An images of figures protesting in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring.
Protesters hold Egyptian flags in Tahrir Square. Credit: AK Rockefeller / Flickr Credit: AK Rockefeller / Flickr

In 2011, a new era unfolded across countries in North Africa and the Middle East. It started in Tunisia, and moved quickly to embrace Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya. Dictators were falling; crowds were chanting in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa, Khartoum, Tripoli, Damascus and Manama, demanding the departure of the dictators.

Growing up in Tunis under two repressive regimes, those of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, I was excited to watch these changes happening. From Canada, I followed them closely. I strongly supported and believed in the clear message of democratic change.

For years, I heard and refused the messages being repeated to Arab populations by their own dictators and some of their Western allies: “Arabs and Muslims are not ready for democracy” or “there are only two alternatives to choose from: dictatorship or terrorism.” I staunchly refused these defeatist and Orientalist messages and dreamed of a better future.

Arab Spring turns into Arab Winter

Unfortunately, in the years following 2011, the Arab Spring slowly turned into what some qualified as the Arab Winter. It started with Bahrain, a small Gulf monarchy, where the protesters who asked for more political and economic rights came to be portrayed and demonized as a Shia (a branch of Islam that makes up the majority of the population in that country) uprising against the ruling Sunni family.

What constituted legitimate political demands were presented in several Arab media through narrow sectarian lenses as an attempt to overthrow the regime. It ended with the Bahraini government violently repressing the protesters with the support of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Peninsula Shield Force, heavily armed and equipped by the U.S. and other Western countries, including Canada.

In Syria, the demands of a few young protesters asking for more freedom and rights were met with repression and brutality by the Bashar al-Assad regime. It was described in pro-government media as an American-Zionist conspiracy conducted on the ground by terrorist Islamic groups.

In Yemen, at the end of January 2011, voices like Tawakkol Karmen, who later received the Nobel Peace Prize for her political activism, called for a day of rage in the streets of Sanaa. She explained the reasons for the uprising against the regime, stating:

“[A] combination of a dictatorship, corruption, poverty and unemployment has created this revolution. It’s like a volcano. Injustice and corruption are exploding while opportunities for a good life are coming to an end.”

However, after some initial gains made by the protesters and political activists, who were asking for the departure of the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, a civil war slowly crept into Yemen with the blessing and funding of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It became a proxy war between these two gulf monarchies and Iran, all fighting for strategic geopolitical gains in the region.

In Libya, the fall and killing of Muammar Khadafi, who for years killed and disappeared his political opponents in horrible prisons, was considered by some Libyans as a hopeful moment closing a dark chapter of Libyan history. After parliamentary elections in 2014, the country spiralled into civil war with military factions supported by Egypt and other foreign countries, which saw democratic change in Libya as threats to their own economic interests. Egypt didn’t want democracy at its borders and considered Libya, at least the eastern part of it, as an extension of its own territory.

In Syria, a somewhat similar scenario happened. A civil war broke out between the military forces of Assad and military groups supported by countries like the U.S., Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE. In 2015, military aid and intervention obtained by the Assad regime from Russia made the balance tilt in his favour.

The killing, torture and expulsion of millions of Syrians who lived in cities that refused Assad rule was legitimized under the pretense of the war against terror. This doesn’t mean that some terrorist groups, like ISIS, were not active on the ground and didn’t commit violence. But what the regime did was carry out state-sponsored terrorism that affected and displaced millions of people still suffering today in refugee camps across northern Syria, Turkey and Jordan.

In Egypt, the situation didn’t reach civil war, but it was still catastrophic for those who dreamed of democracy. A few years after the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak, free elections were held and brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, with Mohamed Morsi elected as president. The economic and political instability that ensued made this experience short lived. In 2013, a military coup ousted the president and installed military reign again.

I don’t have the time nor enough expertise to comment on each country specifically. The geopolitical specifics of some countries that I gave as examples here have to be taken into consideration.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that, like the domino effect that during the uprisings encouraged people to take to the streets, suppressing their fear and demanding freedom, there was a domino effect in the opposite direction. It was supported financially and militarily by countries to stop the Arab Spring, fund counterrevolutions and push it to its death.

The role of Gulf monarchies

It is not a secret that monarchies in the Gulf region were the first to support repression against demonstrations in Bahrain. Until recently (before a new peace agreement brokered by China was announced between Iran and Saudi Arabia), Saudi Arabia and the UAE supported a bloody war in Yemen, a country with one of the poorest populations in the Arab world, to settle scores with Iran, considered to be their political, economic and religious competitor in the region. The same countries played an important role in the 2013 military coup in Egypt and the restoration of a military dictatorship with Abdel Fattah al Sissi as president.

Tunisia, where the first spark of the Arab Spring started, unfortunately is also the country that put the last nail in its coffin. On July 25, 2021, a self-coup was conducted by the democratically elected president, Kais Saied. He threw away the 2014 constitution that was written and voted on after the Arab Spring. He suspended parliament and dissolved all democratic institutions, which were fragile but still considered great achievements of the Arab Spring. President Saied grabbed all of the power and gradually arrested all his serious political opponents, from the left to the right of the spectrum. Even the relative freedom of expression that emerged through the years is today being threatened, with journalists being arrested and laws instituted by decree about misinformation.

The recent arrest of Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda, the Islamist party that formed the majority parliamentary bloc for years after the first free elections held post Arab Spring, is symbolic. It marks the persistence of democracy, and those who represented it, being demonized.

That arrest coincided with the first official visit of the Syrian foreign minister to Tunisia, where he was welcomed by the president. It was an unambiguous message to silence those who in 2011 asked for the departure of all dictators, whether in Tunis or Damascus. Worse still, Bashar al-Assad is being rehabilitated among many countries of the Arab League. It is another tragic and chilling message to their populations: if a dictator kills his own people “fighting against terrorism,” then he can be forgiven.

In the years after the Arab Spring, Tunisia remains the only country that seems to have refrained from violence and civil fighting, despite its failing democracy. Alas, the populism engulfing Tunisia and a decade-long democratic transition has made many nostalgic for the repressive era, when they didn’t have to think much to choose political opinions and when relative economic stability gave the false impression that prosperity is associated with repression.

I still think that democracy is possible, but the presence and influence of regimes like Saudi Arabia and the UAE makes any democratic attempt in the neighbouring Arab Muslim countries almost impossible. They are led by wealthy, ruthless rulers who don’t allow any real opposition to their power, who imprison and kill opponents, and who pretend to have hegemony on religious institutions and interpretations.

That doesn’t absolve all the politicians in these countries, who unsuccessfully tried the democratic route, from their own internal disagreements and serious mistakes. However, it remains fair to say that the precarity of the democratic transition, combined with counterrevolutionary forces supported by longtime dictators in the region, conspired to kill the Arab Spring.

Monia Mazigh

Monia Mazigh

Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured...