A revolution may be defined as “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system.” With this in mind, it becomes clear that the term had been all too easily or prematurely applied to a number of countries in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring that erupted across parts of the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.
Tunisia, the country at the epicentre of the wave of pro-democracy uprisings has been seen as the lone success story, described in a report last year as the only “free” Arab country by Freedom House. However, while a popular overthrow of long-time President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali had indeed led to a maintained democratisation, it was always fragile as the revolution “did not lead to as radical a rupture from the old regime as initially expected or hoped for”, with many of the political elites retaining their power and privileges.
The situation looks uncertain as the country has been coasting through a political crisis since President Kais Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechici and suspended parliament, assuming executive authority which led critics to accuse Saied of staging a “coup against the constitution”. Since the president’s power grab, a growing number of Tunisian civilians are facing trials in military courts. Significantly though, since the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia’s foreign policy and international alignment has not changed. Ever since independence from France in 1956, it has been pro-Western and this remained the case under Ben Ali through to the present government.
In neighbouring Libya, it was as much a “revolution” as was the 2003-overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, in that it was a US-led military intervention that led to ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, fracturing the once wealthy country into years of civil war, with a ceasefire agreement put in place only last year and elections scheduled next month. That said, the ability for the country to hold fair and safe elections has been questioned as has the possibility for the return of conflict.
Egypt had all the markings for a successful revolution, and was undoubtedly a popular mass movement which ultimately forced Hosni Mubarak to step down after decades in power paving the way for the country’s first ever freely-elected civilian leader, Mohamed Morsi. It wasn’t long though until the revolution failed to live up to the ideals of the young disparate revolutionaries as the military still held onto the reins of power and – backed by the Saudis and the UAE – staged a counter-revolutionary coup, ensuring that Egypt remained well within the pro-Western camp. Morsi’s controversial power-grabbing moves in extending executive powers of course did not win him any favours and undermined any favourable views many in the public had of the Muslim Brotherhood, while his historic visit to Tehran raised concerns of a foreign policy shift and rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, which cut off ties with Cairo over its formal recognition of Israel.
The uprising which caught the most attention of the international community and divided opinions of the UN Security Council, was Syria. In the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring, the uprising was referred to as a “revolution”. However, this was problematic not just because it was too early to describe it as a revolution, as no system or regime was overthrown, but also because Syria was a far more demographically complex nation-state compared to the previously mentioned countries.
I believe MEMO columnist Asa Winstanley had foresight when he contributed a bold opinion piece in 2014 entitled: “Syria: the revolution that never was”. Unfortunately this was removed from the website, due to receiving complaints which “deemed this article to be offensive to the sacrifices of the Syrian people”. While I understand the sensitivities surrounding the then-controversial statement, especially around a time when mainstream coverage of the conflict was sympathetic towards opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad, I don’t think the article should have been censored and find myself in agreement with the author. The article was republished and can still be found on the Jacobin website.
Interestingly, many of the points are as relevant now, particularly when referring to the supposed revolutions of the aforementioned countries, namely: Tunisia still facing internal problems, Egypt being “back to square one” with a military man in power, and the disastrous state of Libya. Furthermore, what would then be considered controversial to say, regarding the apparent lack of “moderate rebels” with most of the opposition forces fighting under the ranks of Al-Qaeda affiliated or rebranded groups is now common knowledge. Certainly, there were popular uprisings and pro-democracy protests just as there was widespread popular support for the government too, however, it is also true that foreign intervention helped Al-Assad reassert control over parts of the country and likewise, other foreign support sustained jihadist groups to destabilise and undermine the Syrian state. Today, Al-Assad remains in power and controls some 70 per cent of the country and early signs indicate Syria will normalise relations with its Arab neighbours once again and with the international community.
Bahrain remains an often over-looked uprising but is still worth mentioning as a revolution that was never realised. As a peaceful, mass demonstration by the tiny Gulf kingdom’s mostly indigenous Shia subjects the only way the Al-Khalifa family were going to survive was through the intervention of neighbouring Saudi Arabia which crushed the uprising outright. That said, revolutionary fervour persists among the people which is much more difficult to eradicate.
This leaves Yemen and its 21 September Revolution, popularly referred to as the Houthi takeover of the capital Sanaa in 2014. Although inspired by the Arab Spring, the revolution came to fruition owing to many unresolved issues dating back to previous conflicts between the Houthis and the government and conflicts among political elites. However, I believe the case of Yemen cannot only be distinguished from the other “revolutions” in the region following the Arab Spring, but also from the earlier 11 February Revolution of 2011 which saw the toppling of late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the appointment of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi who was supposed to serve as an interim president following an election where he was the sole candidate.
Hadi represented much of the old order and therefore no real systemic overhaul took place, meaning Yemen would remain under the influence of Saudi Arabia. However his push in early 2014 for the division of Yemen into six regions faced staunch opposition from the Houthi heartlands in the north and anti-government protests. With the support of the Yemeni armed forces, the Houthi movement took control over the capital Sanaa with practically no resistance. Hadi who resigned from his position in 2015 before fleeing to Riyadh where the “internationally-recognised government” has been based ever since with little impact or influence on the ground in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition has been bombing Yemen relentlessly for nearly seven years in a bid to overthrow the Houthi-aligned National Salvation Government (NSG) formed in 2016 which is essentially the de-facto government in the country in control of most of Yemen in term of populace.
The revolution is by no means perfect nor unanimously supported nationwide, and repression against dissent and war crimes committed are well-documented. It is also an incomplete revolution, in the sense that the south is already contested between Saudi-backed forces fighting on behalf of the Hadi government and the UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council (STC ), particularly over the port city of Aden, intended to be the interim capital for the Hadi government, yet under the control of the STC since 2019. Nevertheless, the joint Houthi-army forces have reiterated their intent to once again “liberate” Aden and the rest of the country, although their immediate focus is on the remaining northern pro-government stronghold of Marib. There also persists the lingering threat of Al-Qaeda and Daesh cells which will remain a considerable security challenge for the foreseeable future.
The late Professor Fred Halliday who specialised in international relations (IR) and the Middle East, explained in Rethinking International Relations that for IR realists, “revolutions tend to be seen in terms of the changing foreign policy styles and priorities of states”, that revolutions represent “a breakdown in an otherwise orderly world”.
The Sanaa-based authorities can be described as they clearly have aligned themselves with Iran and its regional allies departing from decades of being under Saudi patronage.
Halliday also stated that “all revolutionary states, almost without exception, have sought to promote revolution in other states. The challenge they pose to the international system is not so much that they propound a new form of diplomacy, or conduct international relations in a distinct manner, but that they make the altering of social and political relations in other states a major part of their foreign policy and regard themselves as having not just a right, but an obligation, to conduct their foreign policies on this basis.”
This can be evidenced in the very real threat posed to the Saudis, specifically their southern provinces, which historically were part of Yemen. I have previously written about the kingdom’s fault-line being the Najran province, which shares a border with Yemen and has significant Zaydi population and an even larger Ismaili one. The Houthi forces have carried out numerous cross-border raids and have made claims in the past of liberating territory from the Saudis.
This upsetting of the regional order, the propensity to export its ideas across the border and the view that Yemen under the NSG is fighting to be a free nation, are reasons as to why the country stands out among Arab states as being a revolutionary state, the only one in fact since the Arab Spring. Incidentally, it is the only one that is being punished for its revolution. These parallels can be found with Iran following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which was almost immediately faced with a devastating invasion and war with Iraq and sanctions. Hostilities and threats of military action from its foes remain in place to this day. This goes to show there can be no real revolution without repercussions for resisting or going against the status quo. Had the other “revolutions” succeeded or came with actual changes in foreign policy, we’d surely know about it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.