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OP-ED: The Arab Spring ‘will die in Tunisia where it was born’

  • Published at 06:17 am August 9th, 2021
Arab Spring
A decade ago, protests in Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring uprisings AFP

But is there another potential Arab Spring waiting to flare into life?

The words in the title are those of Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Ennahda party.

Many observers would say that Arab Spring’s hopes for political and social reform are already effectively dead. The whole region presents a desolate scene of failed and problem-ridden authoritarian states. This includes Iran, although it is not Arab. 

Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Libya head the sad list of states facing failure, conflict, and distress. Iran and Egypt, together with the Saudi and Gulf monarchies, lead in autocracy. Turkey and Iraq face multiple major problems. Qatar, Oman, and Jordan seem at least reasonably stable. Israel is technologically strong, yet is no nearer to resolving the Palestine and Gaza issues.

Problems throughout the region are compounded by climate change. Even the Mediterranean Sea is warming. Combined with pollution, it is producing slimy mucilage in the Sea of Marmara and on Turkey’s beaches.

High temperatures, drought, and water shortages are hitting agriculture and hydro-power supplies throughout the region. Southern Turkey is the latest hit by drought and forest fires. Greece and Southern Italy also now have forests burning.

The coronavirus pandemic adds to social and economic distress, particularly for countries such as Egypt with big tourism sectors. High youth unemployment is widespread. In Iran, the new and hardliner President Raisi faces a Covid catastrophe, currently the worst in the region. This, on top of drought and Iran’s additional problem of US and EU sanctions severely limiting oil exports. Iraq can export oil but has never recovered political stability. Militias compete, corruption is rife. Water, power, and jobs are all inadequate. Relations with Kurdistan in north Iraq remain strained.

On the more positive side, political and power relations between the region’s states did recently show some tentative signs of relaxation. The blockade of Qatar by other Gulf States led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, has been lifted. Age-old trade links across the Gulf with Iran have somewhat revived. 

Security ties were already developing before the “Abraham Accords” claimed by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as ending the long hostility of Sunni states towards Israel. Diplomatic and business relations have been established by Israel with the UAE and some other Gulf states. Jordan and Saudi Arabia remain reserved, particularly regarding Jerusalem and Palestine.

However, other regional relations remain hostile and dangerous, especially those between Israel, backed by the US, and Shia Iran. It is true that negotiations to revive US participation in the nuclear accord with Iran have not ended, and that newly inaugurated President Raisi has assured the Iranian people that he seeks to end sanctions and revive the economy.

Yet the Iranian hardliners are not ready to make concessions. Israel under Netanyahu was ready to bomb any site thought to threaten a possible Iranian nuclear military capacity. Israel’s successor coalition government is untested, but it will share that fear.

Shia-Sunni tensions remain. Iran backs Shia militias in Iraq which are resented by Sunnis and even by nationalist Shia. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen’s complex war. Iran is also one of the many players in Syria, alongside the Russians, Turks, Kurds, and the Idlib rebels still holding out against Assad. The crowded oil tanker traffic in the Hormuz Strait between Iran and the Gulf states has become a crisis area where successive incidents or a miscalculation could start a dangerous regional war.

Is there another potential Arab Spring waiting to flare into life? Perhaps, but despite the myriad regional and local problems many of the mainly autocratic, often corrupt, regional leaderships still seem solidly entrenched. Yet the 2015 Arab Spring and the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood were mass movements of frustrated and discontented ordinary citizens. They were unpredicted, coming from below and surprising the power holders.

There is certainly enough dry tinder of discontent and resentment again. Arab populations are largely youthful and unemployment is particularly high. Yet, as the extent of initial support for President Saidi’s power seizure in Tunisia has shown, there is also a bitter realization that hopes and promises of the Arab Spring proved mostly empty. 

Mass protests and enthusiasm for reform do not necessarily prove enough to force government reform, as the long frustration of the “Hirak” movement in Algeria. In Libya, which is still trying to unite to get rid of foreign troops and mercenaries and hold national elections, there is even some nostalgia for Gaddafi. In Tunisia, which seemed the only new democracy to emerge from the 2015 Arab Spring, there is nostalgia for former President Ben Ali.

Even if climate change and the pandemic could be set aside, the whole region needs time to learn lessons from failures. States need to develop the institutions and minimum levels of trust needed for good governance and democracy. Some like Egypt and Iran can draw on thousands of years of statehood. Others are comparatively new, needing to build nations out of tribal, sectarian, and ethnic differences.

It will not be easy and foreign states will continue to interfere and compete in pursuit of their own interests. Climate change and the pandemic remain challenges that wreck economies and feed poverty and unemployment. This in turn makes it still more difficult to build health and education systems, the essential basis for successful modern societies.

Nonetheless the region does have strengths, and the oil states have money. Eastern Mediterranean states developing inter-connection power lines and gas pipelines are an all too rare demonstration that regional cooperation can help. The international community and institutions such as the UN, WHO, and World Bank will assist. The new IMF “Special Drawing Rights” will boost cash reserves.

Yet, at present, for all too many of the region’s people, the immediate prospects are bleak. Another sudden Arab Spring popular outburst, sometimes termed as Arab winter, cannot be excluded.

Selina Mohsin is a Former Ambassador.