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Published On: tis, Jan 20th, 2015

To be or not to be – the development of the Arab Spring and the question of being

Almost four years ago, civilian protests erupted across the Middle East and North Africa stretching from Morrocco in the West to Oman in the East – an event later coined the “Arab Spring”. Samina from Tunisia looks back at its causes, emotions and consequences.

It was in Tunisia that the ball was set into rolling. The initial event took place on the 17th of December in 2010 when a greengrocer in the town of Sidi set himself on fire in protest against the harsh living conditions imposed by the country’s government. It quickly developed into a nationwide demonstration where the people demanded the resignation of then Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The uprising soon spread to the bordering countries and further beyond so as to cover much of the region. Civilians fought against their dictatorial regimes and stood up to claim their rights.

But what is the situation really like in Tunisia four years after the uprising?

Samina is 37 years old and works as a preschool teacher in Tunis. She actively participated in the protests on the streets of her city.

– I’ve always been interested and involved in politics so it was natural for me to participate in the demonstrations. Unfortunately, however, politics is often a taboo topic and I know many people, among them my own parents, who never dared to go against Ben Ali or even vote for someone other than him.

The uniqueness of the Arab Spring

The region has long been characterized by unrest that has broken out in various places, but the Arab Spring differs from previous uprisings because of its scope. Other events have usually been limited to specific geographic, ethnic and ideological affiliations whereas the Arab Spring overlapped all of these factors.

– It was dangerous, it was beautiful, it was catchy, dissuasive and necessary – all at the same time, Samina says.

Her eyes are heavily marked with black mascara and her gaze is sharpened.

A strong contributing factor to the impact of the uprising is the speed in which it erupted. The rulers found no time, either by force or reforms, to address or crack down on the protesters quickly enough which resulted in a succesful upholding of a large number of demonstrators as well as power.

– The consequences of the uprising differ greatly in various parts of the region. The differences lie both in the impact of the protests, i.e. how successful they were, but also in who filled the void that was left behind by the ousted regime.

Almost four years ago, civilian protests erupted across the Middle East and North Africa stretching from Morrocco in the West to Oman in the East – an event later coined the “Arab Spring”. Samina from Tunisia looks back at its causes, emotions and consequences.

It was in Tunisia that the ball was set into rolling. The initial event took place on the 17th of December in 2010 when a greengrocer in the town of Sidi set himself on fire in protest against the harsh living conditions imposed by the country’s government. It quickly developed into a nationwide demonstration where the people demanded the resignation of then Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The uprising soon spread to the bordering countries and further beyond so as to cover much of the region. Civilians fought against their dictatorial regimes and stood up to claim their rights.

But what is the situation really like in Tunisia four years after the uprising?

Samina is 37 years old and works as a preschool teacher in Tunis. She actively participated in the protests on the streets of her city.

– I’ve always been interested and involved in politics so it was natural for me to participate in the demonstrations. Unfortunately, however, politics is often a taboo topic and I know many people, among them my own parents, who never dared to go against Ben Ali or even vote for someone other than him.The uniqueness of the Arab Spring

The region has long been characterized by unrest that has broken out in various places, but the Arab Spring differs from previous uprisings because of its scope. Other events have usually been limited to specific geographic, ethnic and ideological affiliations whereas the Arab Spring overlapped all of these factors.

– It was dangerous, it was beautiful, it was catchy, dissuasive and necessary – all at the same time, Samina says.

Her eyes are heavily marked with black mascara and her gaze is sharpened.

A strong contributing factor to the impact of the uprising is the speed in which it erupted. The rulers found no time, either by force or reforms, to address or crack down on the protesters quickly enough which resulted in a succesful upholding of a large number of demonstrators as well as power.

– The consequences of the uprising differ greatly in various parts of the region. The differences lie both in the impact of the protests, i.e. how successful they were, but also in who filled the void that was left behind by the ousted regime.

sofiaTo be or not to be – the development of the Arab Spring and the question of being

Democracy?

Only a few days following the resignation of Ben Ali in Tunisia a coalition government seized power and managed to rule the country until the elections of 2011. In the country’s first free elections, the Islamist movement Ennahda claimed victory. The movement had, during its time in power, achieved important compromises with the secular opposition but as two oppositional politicians were assassinated by jihadists, the Ennahda government resigned and the power was handed over to a transition minister until the recent elections.

The last parliamentary elections were held on the 26th of October 26 in 2014 followed by presidential elections on November 23 and Caïd Essebsi became president. Did the Tunisians, however, receive the democracy the fought for?

 Which result should one reasonably expect?

– There are still many difficulties for the democracy movement both in Tunisia but also in the Arab world as a whole, Samina says while lighting a cigarette. Western media often conveys an idealized image of the current situation as if, only because elections have taken place, everything is hunky-dory, she adds and smiles faintly after taking a puff.

Samina says that no one claims that the democracy movement is going smoothly, but it would also be wrong to argue that this means that the Arab Spring was a failure. Perhaps it would be too naïve to believe that, only four years following the uprising, righteous democracy will have developed in all of the countries involved?

– A successful revolution requires only one opponent. But to build a free, democratic and just society requires much more. Patience, understanding and cooperation. It’s a lengthy process.

The sun has moved away and the dawning no longer provides any shadow. Samina places a pair of stylish sunglasses on her thin nose, leans back and takes an elegant long drag off her cigarette.

The military’s position explains the differences of the development of events

In order to understand how the implications and the impact of the Arab Spring may differ so greatly between, for example, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria it is necessary to have some knowledge about the status of the military in each of these countries. The military in Tunisia has, partly as a result of our colonial heritage, a rather Western and non-political position.

– As the Chief of Army refused to intervene against the demonstrators at the beginning of the protests, the military adopted a guardian-like position.

Samina says that in Egypt, on the other hand, the military establishment is independent in relation to the civil society while the highest-ranking figures within the military leadership exercise great political power.

– In the case of Egypt, the military chose not to intervene, which eventually resulted in Mubarak handing over the power to the military forces.

Another example is Syria, where the situation can be seen as rather reversed.

– In Syria the regime and the military are strongly interconnected. The ruling elite in the country, as well as the president, belong to the same ethnic group as the majority of the officers of the Syrian army. Al-Assad can thus count on a military support in a way that is quite different from that of Tunisia and Egypt. He is, however, somewhat limited by the common soldiers and a few senior chiefs who do not belong to the same religious minority.
A long- and short term view of Tunisia’s victory

– I definitely think that, thanks to the Arab Spring, Tunisia had developed positively. That is a victory in itself.  Through a short-term perspective, dictatorial regimes have been overthrown, both here and in our neighbouring countries, by their own people. The state of emergency has been lifted and governments have been replaced. Nobody knows how long it would have taken otherwise, Samina says and looks slightly proud.

Through a long-term perspective, the Arab Spring is regarded as a seed of a progress that spreads its branches far into time and space. The realization of conviction and force born among the oppressed civilians is definitely a long-term victory.

In early 2014, The Economist listed a few of the reasons that may have caused Tunisia, despite of its shortcomings, to be at the forefront in comparison with most countries of the Middle East and North Africa. High levels of education, a relatively homogeneous population and an apolitical army that keeps a low profile were a few of the factors. The Economist also highlighted that social media was used extensively and effectively by activists and groups fighting for human rights.

The challenges of the country

In a report recently published by the World Bank and which sheds light on the developmental problems of Tunisia, it was concluded that the Tunisian economy is characterized by protectionism and bureaucracy. Old structures and corruption hinder foreign investors while banks are interwoven with the state apparatus and are heavily subsidized, all of which hampers the development of the country. The new Parliament thus faces major challenges in terms of facilitating competition, granting the Tunisians better income opportunities and allowing foreign investors.

– In order to achieve democratic progress it is necessary to have a healthy economy. In this sense, Tunisia still has a lot of work to do, Samina mumbles as she curiously scrolls through the conclusions of the report.

Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that although the economy hasn’t made much progress in Tunisia lately, the new constitution has brought great advance to human rights.

-–There is however a difference between a nicely formulated Constitution and what happens in reality. With regards to gender equality, for example, Tunisia still has much work ahead in order to live up to the fine formulations of the various constitutions.

Strong determination

– Of course there were many factors that played into the uprising and contributed to its development. But what ultimately reshaped the political landscape of the region still cannot be described as anything other than the people’s strong determination and hope for change. It is only this hope that may explain what caused thousands of people to unite, defy, sacrifice and endure together.

The interview is about to end. Samina puts out her fifth cigarette, throws a quick eye on her watch as she carelessly snatches her shoulders and gets ready to leave. But before she stands up, she leans across the table as she gracefully pushes the sunglasses higher up on her nose.

–The Arab Spring was about more than democracy and should therefore be seen and understood as something more than just a democracy movement. It also houses many different dimensions simultaneously. Anyone who thinks that this movement is something that has a start and an end date is wrong. It will continue long after the cameras and correspondents have left their comfortable stations around the capitals. Perhaps it will never end.
Published 2015-01-19 Author Sofia Strive Translation: Reine Hayek

 

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