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The Arab Spring: From Bouazizi to the Syrian Civil War

Often termed as one of the most “troubled areas” in the world, the Middle East is generally known for two things – oil and wars. Both oil and wars frequently go hand in hand, for the wars that happen, in most cases, have a link to the oil the land has to provide. The Arab Spring of 2011 which was one of the biggest revolts by the people of the Middle East, was unexpectedly a revolt against their aristocratic rulers, which completely revamped the political systems in many countries.

The term ‘Arab Spring’ was primarily used by the U.S. conservative commentators, referring to a short-lived movement in the Middle Eastern countries that were pro-democratic in 2005. In 2011, Marc Lynch, who wrote an article for the American political journal Foreign Policy, used the term ‘Arab Spring’ in which he remarked on the emerging “clashes through a diverse array of Arab states – Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, [and] Egypt”.

Credits: Salah Habibi

This uprising, which was a wave of pro-democracy protests, which spread from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, started in Tunisia, a North-African country. Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor as a form of protest, set himself on fire in front of the municipal office of the Sidi Bouzid town (central Tunisia). It was a protest against the corrupt, poverty-ridden, and political repression by the government which was headed by President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. This popular uprising was known as the Jasmine Revolution and ultimately led to the fall of the government, making it a huge success in the Arab World. The success of the Jasmine Revolution inspired a huge wave of protestors all over the Arab World and soon after, there were similar uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Bahrain among others.

In Egypt, social media and the youth vocalized the protests to a global level thereby leading to massive crowds go and join the protest against the Egyptian Government, which at that time was headed by the military leader, President Hosni Mubarak. In Egypt too this protest turned out to be successful, which ultimately led to ‘The Arab Spring’ of 2011, where numerous other Middle East countries followed the path of Tunisia and Egypt, hoping for the same results.

Credits: Khaled Elfiqi

The Egyptian government tried to clamp the protests but after several days of massive demonstrations and clashes between the protestors and security forces in Cairo, the Egyptian army announced that it would stop using force against the protestors. This proved to be a turning point in the uprising which led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak following the controversial election of Mohamed Morsi in 2012. Later a coup led by the defense minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi fixed his position as the President of Egypt in 2013 till date.

Although these uprisings proved quite successful in Tunisia and Egypt, it was not the case for Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and many other countries. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011 during a violent civil war, which ended with his public execution by opposition fighters. Since Qaddafi’s downfall, Libya has remained in a state of civil war. The years of political upheaval, coupling with the fact the lack of access to resources, food, healthcare services contributed to thousands of Libyans fleeing the country for their safety.

Credits: Kevin Frayer

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh had to face the powerful tribal and military leaders who took the side of the pro-democracy, who demanded his removal from the presidency. After numerous failed negotiations and clashes between the loyalists and opposition fighters, in November 2011, Saleh signed an internationally mediated agreement. This agreement called for a gradual transfer of power to the vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi formally took on the role of the president in 2012 after being the only candidate in the presidential elections. His government faced an armed confrontation which transformed into a civil war in 2014 as they were unable to maintain stability or improve conditions in Yemen.

Credits: Hani Mohammed

In mid-February 2011, mass protests sprung out in Bahrain by the Bahraini human rights activists along with the marginalized Shiite community. They demanded political and economic reforms, as well as the removal of King Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa from the throne. The protests took a violent turn when the Bahraini security forces along with the additional forces aided by the Gulf Cooperation Council entered the country to put a clamp on the protests. The uprising was short-lived; by the end of March, the government succeeded in blowing out the protests after which dozens of protest leaders, activists were imprisoned. Thousands of Shiites were arrested, hundreds of them killed and dozens of their mosques demolished by the government. The aftermath of the uprising proved detrimental to the Shiite community and still holds a dark spot in Bahrain’s Shiite minority community.

In Syria, where this uprising probably took its worst form, the protests broke out in March 2011 and spread like wildfire throughout the country. Bashar al-Assad faced these protests with a brutal force which brought in condemnation from all over the world. Assad’s hold on power was strong and even though all the political upheavals, he had the support of important military units. The uprising and the brutal clamp on the uprising took an inhumane form in the months to come. In December 2011, a delegation of peace monitors from the Arab League arrived in Syria to put a stop to the violence but failed tragically. The escalation of violence which was funded by several rival countries, culminated into the most disturbing and devastating civil wars in the Arab World which ultimately also led to the biggest refugee crisis in the 21st century, affecting millions.

Credits: RUSI

Since the outbreak of the protests, more than 250,000 people have been killed (according to UN reports), more than 11 million people have been forced out of their homes and 65,000 people have been reported as missing after being arrested by government forces. In many countries, including Syria, Egypt, and Bahrain, the governments imprisoned thousands of activists, political opponents, and critics. In most cases, these people haven’t gotten their justice for the violence, torture, and killings that took place during and after the Arab Spring of 2011.

These mass uprisings did not end in 2011 although they were unique and interconnected with their struggle for democracy across the region and to end corruption, by improving the lives of the citizens. The protests continued many years after the original Arab Spring. Many countries like Algeria (in 2019, the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika fell), Sudan (the 36-year military rule of President Omar al-Bashir crumbled in 2019), and Iraq and Lebanon (in 2019-20, their democracies whose polarized factions rendered the governments impotent of tackling the crises, were faced with massive demonstrations). The spirit of the Arab Spring protests, even though forcefully quenched by the rulers after 2011, persists in many countries across the Middle East even today.

Reda Aamna is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Malaika M Khan

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.

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