First anniversary of the 'Arab Spring': An assessment


It is just over twelve months since the ‘Arab Spring’ took off in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), on 17 December 2010, in a spontaneous eruption of deep indignation but also of high expectation. In this personal paper, regional specialist Dr Harry Hagopian assesses the breadth and depth of the changes that have taken place. Today, many vested interests are still clutching to power under different guises. We are now dealing with uncertain outcomes that hold both promise and despair, he reports. We have entered new territory where the old imposed truths are no longer the only tradable commodity, where the European colonial borders for some of those artificial or adventive entities are crumbling under popular pressure and where the rules of the game have changed drastically. There is darkness in many of the events we have seen unfolding over the past 12 months, but also hope, he suggests.

It is just over twelve months since the ‘Arab Spring’ took off in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), on 17 December 2010, in a spontaneous eruption of deep indignation but also of high expectation.

An unknown fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi (whose statue was lately unveiled by the newly-elected Tunisian president Moncef al-Marzouki) in the unknown village of Sidi Bouzid in southern Tunis, ignited the first spark when he set himself alight in what became the iconic start of an increasingly messy - and costly - struggle by the Arab masses for dignity and citizenship rights across a vast and heterogeneous landmass.

In Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, popular demonstrations in November 7 Square or the Kasbah in Tunis, in Bab el-Had Square in Morocco, in Tahrir and Tal’at Harb Squares in Egypt as much as elsewhere across the three countries led to parliamentary elections that were designed to sweep away the ‘old’ and vote in the ‘new’. However, the ‘new’ did not always please everyone within the country or outside it when a substantial majority of elected deputies in all three national parliaments hailed from Islamic religious roots.

Today, many vested interests are still clutching to power under different guises or formats in the midst of ongoing sporadic popular protests or episodes of violence (that Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri described recently as a ‘counter-revolution’). Egypt also witnessed street attacks on women that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned forcefully by noting that “this systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonours the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people.” It is clear to me that we are now dealing with uncertain outcomes that hold both promise and despair.

In Libya, a NATO-led invasion was meant to reassemble the country under the banner of Gaddafi-less freedoms, but Benghazi and the Eastern provinces of this oil-rich country are as alien to Tripoli and the Western provinces as Misrata remains from Zintan. Besides, as a recent report by the International Crsis Group suggested, Libya now needs to avoid fragmentation and undergird its stability by ensuring that all decisions relating to disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) are taken in close consultation with local military councils and militias - possibly through the appointment of a credible person who would liaise and coordinate with such local bodies. Again, as in the case of Tunis, Morocco or Egypt, we are now dealing with uncertain outcomes that hold both promise and despair.

In Yemen, two families of the al-Hashid tribal confederacy have basically been fighting over who holds or consolidates political power. The country is drifting from misrule and corruption to anarchy and the fear of terrorism. The anticipated departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to the USA - as part of a GCC-inspired deal for the transfer of power signed last November - might help heal some of the tribal wounds, but the country remains vulnerable.

In the nearby tiny kingdom of Bahrain too, a weakened but resilient monarch is refusing to relinquish his key constitutional powers and is resisting the struggle for dignity and fundamental freedoms by the majority Shi’i population. However, a mere glance at Sitra, a collection of poor villages, indicates the high levels of polarisation. The fourteen-year old Ali Jawad al-Sheikh who died from his wounds in hospital on 31st August, is solely one example of those raw tensions, and it would be interesting to observe whether President Obama eventually approves a US$53 million arms sale to Bahrain. Once more, like other MENA countries, we are now dealing with uncertain outcomes that hold both promise and despair.

In Israel, the increasingly rightwing ruling political establishment is feeding into its own overstated paranoia and hunkering down against what it perceives as an ever-increasing hostile region. It is ramping up its own discrimination against Palestinians as well as fomenting apocalyptic scenarios about the dangers of a nuclear Iran or its new-old enemies in the neighbourhood. Its policies are also strengthening the hand of the ultra-orthodox as well as Zionist minorities in the country.

One consequence of all this is that the number of illegal settlements and housing units is increasing dramatically, and more Palestinian Christians or Muslims are emigrating to the West. But Palestinians also remain divided despite a spate of meetings between the PLO and Hamas representatives in Egypt in an attempt to constitute a united front at a fateful moment in history. After all, launching the odd - and frankly futile - missile from Gaza will not liberate their occupied Palestinian territories, and hoisting the Palestinian flag at the UNESCO HQ in Paris is not tantamount to acquiring statehood either. Let me suggest that readers might perhaps wish to follow the tweets of the Palestinian blogger Lina al-Sharif from Gaza to get a clearer understanding of life under relentless occupation and political inertia. Uncertainty, promise and despair loom again.

Iraq has just witnessed the final phase of withdrawal of American troops after an eight-year invasion that wrought havoc in the country, exacerbated its sectarian tensions, resulted in many Iraqi and American deaths and frittered away almost one trillion US dollars that might have otherwise helped Americans with their ailing economy, education or health system.

But despite its oil wealth, Iraq is a broken country that shows many sectarian bruises. Only this month, we witnessed a horrific series of pre-planned attacks across Baghdad that questioned the readiness of the authorities to combat terrorism. Moreover, there is an undeclared political - read sectarian - battle pitting Shi’is against Sunnis within the main political factions in Iraq, with PM Nouri al-Maliki issuing an arrest warrant against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. Not only that, but half of the 100,000 members of the Sunni Awakening movement - insurgents whose decision to switch sides helped contain the civil war - have not found any employment and could well reconsider their loyalties and switch sides again. Minorities such as Christians, Sabaeans or Yazidis are also seeing their numbers being decimated drastically.

Moreover, Iraqi leaders have not reached an agreement over the control of oil-rich Kirkuk which is claimed by both Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government. There is also turmoil in the mainly Sunni provinces of Salahuddin and Diyala which seek their autonomy, alongside a widespread belief that there will be an augmentation of Iranian influence now that American troops have left Iraq. So it bemused me when President Obama recently declared at Fort Bragg in North Carolina that the USA was leaving behind “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq”.

In fact, one key question being whispered surreptitiously in political corridors is whether Iraq could still stand if it were carved out into Kurdistan, Shi'istan and Sunnistan. The mere fact of raising the issue unleashes a torrent of emotions.

Recently, Ayad Allawi, leader of the Iraqiyya coalition and former Prime Minister, as well as speaker of the Iraqi parliament Osama al-Nujaifi and finance minister Rafe al-Essawi co-wrote an op-ed in the New York Times.

According to them, “since Iraq’s 2010 election, we have witnessed the subordination of the state to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s Da’wa party, the erosion of judicial independence, the intimidation of opponents and the dismantling of independent institutions intended to promote clean elections and combat corruption.” [Iraq] “has become a battleground of sects, in which identity politics have crippled democratic development.” More uncertainty, more promise and more despair.

Finally, Syria is in turmoil with a regime hell-bent on retaining power and muzzling the liberty-driven instincts of many of its people through brutal force and the sheer determination not to yield power. Despite the tentative efforts of the League of Arab States (LAS) that approved a raft of sanctions on 27th November 2011 and has now begun deploying pan-Arab monitors in some of the flashpoints of the country such as Homs, the Syrian blogger Sakhr Al-Makhadhi put it well when he told Channel 4 News that “all sides are trying to make political capital” out of the observers’ presence in Syria.

But as Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, equally cautioned recently, the Arab League needs to show that its observers are “independent and able to work effectively” in order to dispel “well-founded fears of yet another Syrian stalling tactic.” In fact, for it to produce credible results, the observer mission will need unrestricted access to all conflict areas in Syria and to make all of its findings public. Besides, the monitors are only one part of a broader Arab plan endorsed by Syria on 2nd November which also called for the withdrawal of the military from towns and residential districts, a halt to the violence and the release of detainees. However, I would argue that the situation is far too grave to be eased off with such a mirror of charades and the country is almost tipping into a civil war.

Two damning reports by the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay and by Human Rights Watch catalogued the excesses of the Syrian regime and qualified them as crimes against humanity referable to the ICC in The Hague. The Human Rights Council found that (i) Syrian security forces were guilty of systematic human rights violations, (ii) soldiers were ordered to ‘shoot to kill’ unarmed demonstrators, (iii) there was a pattern of summary killings, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances, (iv) there was an extensive practice of state-sanctioned torture, (v) men and boys were sexually abused at military facilities and (vi) at least 250 children were killed by security forces, with at least two of them as a result of torture.

Some of those reading this assessment will have watched ‘Syria’s Torture Machine’, a distressing documentary on British Channel 4 that showed some harrowing scenes of torture despite the fact that Syria acceded in 2004 to The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

I would suggest that the principle of command responsibility under International law kicks in - in this case in Syria. Otherwise put, the three questions that need answering are (i) whether President Bashar el-Assad knew of such acts of torture, (ii) if not, whether he should he have known of them as president, and (iii) whether he did anything to stop them.

The recent violence in Syria has attained horrific proportions, and the animosities have consequently become even less bridgeable.

The governorate of Idlib, one of the fourteen governorates in north-western Syria, is slowly morphing into the Benghazi of Libya as it shelters the Free Syrian Army and those dissidents who are struggling against the regime. Yet, Russia and the BRIC-S Group resist any attempt to take Syria to the UN Security Council. Such opposition is occurring despite the fact that the Russian Federation is now fielding its own UNSC draft resolution, and it is clear that Russia has seemingly set the ceiling at Assad-led reforms, and certainly not at regime change.

As Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote recently in 'Now Lebanon', the West is still pussyfooting, and we are therefore dealing with uncertain outcomes that hold both promise and despair.

17 December 2010 - 17 December 2011

Is this an epitaph that holds promise or despair for the MENA region? Is it possible to claim that the lost generations of the MENA region have suddenly found their long-lost voices? To repeat a hackneyed comparison, could it be that those who grew up being told they were the heirs to Francis Fukuyama’s end of history and those who were convinced of the certain victory of a liberal capitalist society that divides the haves from the have-nots, are now re-writing history and charting a new course for the MENA region?

One year hence, I frankly cannot predict where this whole region will go next. In fact, I have yet to come across one person - politician, pundit, demonstrator or political scientist - who might interpret the rune-like developments of this unsure region with sure conviction. However, what remains clear for me is that we have entered new territory where the old imposed truths are no longer the only tradable commodity, where the European colonial borders for some of those artificial or adventive entities are crumbling under popular pressure and where the rules of the game have changed drastically.

Yet, what renders all those events unpredictable also makes them frightening, since the ball could end up in any court and we might witness excesses, violence and instability becoming part of a whole volatile region.

However, despite the pessimism exhibited by some who only see regional deconstruction and political meltdown as a consequence of those popular revolts, I still wish to believe in the goodness of the peoples in the MENA and to wager on their determination to win their challenge against those who wish to crush those uprisings or else drag the region to the same authoritarianism of old, albeit one bearing new addresses or newer faces. Perhaps this is not a finite spring season but a much longer journey that will go through many cycles and tumbles before the real popular awakening takes root.

Nonetheless, I would also argue that the changes in the Arab world over this past year cannot be overstated despite the many uncertainties and setbacks. A region almost synonymous with stagnant authoritarian regimes - one that the Arab Human Development Report of 2002 indicated was suffering from a deficit of freedom, knowledge and gender empowerment - has risen up and exhibited its accumulated economic, institutional and political frustrations. The regional dynamics of have shifted irretrievably despite the final outcome or time it would take to implement real reforms.
As one recognises the obvious tractions in the MENA region, a key issue will now determine the fate of all the Arab awakenings.

Simply put, can the Arab world develop pluralistic, consensual politics, with constitutional guarantees and regular rotations in power, whereby people can live as citizens and not feel that their tribe, sect or party has to rule forever or else die? This will clearly not happen overnight; however, if it were to succeed in taking root, it would be a transformational development for this region that might well help shape this notion of ‘democracy’ after all.

Dignity - karama - and citizenship rights - houqouq al-mouwatana - have become the key metaphors for a new generation, and Bouazizi spoke for a whole region when he got so fed up with the humiliation heaped upon him by a policewoman first, then by a municipal officer and finally by a whole system, that he chose death. That self-immolation killed a poor fruit vendor, but it could well end up becoming the trigger for something much bigger than him and a catalyst that anneals the region from bigotry, oppression, discrimination, misogyny, intolerance and radicalism.

According to Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, “People of the Middle East and North Africa are in no mood to give up their search for justice and dignity”. Put differently, I would suggest that Bouazizi’s death was a sad albeit momentary event, but its ramifications - no matter what they turn out to be - are still unfolding one year on.


© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor ( Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is