Arab Spring Progress Check
On March 2nd, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was acquitted on charges of killing protesters during the 18-day uprising that ended his rule, during which estimates claim nearly 900 people were killed and around 6,000 were injured. The decision was made in the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest court of criminal litigation, and as such, their decision is final. Egypt’s former dictator of 30 years is free to go, however, its most recently deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, had his sentence for killing protesters finalized to 20 years by the Court of Cassation in the middle of 2016. Although there may be distinct differences in Mubarak’s and Morsi’s cases, the disparity in sentences poses the question: After all the political turmoil and uprisings, did the Arab Spring bring any positive change to the affected Arab countries? Or are corruption and restrictions even more common place today than they were in December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi set the Middle East ablaze with his self-immolation?
To decipher whether the Arab Spring has progressed the region forward or pulled it backward, it will be important to take a closer look at five countries where regime change has occurred or has been attempted. As economic restrictions ignited the Arab Spring, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria will be taken into account, utilizing the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom to investigate if the uprisings have met their goals. The pre-revolution rankings are included in the chart above, while the 2017 rankings can be found here.
Egypt has endured much instability since the revolution against Mubarak’s rule in 2011. On June 17th, 2012 Mohammed Morsi became the country’s first democratically elected president, however, he rarely acted very democratically. Less than half a year into his presidency, he granted himself sweeping authority and judicial immunity for his actions. The Egyptian people weren’t ready for another Mubarak and revolted against his power-grab and broken promises. On June 3rd, 2013, the military, commanded by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, removed President Morsi from power and placed him under house arrest. Al-Sisi left the Egyptian military to run for the presidency and was elected on May 28th, 2014. Since then, there has been a bevy of human rights abuses and restrictions of freedoms. Journalists that criticize the government are jailed, anti-government protests are banned, and detainees are typically tortured. Egypt’s economic freedom score has dropped significantly from the 85th most free to the 144th most free. In response to criticism of its human rights record, the Sisi administration frequently refers to the mantra: “Security before perfection”. Protection from terrorism is understandably a priority, but an administration dedicated to human rights wouldn’t be utilizing such a phrase.
Libya is venturing into the dangerous waters of failed-statehood. Muammar Gaddafi ruled by exacerbating rivalries and with an iron fist. After the Libyan leader’s death, a power vacuum emerged, intensifying tensions between the rivalries he cultivated and resulting in multiple entities claiming to be the rightful government. As such, a country who led all African nations in GDP per capita and produced 1.6 million barrels of oil per day in 2009 has fallen into a civil war with three different governments and ISIS all vying for power. Libya was ranked 154th in the world in the Index of Economic Freedom prior to Gaddafi’s assassination, and is now unranked because of the governmental uncertainty and raging civil war.
Tunisia is considered the success story of the Arab Spring, but even they have had their challenges. After the Arab Spring began here in late 2010, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in January 2011, leading to a tumultuous year until elections were held in October of 2011. Though it has become largely democratic, problems persist. Mohamed Bouazizi protested through self-immolation due to lack of economic freedoms, yet Tunisia’s economic freedom ranking has dropped from 84th in the world to 123rd, university graduates constitute nearly a third of the unemployment rate, and terrorism continues to hurt the country’s main industry of tourism. While the government has made a transition to a democratic system, lack of security and bleak employment prospects have led to Tunisia becoming a fertile recruiting ground for ISIS. In October of 2015, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize for its “decisive contribution to building a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia, in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution in 2011”, and progress has been made towards the goal of becoming a democratic state. However, unemployment and lack of security continue to hold the nation back.
Yemen is struggling through a civil war and divided country similar to that of the Libyan situation. After President Ali Abdullah Saleh resigned and transferred power to Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the Yemeni regime has struggled with dissent from Houthi rebels, Al-Qaeda, and small pockets of ISIS. Yemeni territory is essentially divided into three parts between the Yemeni government, Al-Qaeda, and the Houthis. Making the conflict even more complex, the Yemeni Civil War has become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia supporting the Sunni government and Iran supporting the Shia Houthi rebels. In addition, the country is suffering a humanitarian crisis of malnutrition and lack of drinkable water. Unfortunately, this is another example of a country that is trending backwards. Prior to the Arab Spring, Yemen ranked 125th in the world in economic freedom and is now unranked as a failed state.
Syria is in the middle of a civil war that dwarfs the Lebanese Civil War in both casualties and intricacies. In 2011, after President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces violently repressed protests, the protests grew in ferocity and soldiers defected from his army to bring about the main opposition force: The Free Syrian Army. However, the Free Syrian Army was joined by other groups, like Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front), ISIS, and American-backed Kurdish forces. These anti-regime forces are all fighting against Assad, but he has held his ground and fought for six years. The Syrian conflict has become a proxy war with the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia supporting anti-regime rebels, while Iran and Russia support the Assad regime. With so many political actors in this conflict, should the Assad regime fall, Syria will be in for a dangerous power vacuum. Needless to say, economic freedoms are not of priority right now in Syria, and, as such, the country fell from 144th in the world to an unranked failed state in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedoms.
Looking back on each of these nations, it is difficult to be optimistic about where the Middle East is heading. Prior to the Arab Spring, each of the nations analyzed were ranked in Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. Six years of turmoil later, only two of the five nations are still ranked, in the index with Egypt dropping a dramatic 29 ranking spots and Tunisia dropping 14 spots respective of their 2011 economic freedom rankings. Tunisia has reached its democratic goal but has dipped in security, Egypt has increased its security while dropping the ball on human rights and democracy, and Libya, Yemen, and Syria are all engulfed in civil wars. It is possible these countries’ respective progresses are being analyzed too soon. Libya, Yemen, and Syria could be envisioned as failed states, or envisioned as territories in progress of the democratic goals their citizens fought so hard for. Whichever perspective is taken, it is undeniable that the Middle East is a region in disarray. We are six years into the Arab Spring experiment and so far it doesn’t look promising.
- Omar Naguib