The Arab Spring

An Overview:

No Arab state operates a fully democratic system and there have been long calls for change both internally and externally. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has a specific programme for the Arab states. All instability has been caused by lack of democracy, freedom (from and to), political participation, a high rate of unemployment, corruption and widespread discrimination against minorities.

The Arab Spring as it has become known arguably began in Tunisia in December 2010 when President Ben Ali was exiled to Saudi Arabia.

Tunisia went to the poles on October 23rd. Ennahda – or the Renaissance Party – was banned under the old dictatorship, its leaders forced into jail or exile, but now won 40% of the vote, 90 seats out of 217, the largest representation by far with the Congress for the Republic party obtaining 30. Voters were looking for a clean break with the past and Ennahda’s strong anti-corruption credentials proved a powerful electoral asset. Ennahda remains an enigma though. It is an Islamist Party but does not seek an Islamic state. It draws its values from religion but wants to be part of an essentially secular dialogue. More than 100 registered parties emerged to contest the election, the first of its kind in the country.

In January 2011 Egyptian President Mubarak who had been the president for 29 years was deposed after an 18 day revolt (arguably inspired by the events in Tunisia) in which 800 people died. The protests and street presence is ongoing, and the world awaits the announcement of when elections will be held.

On February 15th Libyan rebels followed suit and formed the Transitional National Council to overthrow long term ruler Gadaffi. On March 19th the UK, US and France launched a military operation against the Gadaffi regime enforsing a no fly zone and on the 31st recognising the TNC as the ‘legitimate governing authority’. Interim ruler: Mahmoud Jibril, said he would stand down once Libya was declared officially “liberated”. This declaration was made on the 23rd of October, after the death of Gaddafi. The TNC have voted Abdel Rahim al-Kib as the new prime minister, with 26 out of 51 of the votes.

On March 15th Syrian civilians were caught in brutal clashes with the government leading to over 2000 deaths. On 18th US called for President Assad to step aside and sanctions were strengthened. Military intervention was not an option due to the resistance of Russia and China. The Arab League has sent an “urgent message” to the Syrian government, denouncing “the continued killings of civilians” taking part in protests. The repression of the people continues, and Russian resistance is lessening as international pressure mounts.

Also around this time efforts started in Yemen to try and de-seat President Saleh, efforts which have so far failed. The UK, EU and US are involved in mediation efforts due to the rising influence of Al-Qaida in the country. A ‘no fly zone’ has been ruled out by the NATO Secretary General, even though brutal clashes continue. There are worries that intensified fighting could undermine US efforts to fight Yemen’s al-Qaida branch, considered by the US to be the most dangerous of the terror network’s after it plotted two recent failed attacks on American soil. Saleh has refused to sign in which the US intended to provide a smooth transition of power, offering Saleh immunity from prosecution; something which is morally, highly questionable. Yemen has been somewhat neglected by UK media in particular, the reasons behind which I will leave you to consider.

It has been commented that Bahrain is in fact the most unstable of the Arab States at this time. The ruling Sunni royal family have met increasing resistance from the Shiite majority. The country is a particular concern to the US as it hosts its fifth fleet, and so opposition to the existing structure has been opposed with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who also have interest in the area. The USA have recently proposed a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, which would include armored vehicles, missiles and night vision gear, artefacts which more than likely (as with Libya) will be used by the existing autocracy to silence the voice of the protests that continue. the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) said that the move:

“will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a major non-NATO ally that has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.”

This seems highly unlikely as the country itself is far from stable.


Nato and a coalition of western enforced a ‘no fly zone’ and an arms embargo* enforced on February 26th under resolution 1970 to ‘protect civilians’ from Gadaffi.  The TNC secured Tripoli on February 31st. A body made up of lawyers, academics and businessmen headed up by former justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalul who was the first to resign under the Gadaffi regime.

The agreement to use ‘all necessary measures’ (resolution 1973 chapter VII) to protect civilians was taken on March 19th. Gaddafi resisted this international pressure to step aside. The African Union where involved with negotiations and all actions were endorsed by the Arab League.

Russia and China abstained from the UN security resolution and put increasing pressure on the UK and US for ‘taking sides’ is a civil war. It was felt the uprising was against the internal ‘domestic’ issues of the country concerned. From an academic perspective this could be seen as an accusation that western powers were ‘securitising’ internal politics of an unstable country to suit their own agenda.

The international criminal court put a warrant out for Gadaffi’s arrest with the charge of ‘crimes against humanity’. This was seen as a step too far for some parties involved and the African Union who had been rather supportive of action up until this point, directed members not to execute the warrant as it was viewed as a deviation away from the original aims.

The operation in Libya was cast with doubt from the very beginning, and it did soon encounter many difficulties after it became apparent that Gaddafi would not simply step aside. The military operation soon became a stalemate; the deadline was continuously extended due to the ongoing resistance.  For the UK, the intervention was particularly risky. At a time when the public image of the government is already low, the government committed to action amounting to £260 million at a time of cuts, when there was no clear security threat to Britain as far as the public could ascertain.

The pressure on Gadaffi to step down increased. The African Union stated that his decision to step down could not be a pre-condition of action, but part of a negotiated settlement therefore advocating a political solution not military action. The western powers are often accused of being too gung-ho in such situations, and this was certainly the feeling of the African Union.

The UN security resolutions (UNSCR) stated that military action would continue until all attacks and threats to civilians had ended, the regime withdraws, and until intervening countries where provided with unhindered humanitarian access.

Throughout the uprisings there it has been questioned whether arming rebels is morally correct, and legal. It was disputed whether arming rebels was allowed under the UNSCR and Cameron and Obama neither ruled this as out or in.*

The UK provided telecommunication equipment, the US medical, protective vests and binoculars as well as 10,000 halal ready meals. All this under the label ‘none lethal equipment’. It was agreed among western powers from the outset that ground troops would not be deployed. ‘Military Liaison Advisors’ where sent however, to ‘oversee’ the occurring conflicts.

The UK’s priorities in Libya where categorised as follows:
–          Evacuating British citizens
–          No fly zone under UNDR
–          Parliamentary vote (a huge success at 537 to 13)
–          Government justification
–          Military operation
–          NATO members not doing enough
–          Regime change
–          Humanitarian aid (note low positioning seeing as the whole point of intervention was to ‘protect civilians’.)
–          The cost of operations
–          End game
–          The critics
–          Ability to cope for the armed forces (seemingly low on the agenda)

Since February, over 3/4s of a million people have fled Libya to neighbouring countries. This causes a security threat in a number of ways. The countries to which people where fleeing such as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria were battling their own political instabilities, unemployment issues and lack of resources such as food, shelter and energy. This meant Libya’s ‘civil war’ was evolving into a very real security threat to other countries. 14,000 also fled to Italy and Malta. Here it is important to note that Libya was an Italian colony pre WW2. Many commentators have noted that traces of Italian fascism were prevalent in the Gadaffi regime.

Years of resource scarcity in all sectors generated corruption in Libya, and citizens lacked trust in their government and so sought solace in familial or tribal groupings and became less attached to the increasingly fractured national institutions including the military. Libya lacks political allies and economic associations unlike other countries in the Arab uprisings. This lack of political and social cohesion both internally and externally will be a huge hurdle on the road to democracy. Firstly security needs to be restored, it is more like re-forming the state and strengthening civil society before the democratisation process can truly begin.

In 2003, the UN lifted sanctions on Libya after Tripoli agreed a compensation package with the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bomber. Tripoli handed over two nationals for trial. In the same year, Libya renounced its Weapons of Mass Destruction programme (WOMD) and signed a treaty agreeing to the additional protocol allowing for more intrusive inspections of their nuclear facilities. The Arms embargo was lifted in 2004, a time when the UK started trading in arms with the Gadaffi regime. Blair visited in 2004 and a time of intense diplomacy began, but with hindsight, obviously failed.  In September 2010, just two months before the Arab Spring truly began, the UK granted £215 million worth of export licences for the sale of ‘controlled products’ (arms) to Libya, including tear gas and ammunition that were more than likely used in Gadaffi’s resistance. The UK on the one hand promoting the moralities of democracy and on the other, trumping that with economic prerogatives (click here for my commentary on this issue).

Concluding remarks:

The world is watching Tunisia and Egypt to see how the democratising process unfolds, if and how new political entities are formed, and how much, if any, influence Islamist groups have, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which has been the centre point of much commentary in the west.  Ennahda winning 40% of the seats in Tunisia where the election process has been called ‘smooth sailing – at the moment at least’ demonstrates that Islamist political parties can play a highly influential role in a fair and democratic system. In Tunisia, the turnout rate was 90% – higher than any western democracies. Commentators have placed emphasis on the number of women voters and candidates, and hailing Tunisia as a great example for the rest of the Arab world.

The problem with democracy is that it is governance by popular vote, the concept of democracy however is free from ideological restriction to a certain extent as it is people lead. All parties must be elected via a fair and open electoral system into which all candidates have equal opportunity to run. The west may advocate democracy, but it cannot enforce the liberal definition of the term onto countries going through the democratising process. Therefore it may not be the ‘accepted’ form of simple left and right liberal parties that emerges, but may be (and certainly in the case of the Arab Spring) likely to include other priorities such as religion and culture as the factors upon which political parties are formed. It is simply unrealistic to think our political blueprint can successfully be placed on nations with completely different cultures and priorities, as in Tunisia. To extrapolate the Tunisian’s early success would be naive.

Libya are still having many problems, and the TNC have been discussing reintroducing polygamy, and Sharia Law which is Islam’s legal system derived from God and the Koran. Libya therefore runs the risk of becoming a Theocracy rather than a Democracy, but it is a very ethnocentric view to believe that this is a negative thing.

Egypt still has large levels of violence and torture to contest with, and the military are still exercising a level of control over opposition parties.

All this demonstrates that a theory of Pan-Arabism is somewhat short sited, as with Africa, although the countries may appear to be similar to outsiders, internally they are very different. The election of an Islamist party in Tunisia can and will be viewed two ways, with the ethnocentric Islamaphobia that still permeates western democracies, or as an opportunity to open up new dialogues about what Islamism actually is, educating the world to its positives rather than focussing on the post 9/11 scare mongering. It will help draw the line between Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism, which are two very different concepts often blurred into one pool of words under the umbrella of Islamaphobia.

The recent events in Tunisia have shown that democracy can take hold in the Arab world, whether it can be functional and whether it can last are the more pressing questions which only time can answer.

To talk about regional security for now is a big step, first and foremost countries need to be secure in themselves and settle in to a new politics, whichever form that may take. If democracy does take hold, international relations in the region may improve, as democracy and diplomacy are pre-requisites to good IR. If the new political order does follow a western blueprint, relations will be improved for the sake of trade and economic benefits first and foremost, which could be the starting point of a long process of lessening the cleavages and social disputes that have racked the Middle East for Decades. At the moment, it is still all a big ‘what if’.

Similar revolts happened in the mid 1800s and early 1900s, it is not merely social media or globalisation that caused the Arab Spring, but deep rooted problems that have been around for (at least) over a century. It is more than the globalisation of the standards of civic engagement, but what it means to be a citizen in a localised context. Previous revolutions were to overthrow the monarch, then overthrow communism, and now to overthrow authoritative regimes who seek to keep the masses depoliticised and the elite elite. The preconditions for revolutions to occur are that the countries future must be threatened, elites become alienated from the system too, a broad based support must evolve for the opposition or alternative followed by mass mobilisation and finally international powers must refuse to support the ruling body. To have all of these elements is something that occurs quite rarely, so the Arab Spring is somewhat of a phenomenon. Cleavages must be bridged to a certain extent to reach this stage, it cannot simply be one group (such as students) protesting on one issue, but a coalition of diverse people.

The ‘revolutions’ may have been spurred on by the domino effect, but they all started very differently. In Tunisia, the roots lay in a previously oppressed labour movement which began to take hold in the more rural areas. In Egypt’s case it was a youth revolt which began in cities. In Libya, armed rebels ‘ignited’ the protests, highlighting the entrenched tribal and religious cleavages that had lay dormant for decades under a repressive regime. The common theme was a call for responsive and representative governments, but the real causes lie in the individual economic and social grievances of each host country… for Tunisia; class, for Egypt; the need to redesign national institutions, for Libya; to recover from ongoing civil conflicts. Tunisia and Cairo managed to overthrow their leaders with limited damages, Libya however descended into civil war.

There is arguably a security threat to surrounding countries as the process of stabilising democracy is a somewhat turbulent one. As already democratised countries face a series of their own, economic and social problems, instability of such scale in the international arena can spur action in states thought of as stable. The ‘Occupy’ movements are an example of this era of heightened political activism and civic engagement. As with all politics, trade and economics are a point of concern, especially in the oil rich Middle East, intervention isn’t always to simply protect citizens, but also to protect the intervening countrys’ own interests especially at a time of economic instability.


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