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From Arab Spring to Winter Open in fullscreen

Noor El-Terk

From Arab Spring to Winter

Demonstrators in alleyways off Mohamed Mahmoud, downtown Cairo [Kim Badawi/Getty Images]

Date of publication: 13 January, 2017

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Comment: Six years ago, the region was awash with hope as Arabs protested and demanded change. Today's landscape is dramatically different, but who's really to blame? asks Noor El-Terk.

"Kill me; and I'll write a song"

With those words, Emel Mathlouthi gave voice to the aspirations of hundreds of thousands, as her songs became the anthem of the revolution and the hope for the future.

In Tunisia, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010, would prove to be the spark that lit the Tunisian revolution - the Jasmine revolution - and later the Arab Spring.

Bouazizi, a street vendor, set himself alight after he was slapped by a female municipal official and had his wares tossed aside, in a stinging humiliation that echoed with the disenfranchised youth across the region. Demonstrations erupted in Sidi Bouzid and spread to neighbouring cities.

Events did not stop there, as galvanised youth in Egypt took to the streets, and protests snowballed in Cairo and elsewhere. In an attempt to appease the population, President Hosni Mubarak appointed the head of the General Intelligence service to the vice-presidency, to show that his son would not succeed him.

By this time however, it was too late, and the protesters were calling for the resignation of Mubarak.

The events in Tunisia and Egypt jolted the remainder of the region, where days after Mubarak's fall, protests broke out in Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.

Six years on, there is no happy ending. War has ravaged Yemen, and imploded Libya. Egypt is back in the clutches of military rule and Syria tottering into a chasm between pain and terror. Cities lie in ruin, hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions displaced.

Six years on, there is no happy ending. War has ravaged Yemen, and imploded Libya. Egypt is back in the clutches of military rule and Syria tottering into a chasm between pain and terror

Attributing the current instability in the Arab world to the Arab Spring, however, conveniently neglects the reasons that caused the Arab Spring in the first place. Despotic regimes plant the seeds for future unrest even while offering temporary stability, and the unrest witnessed today in the MENA region is the result of political, social and economic ills of dictatorships.

It would be wrong however, to believe that the region was politically inert before the uprisings. There were clear indicators of the region crying out for change, from Algeria's uprising in 1991, to Lebanon's 'Independence revolution' in 2005 and even Iran's short-lived 'Green revolution'.  

The Arab world welcomed Obama's remarks in Cairo back in 2009, hoping for a refreshing change with a promising president. "I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: The ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose."

Read More: The Spirit of the Arab Spring laid to rest

On Hosni Mubarak's turf, the message sent was clear, the American president stood behind values of democracy and freedom.  

Unfortunately, the Arab Spring tested that clumsy construct and found it lacking.

"We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region. We need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in with friend and foe alike."

It was with those famous words that Obama greeted the heady events of the Arab Spring. If the youth that went out in 2011 dared hope for international solidarity, reality has failed to measure up.

Despotic regimes plant the seeds for future unrest even while offering temporary stability

In what amounts to no less than war crimes against his own people, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his brutal regime have left nearly half a million Syrians killed, more than half the Syrian population displaced and a whopping five million refugees.

The so-called 'red line' the White House claimed for Assad's use of chemical attack was crossed so completely, killing thousands and maiming thousands more. Torture camps became so rife in Syria that even hospitals were converted, and when morgues overflowed, the bodies were stacked to the ceilings in the toilets.

Despite the mountainous evidence collected against the horrific crimes of the Assad regime, there remain calls to work with Assad, putting aside the slight detail of him being a mass murderer in favour of the vague notion of 'fighting terrorism'. Under the guise of realpolitik, world powers have chosen to align themselves with the Syrian regime, co-ordinating airstrikes and continuing talks with Putin.

The rest of the region is no different; with a problematic human rights climate, Bahrain clamped down on freedom of speech, arrested dozens of activists and journalists, and stripped them of their citizenship.

President Sisi also lays claim to Egypt's worst massacre in recent history, as peaceful protesters were attacked by the military in a brutal crackdown

Excessive force is used to dispel protesters, and torture to clamp down on dissent. The main opposition party has been dissolved and political opponents rounded up and arrested  - all this while Britain praises the monarchy's "reform efforts".

Not only did Britain substantially increase its arms exports to Bahrain, reports indicated that Britain lobbied the UN to tone down its criticism of Bahrain's human rights violations.

Democracy appears to be a fickle lover, as the self-appointed-then-turned President of Egypt Abdelfatah al-Sisi, who rode to presidency on the back of tanks, is hailed for paving the way to it. A parallel reality exists, where the path to democracy there has been paved with the imprisonment of 50,000 dissenters, the crackdown of all free media and systematic human rights violations.

Under his belt, President Sisi also lays claim to Egypt's worst massacre in recent history, as peaceful protesters were attacked by the military in a brutal crackdown against a sit in of Pro-Morsi demonstrators, leaving thousands dead and tens of thousands more injured in a single day.

Bodies were torched and set alight, bulldozers trampled over protesters and crushed them and live ammunition was indiscriminately fired into the crowds - the army went in with a plan to kill, and saw it through.

Canada's foreign affairs minister, John Baird however, took the massacre as a sign of strong "leadership" and praised the Egyptian government's "transition to democracy and inclusion of human rights and rule of law". 

While many in the West are quick to tout the values of democracy and freedom, these admirable sentiments pale when looking at today's reality. Vested interests were quick to replace principled ideals, and the only paltry offering at the table is lip service - if that.

The Arab Spring may have withered into winter, but our role in it should not have ceased at the first hurdle. Perhaps the greatest responsibility here lies on those who championed and encouraged these ideals, but when push came to shove, left them to suffer on their own.  ​

Noor El-Terk is a keen advocate for social justice with a particular interest in the MENA region. She holds a masters degree in Chemical Engineering and tweets at @kelo3adi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

 

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