Foreign Affairs

Ten years on, Egypt and the Arab Spring

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This December will mark ten years since a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi, frustrated by dire economic conditions, government corruption and the indifference of the authorities to his plight, carried out an act of desperation which set off the chain of events that came to be known as the Arab Spring.

Beginning with large public demonstrations in the aftermath of Bouazizi’s self-immolation, Tunisian protesters sympathetic to his position eventually deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.

Their success had acted as a catalyst for social upheaval across the Arab world, with those seeking changes in their own countries expressing a transnational solidarity with Bouazizi and the Tunisian revolutionaries. Almost a decade on, however, little has changed. Quite the contrary – things have gotten worse.

In Libya, the Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) ranks the level of democracy since 2015 as similar to that before the overthrow of Gaddafi. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the insecurity that has prevailed since his ouster has resulted in courts and the judicial system ceasing to operate in many parts of the country.

Syria and Iraq have both experienced devastating intrastate conflicts with grotesquely sectarian overtones involving almost every major regional and global power. Additionally, Yemen is facing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world with more than 24 million people – 80% of the population – in need of assistance.

Egypt in this regard has been something of a microcosm of the Arab Spring as a whole, having experienced governmental reform, religious extremism, foreign interference and a return to authoritarian rule. Yet, mercifully, the country has avoided the sort of large-scale civil war observed by many of its less fortunate counterparts.

Following the resignation of Hosni Mubarak after thirty years in power, Mohamed Morsi was elected president in Egypt’s first – and perhaps only – ever democratic election in 2012. By the summer of 2013, however, Egypt was on the brink of collapse.

With a faltering economy, state institutions refusing to cooperate with government ministers, and after months of massive demonstrations, the Egyptian military took the decision to remove Morsi from power and install defence minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in his place as President.

Under Sisi, Egypt would revert to many of the policies and practices of the Mubarak administration. HRW has documented that security services have engaged in torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, while protesters and journalists critical of the government have been subject to arbitrary detention.

With the full and uninhibited endorsement of Western governments, Egypt underwent something of a counterrevolution. This involved co-opting revolutionary-affiliated entities including NGOs, increasing state control over the academic and religious landscape by policing university campuses and mosques, and entrenching the military within the public sphere by subordinating the interior ministry to the armed forces.

Consequently, the EIU shows that the level of democracy in Egypt since 2013 has remained below that under Mubarak.  Far from an isolated case, this democratic deficit is consistent across almost every country in the Arab world – the only notable exception being Tunisia.

Against the backdrop of the political changes in post-Mubarak Egypt, militants affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIL) group have been conducting an armed insurgency of fluctuating intensity centred on the Sinai Peninsula. The efforts of the Egyptian authorities to confront this have achieved mixed results, replicating a familiar story of the Arab Spring, that of Islamism versus secular authoritarianism.

Other Islamists opposed to Sisi’s rule are concentrated in the more populous areas of Egypt, such as the Nile valley. Though benign, these individuals could prove to be extremely dangerous should they begin to cooperate with groups such as ISIL or al-Qaeda, so it is imperative that the government keep opposition at a minimum and public opinion positive.

Again, its accomplishments in this area have been mixed. Though the tenure of the Sisi administration has provided an opportunity for foreign investment in Egypt, it has done so by essentially privatising its natural assets.

In 2015, a $12 billion hydrocarbon deal was announced for British Petroleum (BP) which required the payment of taxes and royalties but involved no further form of profit sharing. The cheap sale of land to tourism developers has also benefited senior figures in the military and security services, while Egyptian billionaires are now estimated to hold a 6% share of the country’s GDP.

While many Egyptians may share the view that the lamentable backlash to the Arab Spring serves as a vindication of authoritarian measures, for others these measures further entrench the factors underpinning the uprisings in the first place.

However, as post-Saddam Iraq has demonstrated, and as the Arab Spring has reinforced, democracy cannot be effectively maintained in a climate of insecurity. Though democracy does positively correlate with greater stability, it is difficult to establish the former in the absence of the latter.

It has also been observed that a rapid transition seldom succeeds in bringing about peaceful democratic reform, but actually increases the likelihood of conflict. This is perhaps something that the Sisi administration has recognised. While, as previously stated, the EIU does record Egyptian democracy as being lower now than under Mubarak, it is also recorded as having been steadily increasing under Sisi.

In short, the various movements of the Arab Spring consisted of a myriad of people and ideas united only by their common endeavour to alter the status quo. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu stresses repeatedly the importance of unity in achieving a desired outcome.

This may help to explain why the Arab Spring seemed at first to be so universally successful, only to backfire in such a spectacular manner. This rendered many of its custodian states no better or worse off than before, as well as bringing about the globalisation of a group which has been responsible for religiously and ethnically targeted atrocities the likes of which have not been seen since the Second World War.

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