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Is the Arab Spring still on course?

July 22, 2014 at 4:19 pm

The military coup in Egypt and the lengthy revolt in Syria have blurred the once steady progression of the Arab Spring. Consequently, commentators and researchers alike have shifted to describing the events as the “Arab Autumn” or the “Arab Winter”, indicating the Spring’s demise and awful, cold outcomes. These descriptions were triggered by the initial rise of Islamist parties to power and subsequent problematic political scenarios as new governments tried to save ailing economies, solve social problems and face counter-revolutions.

It looks as if the fluctuating situation in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region includes some success for counter-revolutions which have toppled democratically-elected governments, maintained some despotic rule and smothered long-standing popular hopes for dignity, equality of opportunity, freedom of expression, good governance and the rule of law. Even so, a reconsideration of certain standpoints seems necessary. The signs that the Arab Spring is still on course outnumber those of a slowing down and return to the pre-2011 MENA status quo.

Claiming that the Arab Spring is a total failure would require one of two things to occur: either all post-2011 governments will be ousted and new despots take over, or the collective psyche surrenders to despotism as if no change occurred in 2011. Neither seems likely at the moment.

Tunisia has witnessed several attempts to cripple the governments from within. The murder of Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, two leftist leaders, prompted accusations that the Ennahda-led government couldn’t protect its opponents. Street protests demanded government change. As a result, both Hamadi Jebali and Ali Larayedh, two Islamist, post-Ben Ali prime ministers, resigned. Yet, protecting the nascent democratic experience has been prioritised by different political leaders. Interim President Moncef Marzouki’s secular, pro-democracy background, has allowed him to ease ideological cleavages and tense negotiations, encouraged by moderate Islamists and liberals. Today, the Troika still leads Tunisia; a new constitution was passed and the Constituent Assembly resumed meetings, while calls for government change have waned. As the parliamentary and presidential elections are expected on 23 October and 26 November respectively, optimism persists, despite security challenges and a vulnerable social stability. That is why the Fragile States Index 2014 report places Tunisia in high warning category five, after China but before India, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

In Palestine, the performance of the resistance groups against Israel’s Operation Protective Edge attacks has surprised Israeli forces as well as most observers. The escalation has taken place as the main Palestinian factions were being positive about the unity government, following the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Both the agreement and the resistance efforts are reminiscent of the atmosphere in 2011 when a deal was reached between Israel and Hamas to exchange Sergeant Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, the largest number ever released in one deal. Notwithstanding all military, economic and diplomatic efforts to release him, Shalit spent five years in captivity in Gaza. Only the conditions created by the Arab Spring could prompt the exchange and amplify its effects, the spirit of which continues today with the steady development in resistance capabilities.

Even in Egypt, the military coup faces dire problems. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has increased taxes and withdrawn subsidies, which may bring protesters back onto the squares made famous by the revolution. The country today depends totally on foreign aid, especially from America, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Besides the unprecedented smothering of public freedoms in Egypt, the performance of the current regime over the escalation in Gaza has the potential to aggravate the situation. During the Mubarak era, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s then foreign minister, announced its 2008 Operation Cast Lead from Cairo. Mubarak agreed to strengthen the siege on Gaza with a steel wall in Rafah. In stark contrast, Morsi’s reaction to Israel’s 2012 Operation Pillar of Defence initiated “a new strategic realignment in the Middle East”. He functioned as “the pivotal international player in the process that eventually led to the ceasefire agreement”, according to an IPRIS Viewpoints analysis. Between the two models, scrutinising eyes look out for the role that Al-Sisi will play, especially now that Israel has revealed its coordination with Egypt, which deprives the coup of much public support.

Protests about the absence of the rule of law, public freedoms and good governance persist in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Despite the “lead through fear” policy depending on mass death sentences, mass detentions, car bombs, blazing churches and religious divides, street marches in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere still challenge the coup government. Many people of Egypt resorted to a different tactic to defend their Arab Spring by boycotting the presidential elections. State-owned vehicles toured towns and villages to encourage voting; media anchors shouted at viewers to go to vote; the elections committee extended the polling days, but it was all in vain. The turnout was seriously low. Al-Sisi felt deceived by the people who had asked for military intervention on 3 July last year. It is felt generally that the outcome was indicative of a backlash against the global and local acceptance of the coup.

As far as Morocco is concerned, a serious check for the economic and political health of the country is Bank Al-Maghrib’s annual report. In the 2013 report, Dr Abdellatif Jouahri, the bank’s governor, noted that the GDP rose from 2.7 per cent to 4.4 per cent, the budget deficit and the current account deficit decreased from 7.4 per cent to 5.5 per cent and from 9.7 per cent to 7.6 per cent respectively, while keeping inflation at a rate of 1.9 per cent, despite the international economic crisis and regional instability. In addition, the youth continue to size up public policies and denounce violations of the law, such as when a Spanish paedophile received a royal pardon. Protesters took to the streets of Rabat and Casablanca in August 2013, which pushed the Royal Palace to issue three decrees in two days revoking the pardon. A senior official retired as a result of the scandal.

Finally, In Libya, rebel General Khalifa Haftar’s uprising is faltering because it hit the wrong target. Instead of solidifying efforts to build up state institutions from scratch, even via political opposition, the Karama (“Dignity”) campaign that he launched on 16 May aimed to overthrow the results of the ballot box and dismantle the Muslim Brotherhood in the country. Similar to the coup in Egypt, Haftar’s attacks created turmoil. With wishful thinking, he planned for and expected help from the US, Al-Sisi’s Egypt and some Gulf states. However, due mainly to his association with these same backers, he has been unable to replicate the Egyptian model. Despite his ability to spread chaos, there are doubts about his real intentions. In the long run, either the way will open for political reconciliation or the country will break into two, but it is not expected to surrender wholesale to Haftar.

A failed state just a short hop across the Mediterranean from Europe and at the heart of North Africa will be unacceptable to EU governments and the Libyans. The logical solution and way forward, therefore, is political, not military. This, apart from anything else, suggests that the Arab Spring is here to stay.

The writer is a Moroccan researcher and writer in media, culture and society, and MENA politics.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.