Syrian war front in October, my interpreter, Mesud Perik, lamented, “No one thought it would take this long or be this hard.”

 
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