Ten years have passed since the outbreak of the revolutionary experiments known as the Arab Spring. If the political uprisings met with varying degrees of success or failure, the waves of turmoil they gave rise to have raised many questions concerning the nature of the Arab Spring. To what extent did it precipitate civil warfare and the collapse of states in the Arab region? To what extent were its political aims and principles undermined by domestic or foreign intrigues?
The sum total of the success of the first wave of the grassroots uprisings was limited. Tunisia, despite its economic difficulties and fragile political situation, was the only Arab Spring country that managed to preserve the state relatively intact and complete a process of democratic transition even if this remains shaky.
It was able to set this process in motion because it quickly transcended the adolescent revolutionary discourse that aimed to exclude sociopolitical groups tainted by association with the “former regime.” For the most part, this was a thinly disguised way of enabling various Islamist groups and, above all, the Tunisian Ennahda Movement, to prevail. Another important reason for Tunisia’s success was the election of Beji Caid Essebsi, a reformer who hailed from the post-independence era, as the country’s president as opposed to the candidate backed by Ennahda and extremist forces.
Tunisia was able to progress because it quickly shifted from a revolutionary to a reformist track that acknowledged the existence of conservative and traditional forces. Some of these formed political parties that served as platforms for the rise of conservative politicians that in some cases had been part of the old order and were opposed to Ennahda’s discourse. A prime example is Free Constitutional Party leader Abeer Moussa.
However, while Tunisia’s experience represents one answer to some of the major questions posed by the Arab uprisings, the country continues to face major challenges. The Islamist Ennahda Movement is the source of some of these, while others are to be found in the inherent contradiction between having a president elected by direct popular vote yet giving him only limited powers.
A merely symbolic president elected by parliament as an honorary head of state is one thing. But when a president is directly elected by the people, it might be thought that he should be the country’s chief executive and not the prime minister.
But if the Tunisian success story has seen various problems, the cases of Libya, Yemen and Syria are at the opposite end of the scale. The failure of the Arab Spring revolutions in these countries is now frequently cited by stability first advocates in the Arab world as a reason to maintain the status quo.
People have a right to rebel against dictatorships that have clung to power for decades and sowed widespread injustice and corruption. The Arab peoples had a right to dream of democratic systems of government and the rule of law.
However, while all the Arab Spring uprisings espoused these noble aims, this did not mean they would attain the same results. The differences between the regimes in power and the revolutionary leaderships and the variations in the regional and international context were some of the reasons that gave rise to different outcomes.
Tunisia’s 17 December 2010 Revolution and Egypt’s 25 January 2011 Revolution have much in common. In neither country did political change precipitate the disintegration or collapse of the state, as occurred in other Arab countries. Both Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in preserving their government institutions even if their political paths diverged.
Tunisia initiated a democratic transition while facing political standstills and its government’s inability to act. Egypt transitioned to the new order that emerged after the 30 June 2013 Revolution and the army’s intervention on 3 July 2013, which deferred the democratic transformation and prioritised the war against terrorism, the consolidation of the state and the restoration of security and stability.
Libya became a synonym for the failure of the Arab Spring, seeing a slide into civil war and the collapse of the state. But many forget that throughout the 42 years of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, Libya never had government institutions in the sense that Egypt and Tunisia had. Libya did not have a state bureaucracy or a judiciary that was even half way independent. It could not be said to have had an army, as Gaddafi had reduced its armed forces to a motley collection of militias.
As a result, the fall of the Gaddafi regime meant the fall of this quasi-state. The same did not apply to Egypt and Tunisia, where there was a clear difference between the regime and the state, meaning that while the former fell, the latter of course survived.
It is necessary to remember such factors when discussing the causes of the failure of the grassroots revolutions in the Arab region. It is impossible to ignore the differences between regimes, meaning that in some cases the collapse of the regime inevitably led to the collapse of the state, the prevalence of anarchy and even the outbreak of civil war.
Every revolution has its own particular aims. The communist revolutions in Europe and elsewhere had the aim of overthrowing the status quo and dismantling the state because those leading them wanted to see a communist state and a socialist social order.
Millions died in the communist revolution in Russia when the country was plunged into a civil war pitting the communist Red Army against the White Army of the supporters of the previous regime. The former of course prevailed and established the Soviet state and communist system.
The Iranian Revolution in 1979 saw the revolutionaries espouse a religiously inspired ideological project informed by Shia doctrines. Tens of thousands of people lost their lives during the year-long campaign carried out by the revolutionaries, and tens of thousands more were later executed as the old government institutions were torn down to make way for “revolutionary” new ones and bring about a complete rupture with the old order.
The least acceptable way of seeing the Arab Spring is to try to make it fit into the same mold as some of the major revolutions of the past, among them the French Revolution in 1789 or the 20th-century communist revolutions in Russia and China. Some writers have dredged up revolutionary theories from the archives and tried to project them onto the Egyptian experience, for example, with disastrous results. The fact is that the Egyptian Revolution, like its Tunisian counterpart, was essentially reformist, as were those who led it from Cairo’s Tahrir Square. These people wanted to see a more just society that guaranteed dignity, freedom and equality.
The scene of young men and women cleaning Tahrir Square after the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak was unprecedented in the history of popular revolutions. It was a declaration that the protests had ended and that rebuilding must now begin. It also epitomised the true energy of the revolution and was consummately reformist. As the majority of the demonstrators withdrew from the city streets, they reaffirmed their confidence in the Egyptian armed forces, chanting that “the people and the army are hand in hand.”
When Mubarak stepped down on 11 February 2011, Egypt was ready to reach a consensus over an alternative from within the establishment or even the old regime, as long as this could be brought about through a consensual process and elections. Such a route would have strengthened the chances of a reformist alternative.
Unfortunately, while this option was eminently feasible, the Muslim Brotherhood’s thirst for power intervened. In one of the group’s reversals of position, it decided to field a candidate for president, fully aware of the consequences. When this closed and secretive ideological group entered the elections, it refused to obtain the necessary permits and comply with electoral laws. In short, it considered itself to be above the law.
Another development contributed to the derailing of the Egyptian experience. After Mubarak stepped down, the revolutionary coalitions opted to sustain their marches and protest demonstrations. This permanent mobilisation and occupation of city streets and squares alienated broad swathes of public opinion, which wanted to see an end to anarchy and lawlessness. As public opinion turned against the protesters, the discourse of the “need for stability and a return to normal” prevailed.
Finally, a revolution is an exceptional event to which peoples are driven when they are no longer able to tolerate oppression and marginalisation. After a revolution has taken place, the task should be to build democracy, justice and the rule of law and not “revolutionary councils,” “revolutionary courts” and emergency laws.
The 25 January Revolution in Egypt indicated powerful aspirations that have not yet been attained. These aspirations are towards a reformist, democratic and civil alternative, not one that shields itself behind the language of revolution, religion or patriotism while granting itself extraordinary privileges and the right to exclude opponents and opposing views.
The alternative that Egypt expects should seek to reform the institutions of government, not to destroy or to take revenge against them. It should work to broaden democracy and the rule of law. That was the true spirit of the January Revolution, and it is one that has not completed its mission yet.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.