Ten years ago, the Arab world was going to experience a series of improbable popular revolts, a powerful breath of freedom that lasted for months, before a dismal tomorrow. A historic event that has permanently changed the region.
Popularized and referenced in history books under the name of “Arab Spring”, the uprisings of the end of 2010 led to disparate results, often disappointing: many countries are in a worse situation than in the first days of these revolts.
From Tunisia to Yemen via Egypt, Libya or Syria, the popular, massive demonstrations were followed at best by precarious reforms, at worst by a return to an authoritarian order, even by endless conflicts. armed.
Despite these setbacks, the flame of this pro-democracy movement has not been extinguished, as evidenced by the second series of uprisings eight years later in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon.
The desperate act of Mohamed Bouazizi
Something “in the narrative reality” of the region has changed, says Lina Mounzer, a Lebanese author and translator whose history has also been woven in Egypt and Syria.
“I do not know what is more moving or more noble than a people who claim a dignified life, with one and the same voice”, she proclaims. “It proves that it is possible, that people can revolt against the worst despots, that there is enough courage […] to face entire armies. ”
It all began on December 17, 2010, when a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, overwhelmed by police harassment, set himself on fire in front of the governorate of the small underprivileged town of Sidi Bouzid, in central Tunisia.
The gesture of this young graduate is not a first, but his desperate act unleashes a rage never seen in Tunisia. His tragic fate is spreading on emerging social networks. Mohamed Bouazizi died of his wounds on January 4, 2011, as the protest against the regime of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, in power for 23 years, spread like wildfire.
Tunisian revolution: ten years later, the disillusionment of the inhabitants
Ten days later, Ben Ali becomes the first Arab despot forced to flee under pressure from the streets. Exiled in Saudi Arabia, he died there in indifference in 2019. In the weeks following his fall, pro-democracy demonstrations broke out in Egypt, Libya, Yemen …
From January 25, the rage expressed in the streets of Cairo, the largest Arab city, gives the phenomenon the name of “Arab Spring”. The world watches, taken aback, as hundreds of thousands of people march to demand the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981.
The hope and euphoria sent back by these images relayed in a loop on the news channels dispel the fatalism of political life in the Middle East for a time. Everything becomes possible.
Of Tunisian inspiration, an interjection – “Get out!” (“irhal!”) – and a slogan – “The people want the fall of the regime” (“Al-chaab yourid iskat al-nidham”) – are surging everywhere, reinforcing the feeling of a common regional destiny.
Ten years later, return to Sidi Bouzid, epicenter of the Tunisian revolution
These words sum up the powerful desire for change and freedom among tens of millions of Arabs. It is the cry of a generation which until then ignored its own capacities. Erected as an incantation by dint of being repeated, it liberates peoples from their fears for a time.
A new paradigm is emerging in the Middle East, based on a collective awareness that tyrants are not invincible and that changes can come from within, and not just from the global geopolitical game.
Lina Mounzer remembers the first days of these revolts which shattered the feeling of “Arab defeat” which weighed on two generations after the death of the Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser and his pan-Arab nationalist project.
“The night Mubarak fell, I cried with joy. I couldn’t believe the Egyptian people could be so brave and beautiful. It felt like the dawn of a new era,” recalls the author. “And then, Syria. If I was happy for Egypt, surprised by Egypt, I was ecstatic for Syria.”
Besides Ben Ali and Mubarak, the Arab Spring made it possible to overthrow Muammar Kadhafi in Libya, Ali Abdallah Saleh in Yemen and, eight years later, Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. Five dictators and one hundred and forty-six years of rule in total.
During the first months of this historic upheaval, the domino effect seemed as inevitable as the Arab autocrats seemed untouchable.
But the long-awaited “Spring” will fizzle out. Ironically, the expression “Arab Spring”, which appeared at the end of January 2011, has only rarely been used in the countries of the region, where the terms “uprising” and “revolution” have been preferred.
In any case, this expression quickly gave rise to an opposite expression, put forward in the work of the American Noah Feldman: “Arab Winter” (“The Arab Winter”). With the exception of Tunisia, the vacuum created by the fall of vilified regimes has not been filled by the democratic reforms demanded by the streets. Worse, it has sometimes given rise to armed conflicts.
In Egypt, the election in 2012 of Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist whose program runs up against fierce opposition from some of the protesters, paves the way for his overthrow the following year by the army. And a bloody crackdown.
Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is reestablishing a regime at least as authoritarian as that of Mubarak, setting itself up as a bulwark against Islamism under the benevolent eye of a confused and overwhelmed West.
In Bahrain, the only Gulf monarchy to have experienced mass protests in 2011, the uprising was brutally suppressed with the support of Saudi Arabia, which for its part did not hesitate to distribute money en masse to its population to avoid contagion.
At the other end of the region, the first demonstrations in Algeria, a country bruised by civil war, did not take – its time will come in 2019. In Morocco, the movement of February 20, 2011 was silenced by cosmetic reforms and a secret judicial repression.
In Libya, revolutionaries have split into a myriad of groups in a country more fragmented than ever and prone to foreign interference. Yemen, the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, is engulfed in a civil conflict with regional ramifications.
In Syria, “it’s your turn, Doctor”
But the grave of the Arab Spring will remain Syria, where pro-democracy protests have turned into a ruthless conflict. “It’s your turn, Doctor,” wrote teenagers from Daraa in March 2011 on a wall in this southern Syrian town, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist trained in the United Kingdom.
Pious wish: Assad will remain the domino who does not fall, at the cost of a merciless struggle, thus saving his skin at the expense of more than 380,000 dead and millions of displaced persons.
“I am proud of what we did at the time, but I never thought that we would come to this, that the regime would destroy us like that”, declared in 2018 to AFP one of the graffiti artists of Daraa, Mouawiya Sayasina.
Here, the turn of events and international inaction open the doors to another hell: endless repression, confessional hatred which is spreading, a breeding ground where jihadists from Syria and elsewhere thrive. The expansion of the jihadists reached its peak with the proclamation in 2014 by the Islamic State (IS) group of a “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq, almost as large as Great Britain.
The extreme violence of the atrocities, propagated on social networks, the capacity of the IS to attract thousands of fighters from Europe and elsewhere and the waves of attacks around the world have finished to extinguish the West enthusiastic about the beginnings.
The world’s attention is focused on the fight against terrorism rather than on the end of autocratic regimes which are not long in coming forward once again as the last bulwark against radical Islamism.
Second wave of protests in 2018
Since 2018, a second wave of protests against the powers that be in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon have rekindled hopes and seemed to prove the persistence of the spirit of 2011 among Arab youth.
For Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, based in Great Britain where he is a professor at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, the fire is still smoldering under the ashes and the initial claims “will overflow at the next opportunity like a political tsunami”. “The people of the region have set new standards […] governance “.” Any State that does not integrate this new reality is necessarily confronted with [à la menace d’un nouveau soulèvement]”, he adds.
Irreversible changes are deepening their furrows.
It is the perception of leaders, of the world but also of oneself that has changed forever, according to Lina Mounzer.
“We have lived so long in a world that has tried to instill in us the idea that the collective is suspect and that individualism is synonymous with freedom. It is not,” she says. “This is what the Arab Spring, in its idealistic beginnings, not only taught us but confirmed […]. What we do with this lesson – bury it or build on it – remains to be seen. “
Tunisia, “exception of the regional phenomenon that it has generated”
As such, the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia, although tormented, remains the success story. Bloodshed and deep divisions have been contained, the Islamist-inspired movement Ennahdha, the country’s main political force, has favored consensus to lead the transition.
“Contrasting with the failure in Egypt and the disaster in Syria, Tunisia appears to be the exception of the regional phenomenon that it spawned,” writes Noah Feldman in “The Arab Winter”.
But, here too, the story remains unfinished and for the 11 million Tunisians, the dividends of the revolt are not there.
Near where it all began, in front of the central square of Sidi Bouzid where a sculpture of Mohamed Bouazizi’s cart was erected, Achref Ajmi, 21, expresses his disenchantment.
Ben Ali is gone, the country has remained standing, but the economic situation, one of the main catalysts of the revolt, remains mediocre, he notes. “The slogan of the revolution was’ work, freedom, dignity ‘. We haven’t seen any of it.’ “There are no jobs”.