10 Years on from the Arab Spring
Written by Prof. Joe Sweeney, August 2021
“Will democracy last in Egypt?”
“No. They don’t know what democracy is.”
Shortly after returning from two weeks in Egypt in March 2012, this question from my classmate to me started a long conversation on the lasting impacts of the Arab Spring. In early 2011, the world watched as protests engulfed nations across the Arab world. Young people took to the streets demanding a political voice, better economic opportunities, and reforms to often brutal police states. Ultimately, ruling regimes were toppled in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen while key government officials were dismissed or resigned in Jordan, Kuwait, and Oman. Libya and Syria descended into civil war.
As an MBA student in 2012, I spent two weeks in Egypt with a team of students serving an international NGO by exploring opportunities for employment in the agriculture sector. A little more than a year after the fall of the Mubarak regime, the scars of the revolution remained fresh. Some people still camped in Tahrir Square, the occasional street protest would flare up as people sought to gain better conditions or more rights, and burned out buildings from the revolution still stood untouched, a silent reminder of struggle the year before.
Prior to key elections held later in 2012, the country was uncertain but hopeful. Businesses and NGOs alike were hesitant to make investments and long-term plans until a new permanent government could take power. While unemployment remained high, there was a sense that with new leadership, things would improve quickly. Although this optimism reigned on the streets, the undercurrent to the conversations we had with government officials and party leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party was one of retribution against the prior regime. The hope for the future, economically, politically and socially, was not an inclusive view and not one that allowed for constructive and peaceful transitions of power in the future.
With a focus on revenge and rebuttal, the new ruling class in Egypt quickly set themselves up for failure. In addition to this mindset, the old power structures of an authoritarian regime also lurked quietly in the background masquerading as caretakers of power, waiting for a new government. In reality, they were essentially preserving their own power to either influence the new leadership or to once again take control.
Ultimately, Egypt’s revolution didn’t last long and the country returned to a military driven, authoritarian regime. Elsewhere across the Arab world, the shining revolution ultimately led to new oppressive regimes or debilitating civil war…with one key exception.
With multiple peaceful transitions of power, including from one ruling party to another, and inclusive of political parties from different parts of the political and religious spectrum, Tunisia stands as the lone success story from the Arab Spring. Arriving in Tunisia in 2019, the reality of the people, culture, and situation couldn’t have been more different than my expectations. I thought it would be very similar to Egypt in many ways, a history that jumps from ancient times to the post-colonial era, heavily influenced by conservative Muslim ideology with a hint of lingering danger from a formerly oppressive regime and radical terrorists. Instead, I encountered a truly cosmopolitan people who fully embraced a history of otherwise contradictory traditions: Carthage and Rome, Ottomans and French, seafarers and desert nomads.
Our partners in Tunisia are successful business people with interests in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Opportunistic and forward thinking, they continue to explore new technology for renewable energy production as a way to support a strong and independent Tunisia that is also modern, environmentally friendly, and connected to the global community.
From our on-going conversations over the past three years, it is clear to both my Tunisian friends and me that Tunisia’s democracy is still young and fragile. Reforms are still needed in many governmental agencies, particularly those that influence or facilitate business activity. Deregulation of state-owned monopolies such as those governing the generation of electricity are a positive step but only the beginning for driving the Tunisian economy forward. With regards to government and elections, in stark contrast to the strong parties and political machines and industry in developed democracies, Tunisia is still navigating the much of the basics that help shape stable democratic governments. Now these young institutions are also forced to navigate the uncertainty brought by a global pandemic for both implications of public health and economic health.
Ten years from a revolution may seem like forever but even the United States took twelve years from declaring independence to ratifying its current constitution. In between, a shaky confederation of states held together a fledgling nation with far fewer common bonds than Tunisia with its rich history. Likewise, modern democratic nations face challenges, such as Israel, struggling to form a government in recent years, leading to multiple snap elections there since 2019. Although many differences remain between Tunisia and the US or Israel, it would be wise to not jump too quickly to conclusions about the future of the Republic in the small state in North Africa. Ten years seems a long time to know if a revolution is a success but it may yet be too soon to know the true outcome of the Arab Spring. In recent days, the strength of institutions and commitment to democratic principles in Tunisia suffered what many would characterize as a significant set back with the suspension of parliament and the dismissal of the Prime Minister by the President. Considered a coup by many, the move was welcomed by countless Tunisians who longed for change in the midst of great challenges. The real test of commitment to democratic principles comes next.
Will democracy last in Tunisia?
Time will tell but there is still hope.