Five Years after the Arab Spring: What Went Wrong?


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Five Years after the Arab Spring:

What went wrong?

Anne Alexander *

Ali Al Fayez****

The Spring of 2011 was a unique one in the recent history of the Middle East. As the people were approaching the point of despair in their struggle to change the Arab political system, their emotions and passion for change erupted following dramatic events in Tunisia. For a while the moment of change appeared to have finally arrived. Suddenly the youth found themselves at the heart of a revolutionary process that would end the reign of dictatorship dominating the Arab World. Five years later, those hopes appear to have faded away. What happened? Who was behind the counter-revolution that successfully disrupted the process of revolutionary change? Where do Arab people go from here?


Chairman: We are discussing the Arab spring and what went wrong. I think when the whole movement was taking place in the Middle East everyone was very excited. Everyone felt that perhaps a new page in history was going to be written. Perhaps something was written but it sort of got destroyed very rapidly. That has been the whole tragedy of it that the powers that be have  come back to hound the people that participated in the change that needed to happen in the Middle East. It appears that five years on things are worse than they were. Killings have been taking place in all places whether it is Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen. In all cases there seem to be great crises. Today we have a line up  very good speakers to discuss  the Arab spring.


Anne Alexander: Thank you very much for the invitation to come and speak to you today. I am speaking as somebody who  is a researcher, a journalist and a writer. I am not from the region myself. I am from a British background. I am someone who was deeply affected by the events of 2011. After a long history of engagement with the countries of the Middle East I was luckily enough to study Arabic as an  undergraduate student and first went to Egypt in the 1990s. So what I am saying to you today is connected to my research and my work but it  has also affected me very deeply and very personally.


I would like to look back at where the revolutions of 2011 came from and I would use the word revolutions in the context of many of the popular uprisings that took place in the region without claiming they were successful revolutions. There is a debate going on about this question at the moment. Did anything happen at all? Were they just minor blip in the weary round of authoritarian regimes?


I think it is very important that we hold on to how much of a change 2011 was and that it represented the entry of millions of people consciously and openly into attempting to shape their own destiny in a way that had not been seen on a global scale  in such large numbers. People went out onto the street to protest, to take part in demonstrations and do all sorts of organising in very creative ways to voice the demands across the region for very basic things like bread and social justice. These were the main demands in Egypt. There were variations on this for human dignity and so on. They all had this common theme.


Those slogans are important  because they link back to the roots of 2011 and there are two of them, two basic well springs from which this huge enormous uprising took place. One of them is related to the question of freedom, the question of the way in which the regimes of the region – whether they happen to call themselves monarchies, or republics, a number of those republics are turning themselves into monarchies and handing power down the generations  from  Mubarak to Mubarak to from Assad to Assad. There was a common theme to all them of being very brutal, authoritarian regimes which actually offered very little space for any dissent, any freedom of expression, any self organisation by ordinary people outside of the state in so far as it went  into the realms of political life.


The other side was a common theme throughout the whole of the region and  something  that alienated the  strikes and alienated the protests – it was the question of social justice. It was the question of the implementation of newly bought policies largely but often in the context of regimes that were bringing in policies of privatisation and  austerity and  of fitting their economies to the needs of regional and global markets but leaving behind the needs of ordinary people across the region.


Particularly  the processes of neo liberal reforms intensified the gap between the rich and poor, intensified  how a very small number of people across the region benefitted from being better connected to the global economy. It was out of that tension,  out of the way people could see it staring them in the face the way in which their societies were both unequal and unfree. This was the basis of the massive popular movements that arose. That is why the Arab spring had such a global echo.


It is not an accident that the slogans that were raised in Tahrir Square were taken up immediately in Wisconsin in the US. The connection between the struggles that were going on in the Middle East, the demands that were being raised for a change in the way society was organised even if they were very vague and uninformed demands in the form of general slogans  had an echo that fed into all sorts of movements.


So if you look at the waves of revolutionary uprisings that occurred in 2011 starting in Tunisia with the fall of Ben Ali on January 14th 2011 and then sweeping the region over the next few months they also inspired mass movements in Spain and were an inspiration for the occupy movement in the USA and also had a massive global effect down into Africa.  They put fear into regimes across the world. The Chinese government banned mentions of any of the countries of the Middle East on social media.


In Zimbabwe the regime there cracked down on a small group of activists who happened to be watching a video about the uprising in Egypt and tried to put them in jail for years. They were so terrified that people in Zimbabwe might take inspiration from the  uprisings. I think that is because the roots of the uprising were connected to these very deep rooted causes.


I would argue that if you look at the dynamics of the uprisings, the way in which in particular revolution spread from country to country and why it was that in some countries there were early successes particularly in Tunisia and Egypt and why it was that the revolution in Syria did not manage to make so much headway. You also have to look at the connection between the democratic and social demands that were being raised and the organisation of the ordinary people who were the driving force behind the massive protests and the mass movements of 2011.  We have to look at how those connected together in different and specific contexts.


So while the major slogans and demands were often very similar throughout the region they worked out in different ways because the societies themselves were different and the political context and the situation was different in each country.


So if  you look at  Tunisia and Egypt you can see an interaction between democratic and social demands and between forms of organisation from below and collective action being organised by groups of people who were taking up the issues of the unemployed workers. Lawyers played a big part in organising. One of the key elements in the Tunisian case was the role of the trade union movement. The trade union federation is a very powerful actor in Tunisian society. It is one of the bodies that helped to set up the modern Tunisian state. It was one of the organisations that was involved in fighting for independence from colonialism. It was actually through the trade union movement itself, through the federation, through the general strikes that were organised first at a regional level and were then forced on the leadership of the federation by the lower ranking activists and members who demanded a general strike at the national level.


The day the general strike happened the dictator Ben Ali decided to flee leaving the country. So in the case of Tunisia you had demands that actually started in the  Tunisian case around the issues of social justice. The  spark  that lit the fire was the suicide of the young man who was refused work and was so marginalised that he could  see no hope. That echoed with many  people. But it was actually groups of organised workers through their trade union that played a decisive role in turning that into a blow against the regime that was unstoppable.


In the case of Egypt again there is an interaction between the more democratic and political demands and the social demands. The trade union federation there was essentially an arm of the state and the driving force  behind the workers movement was more independent organisations. Up until 2011 and the revolution there were only a very small number of independent trade unions in Egypt. The first were only founded a couple of years before the revolution. Millions of workers have gone on strike and have organised at a workplace level demanding better pay, better conditions, a right to organise and so on. That played an important role in unsettling, fracturing and breaking down the mechanisms of authoritarian  control over Egyptian society.


So one of the critical moments actually in the uprising of 2011 was on 1st February. People may remember and have seen on the  television screen when the Mubarak regime organised thugs to go and break up the sit-in Tahrir Square. It is called the battle of the camel and people would have seen pictures of a guy on a camel coming in. That was  not the plan. They had to bring in the guy on the camel and the thugs because they could not get the trade unionists to do it.


The people that Mubarak turned to first were Hussein Mugawa and the leaders of the Egyptian trade union federation and asked them to mobilise people. Mugawa and his cronies attempted to do this and failed. The reason they failed was because millions of ordinary Egyptian workers outside of the trade union structure had been organising themselves and they did not want to have anything to do with the plan to smash up the protests. Many of them were in the square organising actively and organising strikes.


Following the battle of the  camel and the failure to crush the uprising there was a wave of strikes that started spontaneously to crescendo over the following month. The point about the strikes was that they were not necessarily organised to an organised connection to the revolutionary movement that was  developing inside the square. Actually that connection was relatively weak. It made the country ungovernable. It meant that the military was faced with a very stark choice of should they let the movement deepen they risk letting it spread to the lower  ranks of the army, should they risk the Suez canal and the railways coming to a halt or should they step in and force Mubarak to leave in order to give themselves a breathing space which is essentially what they do.


I mentioned Syria a minute ago. I would argue that in the case of Syria one of the  things that handicapped the development of the popular uprising in Syria was actually that it started largely in smaller provincial towns and was unable to make a break through in the major urban centres. It went to the suburbs of Damascus for example but was not able to mobilise mass numbers in the city centres or to really break down the hold of  regime over the trade unions in quite the same way as happened in Egypt. This is not due to some massive difference between Egyptian and Syrian societies. It was more to do with the nature and character of the regimes themselves.


In the Egyptian case before the revolution there had been opposition activists and trade unionists and a wide range of people successfully created a space in which they could organise. In the case of Syria there was very little opportunity to do that before the uprising broke out under the pressure from the rest of the region.


In the Syrian case the dynamic of revolution was much slower and took on a different character. It is arguable that because it was not able to make such immediate gains very quickly and bring the country to a complete standstill this facilitated the regime’s very brutal response which was then to go city by city, encircle and use starvation sieges, the most brutal means – artillery barrages and so on to try and beat people into submission.


The courage and resilience of the activists in Syria from town after town  who defied the regime to raise their demands for democratic change and social justice is really inspiring but unfortunately they were not able to bring the revolution there to the same degree of early success that happened in Egypt.


If you look at Egypt today sadly it is not true that the revolution managed to continue. It essentially stalled in 2012 and 2013. In 2013 you saw the launch of an absolutely vicious counter revolution led by the military with   the support of other regimes in the region – particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE and other regimes from the Gulf and with the tacit and not so tacit support of the British and the US government and other Western governments.


Now I want to discuss what it was that the counter revolution revealed to us about the problems that were facing the revolutionary wave. There were two sets of problems that came up. The first one was a very pressing question: it was the question of what you should do about the structures of the state. This was raised in a very concrete way in the case of Egypt where you had the Muslim Brotherhood which came into office but not into power as a result of the first parliamentary elections and then presidential elections in 2011 – 2012 and then were ejected from power in 2013 and faced an absolutely brutal crack down ever since.


The reason why I posed this question is that the problem that faced the Muslim Brotherhood when they were in government was the fact that the structures of the old state remained very much in place. The Ministry of the Interior was not reformed, the army was completely untouched. The judiciary, although there was a battle within the judiciary, the people who were in support of reforming the judiciary ended up excluded and  it was key figures from the old regime’s judges  who led the charge against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.


Although there was a space for openings with the independent media to begin to flourish the structures of the state media did not change. The core of this was the role of the army and interior ministry. One of the criticisms that could be put forward of the Muslim Brotherhood when they were in Egypt was that they did not take on this question. When faced with the Ministry of the Interior they attempted to work  with the army. They were in  a difficult position.


But if you are  talking about how to turn the hopes of 2011 – 2012 into real changes in the state this would have to come up fairly squarely the question of how could real change be affected in the structures of that state. It poses the question in order to achieve those hopes of 2011 – 2012 do you need a different kind of state.


I want to look at other problems that came up- those of neo liberalism. The reforms that were being pushed through (economic reforms, privatisation, austerity and the restructuring of markets and production in the region) left behind the interests of ordinary people. This was a global process. So it was not just the problem for Egyptian revolutionary activists or those who wanted to see reform and genuine  change in Egypt. They faced the local counter revolutionaries and those who were directed and partly funded by the Gulf states such as  Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. And it was backed up by Western governments which had professed such a great belief in democracy.


If you look at the nexus that emerges around the counter revolution, if you look at the economic conference in Egypt around a year ago you see that the British government stands very firmly in that camp. It is interested in strengthening those. This again points to the hopeful side of 2011  where I began was the way in which the demands that were raised across the region were seen to be part of something the global movement that ordinary people across the world stood in solidarity with people in Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia when they went into the streets and demanded change during the revolutions.


If we are looking forward it has to be a question of how we can strengthen those connections between people who are fighting for democracy and social justice in the region with people in Europe, North America and elsewhere in the world who share those goals and aspirations.


Ali Fayez: The Bahraini people have been struggling politically, trying to push for a democratic inclusive political system for almost a century now. There have been projects and movements attempting to achieve real democratic transformations before, during and after British colonial rule. The 1973 Bahraini constitution was drafted and agreed upon after supposed withdrawal of Britain from Bahrain in 1971. This constitution formed the base for rule of law and people’s representation in Parliament. However, it was repealed in 1975, the Parliament was dissolved and emergency security law was adopted. This was a decision made mainly by the appointed Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who is still in his position since that time.


In 1994, national political leaders from different background and ideology signed a petition calling for the end of emergency security law, returning the 1973 constitution and the return of parliament. But the leaders were punished with maximum brutality, many protesters were killed, hundreds were imprisoned and others including political leaders forced into exile, and a British ex security man, named Ian Henderson, led the crackdown.


In 1999, the earlier ruler (emir), Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, died and his elder son, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, took over as new (emir). And in 2001 decided to initiate what is known today as the “national action charter” to transform Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy where the people are the source of all powers and to put the 1973 constitution back in action. It was a vague initiative, which caused religious clerics, political leaders and activist to raise many questions. However, it was supported by 98.4% of the nation, done so in a good faith after the ruler and his family gave written and oral promises.


However, in 2002 the ruler drafted a new constitution and enforced it, neglecting the nation, again appointing Khalifa bin Salam Al Khalifa as PM, and designing a parliament which he can drive and manipulate at will. The opposition – except for a few members – attempted to go ahead to reform from within, but was unable to achieve anything for 10 years.


In 2011, the people having witnessed the depths of Al Khalifa regime’s tyranny and their approach to all political demands, decided to rise up against the regime. The successes of Tunisia and Egypt Arab Spring revolution in overthrowing the dictators, along with promising world support for democratic change persuaded the Bahraini people to go ahead. It was now time for our people to achieve the 100-year objective: to have an inclusive democratic political system that is based on one-man one-vote, rule of law, drafting of new constitution, and forming a democratic state to end dictatorship once and for all.

The Bahraini people peacefully protested and voiced their demands, which was again faced by violent crackdown by the Al-Khalifa regime to silence the nation.

To worsen the situation, a counter-revolution movement lead by Saudi Arabia commenced in Bahrain to completely breakdown the uprising, or to change its direction to a sectarian violent movement, and paint it as a foreign agenda movement. Saudi Arabia employed military force, political power and media campaign as a way of doing this. They forcefully entered the country in 2011 as ‘peninsula shield force’, breaking international norms and breaching Bahrain’s sovereignty, and used military force to violently breakdown peaceful protests and pursue Bahraini activists.

This whole movement by the Saudis was not necessary and barbaric, including  the destruction of 38+ mosque and the deployment of an army across the whole of Bahrain, as the protests in Bahrain were neither violent nor threatening the region’s security or stability. It was solely the Bahraini people demanding peaceful and democratic change in Bahrain.

The Saudi occupation of Bahrain was allowed to go ahead after the US Defense Secretary visited Bahrain, and NATO wanted support from GCC to attack Libya.

During this time, Britain sends experts to help implement BICI recommendations (November 2011). This help caused more violent crackdowns on the people and activists, and Britain took this step to gain a chance to build a naval base in Bahrain. It is unsurprising that the Foreign Secretary of Britain, Phillip Hammond, states that Bahrain is moving “towards the right direction” despite reports by international human rights organisations stating the political and human rights is going backwards. Such statements by Britain allow the authorities to have a stronger grip on power in the country and avoid the pressure of UN HRC and human rights orgnisations.

We believe that the ultimate responsibility fell on the West, particularly on UK regarding Bahrain, who are the key supporters of the counter-revolution led by the Saudis.

Unfortunately, all values of democracy and human rights promoted by the UK were abandoned for their interests in the Gulf.


The demands of the people were put behind economic, military and political interests, leading to bloodshed, delaying of change, and inflaming and fueling sectarian and terror activities.


But the Bahraini people have not lost sight of their peaceful aims and can be seen until today steadfast with their opposition project. The Bahraini people have not resorted to violence nor have they brought in foreign entities to assist them – preferring peaceful protests and dialogue that are in line with their principles, values and democratic aims. Contrary with the Al Khalifa regime who have no solution but violence, nor their allies who help them by politically shielding their crimes.


The west must understand that a marriage between dictatorship and Wahhabism ideology has produced terrorism. Support of such dictatorships might secure some short-term economic interests; however, it will eventually backfire and jeopardize long-term interests, similar in fashion to the terrorist attack in Paris a few months ago.



*Anne Alexander is the editor of Middle East Solidarity magazine, a writer, and an activist who has published widely on the Arab Revolutions. She is co-author with Mostafa Bassiouny of Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution (Zed Books, 2014). Anne recently published a series of articles on the rise of ISIS which can be read online and

The focus of her research is on leadership, collective action and social movements in the Middle East She has a particular interest in Egypt, Iraq and Syria post-1945 and labour movements across the region.



****Ali Al Fayez is a political activist and member of Bahrain’s Opposition Block in UK. He witnessed the unfolding of the 14th February Revolution and was regular participant at the Pearl Roundabout. He left Bahrain after the Saudis sent their troops in mid-March 2011 to crush the Revolution. He had studied Marketing and Management and worked with various companies in this field. He had been detained by Bahrain’s notorious security forces, headed by Ian Henderson in the nineties. He endured severe torture and abuse.

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