The Arab Spring

Arab Spring: from 2010

The dramatic series of events known now as the Arab Spring begins at a very precise moment. On 17 December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, sets himself on fire in protest at harassment by the police and confiscation of his wares by local officials. As news of his death spreads, with details of the reason why, indignation mounts. On December 19 there is a big demonstration on the streets of Sidi Bouzid.

The feeling of outrage releases long-pent-up indignation around the country at years of humiliation and fear imposed by agents of a police state. Demonstrations, frequently leading to violence when the police try to intervene, are soon demanding nothing less than the deposing of the dictator, Ben Ali, who has controlled the country for twenty-three years. The aim is achieved with astonishing speed. On January 14, less than a month after the death of the street vendor, Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia.

The example of Tunisia proves irresistibly exciting in other Muslim countries in the region with dictatorial rulers. The first to erupt is Tunisia's immediate neighbour, Algeria, where protests begin on December 19. Before the end of January a state of emergency is lifted (it is a familiar device in repressive regimes for a state of emergency, put in place at the start of the regime, to remain forever unrepealed, greatly simplifying control of the population).

As the excitement spreads, demonstrations begin during January inJordan, Egypt and Yemen. Others following suit in February are Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco and Lebanon. It is not until March that unrest begins in the country where the subsequent results are most horrifying – Syria.

In addition to Tunisia three other countries, Egypt, Libya and the Yemen, have seen a change of regime owing to the strength and passion of public outrage. In Egypt the president, Hosni Mubarak, resigns in February 2011 after three weeks of escalating violence; he has been in power since 1981. In Libya Muammar al-Gaddafi has been in sole charge of the nation for even longer, since 1969. After a ferocious civil war and western intervention to help the rebels, he is eventually captured and killed in October 2011. In Yemen the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, resigns and leaves the country in February 27 after a month of violent protest.

By the middle of 2013 the two major countries affected by the Arab Spring, Egypt and Syria, are both in serious trouble. Egypt has had an extremely promising start. In June 2012 there is a genuinely free presidential election. It is narrowly won by Mohamed Morsi, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, and therein lies a problem. The demonstrations in Tahrir Square in 2011 were secular in mood, even though involving many committed Muslims; what held the demonstrators together, and gave them their strength, was a shared political aim, to get rid of repression. Violence erupts again in 2013 when Morsi seems to be guiding Egypt in the direction of fundamentalist Islam. To calm things down he is removed by the army, in spite of his democratic legitimacy. This leads to demonstrations by Muslim supporters of Morsi, to which the army reacts with excessive force. During July soldiers on several occasions use live ammunition to disperse crowds, killing in all more than 100 including 82 on one day, July 27. After more than two years, the Arab Spring in Egypt is far from complete.

It is even further from reaching a conclusion in Syria where the leader, Bashar al-Assad, has from the start taken an entirely unyielding stance and is using the army and heavy military equipment to supress the rebels, invariably defined by him as terrorists. The situation develops rapidly into a civil war, resulting in a huge number of deaths within Syria and an even greater stream of refugees to neighbouring countries.

The Syrian rebels are increasingly joined by colleagues with a specifically Muslim agenda, some even affiliated to al-Qaeda. Time will tell whether the Arab Spring turns out to have opened the door to sharia law in the region, or permanent insurrection against repressive regimes or the desired purpose of the majority of demonstrators, secular democracy.