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Afro-Arab Spring: Winter of discontent


Arab-SpringsLAST month marks the fifth anniversary of the “Afro-Arab Spring” in a region with a unique 30% youth unemployment. When an unemployed 26-year old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in frustration against government repression in December 2010 in the remote Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, his martyrdom triggered a political revolution that toppled autocratic leaders not just in Tunisia, but also in Egypt and Libya, even spreading the culture of protest to Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. Caught up in the euphoria of the Egyptian uprising a month later, United States (US) president, Barack Obama, praised the “moral force of non-violence” and reminisced about “Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice.” Within two years, autocratic rule had returned to Egypt; civil war had erupted in Libya; and Tunisia’s democracy was endangered by political assassinations and parliamentary gridlock. So, what had gone so horribly wrong?

Starting with Tunisia, the “Jasmine Revolution” of 2011 saw the electoral victory of Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party led by Rached Ghannouchi. As the political system teetered on the brink of disaster, a civil society coalition of labour, industry, human rights activists, and lawyers – which won the Nobel Peace Prize last year – eventually organised a national dialogue between October 2013 and January 2014 that resulted in national elections and a power-sharing deal between the secularist Nidas Tounes and Ennahda. Despite this remarkable achievement, the country suffered three high-profile terrorist attacks last year that killed over 70 people, including foreign tourists. Tunisia’s political system also remains riven with ideological and personal schisms, even as many members of the discredited ancien régime of the Ben Ali era have returned to power. The economy remains weak, with anaemic growth of 1.5 per cent and 15 per cent unemployment. Sporadic protests and strikes continue.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year autocracy was memorably ended by high-tech revolutionaries in Tahrir Square in February 2011. The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, in presidential elections – with a 52 per cent majority – in June 2012 was followed by a military coup d’état by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a year later. The putschists subsequently killed nearly 1000 Moslem Brotherhood supporters and arrested thousands of others. Obama refused to call this unconstitutional change of government a coup, employing political chicanery to ensure that the US did not halt its $1.5 billion annual support to the Egyptian army (as required by American law after a military coup). Al-Sisi’s repressive regime now exerts tremendous sway over the courts, universities, and media, leading The Economist to describe it as “cruel, arbitrary, and unaccountable.”

In October 2014, the New York Times had called for a halt to the delivery of $550 million worth of US tanks and fighter planes to Egypt, noting that the country was “in many ways more repressive than it was during the darkest periods of the reign of deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak”. The newspaper went on to note how al-Sisi had rigged an election; curbed demonstrations; muzzled the media and civil society; and reportedly used American-built tanks to shell civilian areas in Sinai. Al-Sisi’s grandiloquent opening of the $8 billion extended Suez Canal last year and plans to build a new $45 billion administrative capital are the clearest sign that he has now replaced Mubarak as the country’s new Pharaoh. The shadowy “deep state’s” influence has returned, and Mubarak and his jailed supporters have been freed. Amidst high unemployment, growing corruption, and a declining pound, the vital tourism sector, however, has seen a sharp drop from 15 million visitors in 2010 to 10 million in 2014.

Turning to Libya, Muammar Qaddafi had toppled King Idris in an act of regicide in 1969. His own 42-year old rule came to resemble the very monarchical system he had dislodged: the eccentric leader had himself crowned as the “King of Kings” by 200 traditional African rulers in a bizarre ceremony in Benghazi in August 2008. Qaddafi eventually came to symbolise the European monarchical idea of “l’état, c’est moi” (“I am the state”), but also the concept that Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko often repeated: “Après moi, le déluge!” (“After me, the flood!”). The chaos that Qaddafi predicted that only his presence could ward off has now come to pass. Following his assassination in his hometown of Sirte in October 2011, civil war has engulfed the country with warlords and their allies controlling rival parliaments in Tobruk and Tripoli. Despite the recent announcement of a United Nations (UN)-brokered unity government, hard-line groups, Islamic State (ISIL) and Ansar al-Sharia, continue to fuel this potent cocktail of violence, even as over 400,000 Libyans remain i

In summarising the lessons from these three North African countries, the political maturity of Tunisia’s political parties and its active civil society have been critical in maintaining its fragile democracy; Egypt exposed the dangers of relying on military brass hats to deliver democracy; while Libya provided a cautionary tale of how external meddlers – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) – can make a bad situation worse. The Afro-Arab Spring has tragically turned into a “Winter of Discontent.”

• Dr. Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa, and visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg.

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