The Sad Climax of Arab Spring. Anyone Care?

The last remnants of the Arab Spring era, which in 2011 began with the toppling of three long-time dictators in the Middle East, are disappearing with a whimper in Tunisia and with deadly bangs in Sudan.

Protesters marching through Tunis last week on the 10th anniversary of the revolution.

Democracy’s swan song in Tunisia?

During the past decade, demands for democracy in Egypt, Syria and Bahrain were crushed by military crackdowns. Civil wars and foreign intervention poisoned the ground for possible change in Libya, while Yemen descended into a proxy civil war with rival participation of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Even democracies outside the Arab Spring context– in Lebanon, a tumultuous 80-year old electoral democracy, and newcomer Iraq–are crippled by ethnic conflict and violent outside meddling.

The decade of failed efforts at Middle East transformation underscores a worldwide trend: democratic rule is in decline, whether in Hong Kong and Myanmar; or in Russia where President Vladimir Putin has Russia perfected the art of “constitutional coups”— use of anti-democratic laws, endorsed by fraudulently elected legislators– to underwrite repression; or Africa which continue to produce or extend presidencies-for-life.

In the context of the budding US-China Cold War, such developments favor Beijing. China is spreading its influence economically through the Belt and Road initiative, unencumbered by human and civil rights concerns. Its navy is being hosted in ports once reserved for Americans.

President Joe Biden, by way of contrast, declared last summer that the world is in a struggle between autocracy and democracy. Yet, his administration he seems barely interested in the rolling collapse of democracies. He democracy-vs.-autocracy comment seems to really refer to a contest between America and its friends against China, Russia and its clients and allies.

In that context, Tunisia and Sudan are marginal concerns.

In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union engendered a burst of democratic rule. In Europe, former Warsaw Pact Soviet allies adopted parliamentary democracy. So did former Soviet republics in the Baltics, Ukraine and Georgia. Some former Soviet States in Central Asia did, too, though all but one gradually slipped back to autocracy.

In that context, Arab Spring represented a second democratic burst—except it failed.

Tunisia was the Arab Spring pioneer. In December 2010,  a young vegetable salesman in Tunis set himself on fire after being humiliated by police. His suicide set off mass protests against the rule of Zine al-Abbedine Ben Ali. His police shot down about 340 protestors, but demonstrations persisted. Ben Ali fled within a month.

Tunisian parliamentary rule survived a decade of harsh political conflict, threats by Islamist fundamentalism and a pair of terrorist attacks. But for the past two years, a fractured parliament proved unable to deal with persistent economic problems and corruption. The coronavirus pandemic intensified hardship.

President Kais Saied, whose institutional role is normally limited to dissolving non-functioning legislatures, instead seized emergency powers for himself. Declaring himself public prosecutor, he authorized the arrest of least four dozen opposition politicians and ordered police to break up protests.

“President Saied’s reassurances on human rights sound hollow when he concentrates power in his own hands, parliamentarians and other Tunisians suddenly start facing arbitrary restrictions on their freedom, and some are packed off to prison,” wrote Eric Goldstein, a senior North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Last month, Saied, having declined to call parliament back into session, he named a new prime minister, reserve the right to name cabinet ministers and declared he would continue to rule by decree. Public protests broke out against his action, but so did street demonstrations in favor; the split society permitted him to carry on.


Sudan: Late to the democracy party, which had all but ended.

Unlike Tunisia, Sudan was a tail-end Arab Spring participant. In 2019, following large anti-government protests, the Sudanese army ousted President Omar al-Bashir, who had held in power for 30 years. The country suffered from common Middle East ills: poverty, unemployment and corruption. Civil wars were practically endemic during Bashar’s rule. Masses of demonstrators had revived the common r Arab Spring refrain: “The people demand the fall of the regime.”

After the army deposed Bashir, generals shared power with civilian leaders—until last month. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan broke up the civilian-military junta and arrested numerous pro-democracy politicians, while his soldiers shot down scores of protestors in the street. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and the entire civilian cabinet have been detained. Al-Burhan asserts that he wants to “rectify” Sudan’s journey to democracy.

Human Rights Watch thinks rectification should start with the end of military abuses. “The military authorities should instruct security forces to fully respect and protect the people’s right to protest and that any members using excessive force will be promptly held to account,” advised Mausi Segun, HRW Africa division director.

It is difficult to concoct a one-size-fits all explanation for the Arab Middle East’s return to autocracy. At a minimum, it represents a general failure of an assumption made in the 1990s: that free-market economies exported from the West would inevitably lead to sustained representative governments across the globe. Free elections were a focus but not development of independent courts. Nor military power nor corruption was reined in.

Also underestimated: the ability of ousted autocrats to make a comeback. The Egyptian army, for instance, self-styled as domestic defender of Egyptian society, connived to overthrow an inept, though elected, government in 2013. Bahrain, with Saudi Arabian help, put down democracy demonstrations in 2011 while Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad launched attacks on demonstrations and protests quickly morphed into a vicious civil war.

New democracies were also unable to overcome ethnic conflict and create national identities free from tribal and religious rivalries. Libya along with Lebanon and Iraq are sad examples. Each is  beset by foreign intervention that exploit indigenous divisions: Russia, Turkey and Egypt in Libya; Iran in Lebanon and Iraq.

Once worldwide promoters of democracy, the US and other Western powers have mildly criticized  the democratic backsliding Tunisia and more harshly in Sudan, but to no effect.

Perhaps the decline of democratic self-regard among prominent democracies explain the tepid responses to declines in democratic rule elsewhere. India”has for all practical purposes abandoned any pretense of upholding India’s constitutional commitment to the values of secularism, political pluralism, and intellectual freedom,” writes Šumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University. Poland and Hungary imposed partisan controls over courts in a way that has upset the European Union’s self-image of a community dedicated to liberal democracy. In the US, the world’s oldest republican democracy, politicians spend less time governing than arguing over which political party represents an existential threat to the country’s democratic order.

President Biden has directly denounced Sudan’s coup and withheld $700 in promised aid. But the generals in Khartoum may have reason to be unimpressed. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf Emirates, all autocracies friendly to the US,support the takeover. And Biden is soon to release $300 billion in aid to Egypt, despite Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s seizure of power and killing of 800 Muslim Brotherhood protesters in a single day in 2013.

Biden has been silent on Tunsia, perhaps in hopes Saied will reverse course. His State Department suggested only that the resolution to the crisis should be “based on the Tunisian constitution.” Saied insists his actions are constitutionally based, so what’s the problem?

China’s President Xi Jinping isn’t burdened by past democracy promotion. He preaches a leap to prosperity without the messiness of elections, debate and opposition and is disinterested in the internal governing of other countries.

Upheavals in Tunisia and Sudan hasn’t upset his vision. Tunisia has signed infrastructure deals with China under the Belt and Road Initiative, joined China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and none of that has been affected by the country’s turmoil. In Sudan, Chinese workers labor on infrastructure projects; their safety was the primary concern of Beijing’s statements about the coup.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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