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Uprisings throughout the Arab World

Arab_springAs Darren Murphy explains, this year’s APCO/Diplomat survey of ambassadors in London and Washington, DC, has been overtaken by events that no-one could have anticipated: a series of democratic uprisings throughout the Arab world. Here he considers the long-term implications.


When the Tunisian fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself on 17 December 2010 in protest at arbitrary treatment by municipal authorities in the city of Sidi Bouzid, he inadvertently began a revolutionary movement – mostly based on demands for greater freedom, democracy and the rule of law – that quickly swept across North Africa and the Middle East.

Just as the 26-year-old Bouazizi was an unexpected revolutionary, so Tunisia provided an unanticipated crucible for the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutionary movement. Bouazizi was a street vendor, not a street fighter; this popular and otherwise moderate man’s complaint was about the arbitrary use of power and the humiliation he had experienced at the hands of local authorities, and had little to do with wider questions of religion or ‘class struggle’. Nonetheless within weeks, similar acts of self-immolation, with Bouazizi cited as a hero and source of inspiration, began to be reported across the Greater Middle East.

Since then, the protest movement sparked by Bouazizi’s act of personal frustration has driven more change more quickly in the Middle East than at any time since the Second World War, toppling governments in Tunisia and Egypt and threatening others in Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. The notion, popular among parts of the Western liberal intelligentsia as well as Middle Eastern conservative clerics, that Arab people are somehow intrinsically less desirous of democratic freedoms has proven false. For too long, the adage ‘better the devil you know’ informed much of the West’s support for Arab dictators despite their refusal to reform in the post-Cold War world. Fortunately, however, the ‘power of one’, underpinned by the reach of 24-hour satellite news networks, has shown itself to be at least as great as the power of authoritarian governments.

Of course, the revolutionary movements are not homogenous. Most are about democracy and the rule of law, but, as in Bahrain, there are other dynamics too. Overwhelmingly they are driven by young people, like Bouazizi himself, and are not led by established political movements – not least because functioning political parties, other than those of the government, are usually outlawed in those countries. Neither are they usually religious in nature or inspiration. Even in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s only established (albeit still illegal) political organisation, took a back seat as civil society led the events in Tahrir Square.

The annual APCO/Diplomat magazine survey was concluding as the events in Tunisia were unfolding. Ambassadors in London and Washington, DC, had not anticipated – and nor did the survey ask about – the likelihood of a series of popular uprisings, with mostly democratic goals, in the Middle East. It was just not on anyone’s horizon. While the repressive responses by those in power, such as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, may have been predictable, the rise of these revolutions, triggered by the act of just one individual, was not. We all underestimated the power of one in response to the repression of many.

While the survey highlighted climate change and the economy as the world’s most pressing issues, it did not underestimate the centrality of the Middle East to the peace and security of the world. With regard to the latter, making progress on the road map toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and dealing with the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran are of particular concern.

The survey results show that diplomats in London and Washington, DC, favour a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine in which both countries are granted international recognition within mutually agreed boundaries. That said, they are not optimistic about a peace agreement being secured in their lifetimes: six out of 10 in the UK and seven out of 10 in the US feel that this is somewhat or very unlikely.

At the time of writing, the significance of the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, Palestine’s rival political parties, remains unclear. A new government has not yet been formed, and many of the donors to the Palestinian Authority will be concerned about its future shape. If the reconciliation lasts and through it there is a de facto recognition of Israel by the avowedly Islamist Hamas, then it may help with progress towards peace. If, on the other hand, it becomes a further barrier to negotiations, as with the settlements issue, then a stalled process may become a stopped one.

The evolving relationship between Hamas and Fatah has been significantly influenced by the uprisings in Syria and Egypt. Soon after the Arab Spring began, thousands took to the streets of Gaza and the West Bank calling for Palestinian unity. The Hamas leadership will have been buoyed both by the removal of President Hosni Mubarak and his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which their party is an offshoot. However, they will be disconcerted by the pro-democracy uprisings in major towns and cities in Syria – and the increasing ferocity of President Assad’s attempts to put them down. Indeed, Hamas has publicly declared its neutrality between Assad and the protestors, straining long-established links between the Baathist regime and Hamas’ base in Damascus. At the same time, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been increasingly concerned about his own ‘street’ and will have been destabilised by the loss of Mubarak, a key ally, adviser and mentor. If nothing else, then, what is clear is that the winds of change continue to whistle throughout the region.

Nowhere is this more true than in Libya. When, in December 2003, Colonel Gaddafi announced that he would dismantle his weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes and renounce support for terrorism, Libya embarked on a path of reintegration into the world community. Officials from the US, Britain and elsewhere inspected, removed and destroyed key components of these programmes and Libya provided valuable information about foreign suppliers. The new international relationship was sealed with a kiss by then Prime Minister Tony Blair in Tripoli in 2004. Unfortunately, however, Libya did not match this international progress – despite encouragement from its new friends abroad – with progress at home on democracy, freedom and the rule of law. As a result, within little more than a month of the death of Bouazizi, the first protesters appeared on the streets of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. The scale of the repression subsequently unleashed by Gaddafi – and the potential for a repetition of the massacres in Rwanda (1994), Srebrenica (1995) and Kosovo (1999) – challenged the world to decide whether it was prepared to just sit back and watch the slaughter or do something about it.

Rwanda and Srebrenica are widely regarded as failures of the international community to intervene when confronted by humanitarian catastrophe. While an intervention was carried out in Kosovo by NATO, it was done so without UN Security Council support. Thankfully Libya has proven to be different, and here too we can see the impact of the Arab Spring stretching the international community to exercise its responsibility to protect civilians from the humanitarian violations of their own government. The APCO/Diplomat survey highlights the importance which the ambassadorial communities in London and Washington, DC, place on the UN. Around eight out of 10 identify the UN as the body best equipped to address the most pressing international challenges – however, a similar number also see the UN as a body in need of real change.

Before the Arab Spring, few would have predicted that a UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) supporting military intervention in pursuit of humanitarian concerns would have passed. Fewer still would have expected such a UNSCR for intervention in the Arab region to receive support from Arab nations, including Lebanon on the Security Council. Yet on 26 February, UNSCR 1970, authorising a no-fly zone and air strikes on Libya, was passed by a vote of 10 in favour to none against, with five abstentions. The power of one Tunisian fruit-seller may have served to change the UN’s response to repressive regimes both now and in the future. If that is the case, then the power of one will, in years to come, guarantee the protection of many.

The real and lasting impact of Mohammed Bouazizi’s protest is likely to be best seen in the increasing saliency of ‘governance’ as an issue for governments – not just in the Middle East but also globally. The trigger for the Arab Spring was the effect of poor governance on one street trader, in one town, in Tunisia. The world has since witnessed how far and how fast popular unrest arising from poor governance can spread.

The response by governments should not be repression but reform: of how power and authority are exercised, explained and controlled; of how governing institutions interact and engage with their publics; of how popular participation can be encouraged and channelled in ways that strengthen legitimacy; of how media and communications can build confidence and connection with citizens. States must ensure that economic and political development go hand-in-hand. Mohammed Bouazizi’s personal protest began a political and revolutionary process which has yet to reach its full conclusion; the power unleashed by one person has yet to abate.


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