Balance sheet of 'Arab Spring' one year on

March 29, 2012
Suez Canal workers join the uprising against Mubarak in Egypt.

More than a year after the start of the “Arab Spring”, it is possible to draw up a provisional balance sheet.

Since January last year, popular rebellions have deposed a number of hated dictators across the region. It began with popular rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia, which spread to Yemen and Bahrain and through to the conflicts in Libya and Syria.

All of these rebellions, to varying degrees, reflected the emergence of powerful mass movements causing concern for imperialism and its regional allies — principally Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In some cases, dictatorships have been replaced by formal democracies in which political Islamic forces have emerged as key players. In Libya, a new regime was installed by outside forces, while in Syria and Yemen it is not yet clear how the situation will end.

Despite Washington having had a hand in influencing the outcome of some of these tumultuous events, the overall results are far from ones that would make it rest easy.

Egypt and Tunisia

In Egypt, the electoral victory of political Islamist forces, principally the Muslim Brotherhood and the salafist party Al Nour, was no surprise.

After decades of neoliberal policies in Egypt, much of the country’s traditional economic activities have been destroyed.

Today, 60% of Egyptians swell the ranks of a ballooning informal economy comprised of street vendors, stall holders and beggars.

The Muslim Brotherhood has positioned itself well by combining welfare provision with promotion of the informal economy.

The financial contributions it receives from the Gulf countries are vital to its ability to provide communities with economic support, medical centres and other forms of social welfare. This close bond also makes it a useful ally for the US, the Gulf states and even Israel.

All these forces have an interest in the failure of the Egyptian revolution. None would benefit from a strong, secular, democratic and self-sufficient Egypt. Such an outcome could act as a barrier to the further advance of Islamic forces, reduce Egypt's dependency on foreign markets and provide real, rather than rhetorical, support for the Palestinian struggle.

As such, the fate of the revolution will be partly determined by the ability of army chiefs and political Islamic forces to forge an alliance strong enough to halt its future advance.

The Tunisian elections held in October last year led to a constituent assembly dominated by the Ennahada Islamic Party and recycled elements of former dictator Ben Ali’s political apparatus.

What both forces have in common is unconditional defence of the market economy and backing from the US and France.

The democratic space won in Tunisia, which has been characterised by less repression, greater tolerance and talk of human rights, represents a positive change.

But this has to be weighed against two important factors. First, the rights of women who hoped to achieve greater change have weakened.

Second, the expansion of political democracy has not improved the economic situation for those that made the revolution: Tunisia’s working class, its youth and the unemployed.

This contradictory situation is the result of the movement's uneven development from the start. The main demands of the uprising that threw out Ben Ali in January last year focused on the lack of the regime's democracy and rampant corruption.

The economic situation for the majority was (and remains) extremely bad, but this was not a central focus.

Other Arab nations

Bahrain is a special case. The spring rebellion was suffocated by the summer heat generated by Saudi Arabia and Qatar's military invasion. A small country such as Bahrain will likely require the support of other Arab revolutions to relaunch a new offensive.

Yemen, which has represented an important headache for US and Gulf states, is also the scene of a predominately Islamist opposition.

Given Yemen’s long history of independence struggles, anti-US military governments, two civil wars and several internal conflicts, the revolt there has been strong. At this point, the process here is far from resolved.

The same is true for Syria and Libya, where more than one year after the conflicts erupted, a definite resolution is yet to have been achieved.

In Libya, a partial resolution was imposed through the criminal NATO bombing campaign that helped topple the regime. The consequences were to grant one faction of the uprising into an unstable hold on power, while reducing the ability of other nations to intervene to influence the conflict in their favour.

In Morocco, it seems unlikely change can be expected in the near future given the hold the monarchy continues to have over the people.

Algeria however, remains an enigma. Together with Egypt, the Algerian people spearheaded an earlier awakening of the Arab world.

After its victory over French colonialism in the early 1960s, which led to important social, economic and political transformations, Algeria represented an important beacon for many Third World liberation movements.

Will Algeria join the new round of Arab revolutions? We don’t know yet, but if the Algerian masses rise again, it would open up immense possibilities for the region.

Balance sheet

Any balance sheet drawn up of the Arab Spring, more than a year in, must be positive. Today's Arab world is dramatically different to that of the end of 2010.

Important victories have been achieved in removing dictators, without discounting some defeats. A number of these struggles remain unresolved.

What will be the reaction of the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples when, despite the changes that have occurred, their social and economic situation worsens under the impact of the global economic crisis?

Would this create the chance to build movements capable of going beyond demands for democratic reforms towards systemic change?

The Egyptian people are starting to answer this question. It has become apparent that for many of those who have repeatedly taken to Tahrir Square, the fight for democracy has become a weapon in the fight to improve social conditions.

Such struggles could help change the landscape in Egypt and across the region, helping to politicise and further democratise society.

However, to be successful, the movements will also need to become more organised and able to provide a clear alternative leadership to the broader population. This is the real challenge for the left in the region.

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