The Arab Spring Nine Years On


December 2, 2019

The Arab Spring began on December 17, 2010 in Tunisia as street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the arbitrary seizing of his vegetable stand by police. Mass protests forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to resign in January 2011, after 23 years in power and go into exile in Saudi Arabia.

In February 2011, mass protests forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign after three decades in power.

Libya‘s uprising began in February 2011 after security forces in the eastern city of Benghazi opened fire on a protest. On 18 March 2011, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 which demanded immediate ceasefire and an end to all violence; authorized member states to take all necessary measures to protect civilians while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory. The next day, a conference in Paris, held under French, British and US leadership, decided to start air operations against Gaddafi’s forces “to protect the civilians”. Within hours air strikes began. It soon became clear that the purpose was regime change. Gaddafi had been in power for more than four decades.

Yemen‘s President Ali Abdullah Saleh was the fourth Arab leader to be forced from power. Demonstrations calling for the end of his 33-year rule began in January 2011 and forced him to hand over power to his deputy Hadi. On March 25, 2015, Saudi Arabia launched “Operation Decisive Storm”. The West supported the intervention.

In Syria, protests began in the southern city of Deraa in March 2011. By July 2011, thousands of people across the country were attending protests demanding President Assad’s resignation. Protests paved the way for external meddling and proxy wars.

Of these five countries, Tunisia remains Arabs’ and broad Middle East’s only hope for democratic evolution. In Egypt, the army overthrew President Morsi in July 2013.   A year later, former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi won the presidential election. Today, Egypt is under authoritarian rule but it has avoided violent internal conflict.

The other three countries, namely Libya, Yemen and Syria were the subject of external military interventions.

Today, Libya is a failed state. The UN warned in September that escalating violence and a deepening humanitarian crisis in Libya is pushing the country closer toward a return to the full-scale civil war that overthrew of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Yemen is home to world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

And, Syria’s proxy war has devastated the country and its people.

And, even before the Arab spring, Iraq had been the subject of an invasion and remains unstable to say the least.

Thus, after nine years, the question “what if external powers had not interfered?” becomes relevant. Would these three countries have been better or worse off without external interventions? Surely, left to their own devices, they would not have emerged as democracies, but they could have avoided some of the devastation, nonetheless. And, the West might have avoided the emergence of ISIS and a divisive immigration problem.

President Macron has been among the vocal critics of Turkey’s incursion in Syria. In his interview with The Economist where he mentioned NATO’s “brain death”; he complained that NATO was not consulted before the incursion. The misguided rational and consequent failures of Turkey’s Syria policy aside, one may remind him that NATO was involved in the Libya intervention under Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR and the result has still been disaster. In reality, this was a Sarkozy-led intervention, had an internal politics dimension and its failure was openly admitted later by President Obama. In the same Economist interview Mr. Macron himself said, “…We’ve sometimes made mistakes by wanting to impose our values, by changing regimes, without popular support. It’s what happened in Iraq or in Libya…” He is right about having made mistakes but his reference to values lacks sincerity. The Libya intervention was not about values.

Yesterday, leader of the British opposition Jeremy Corbyn said:

 “I was also one of the few in parliament who warned against the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011.

“Britain should not have joined that conflict which has created a vast ungoverned space, contributed to misery in the region and made us less safe at home.” [i]

After almost a decade of Arab spring, Western countries involved in Libya’s, Yemen’s and Syria’s proxy wars need to look at their policies and do some soul searching.

They should admit that their interventions were never about democracy, human rights and freedoms but replacing unfriendly regimes with friendly ones or at least debilitating them. If this were the mission, it has been accomplished through the weakening of Iraq and destruction of Syria, the two countries which have historically constituted the Arab core.

West’s regional allies must also give some thought to what has transpired in the Middle East during the past decade, admit their failures, first and foremost among them their incompetence at working together in the face of a multitude of external and internal challenges.

As for Turkey, Ankara misread the Arab spring. Soon it found itself in a Syria labyrinth which later evolved into a Middle East one. As a result, we are struggling with loss of direction.

Early this year, widespread demonstrations in Algeria showed that majority of the people were disenchanted with the ruling elite. And, they forced President Bouteflika to resign in April. Some called it the “re-blossoming of the Arab spring”. In recent months, disenchanted Iraqis took to the streets. Iraq’s prime minister has finally resigned but hundreds have lost their lives in clashes with the security forces. The people of Lebanon are also staging protests. Hopefully, these calls for democracy, accountability and end to corruption will not again fall on the deaf ears of those who are only interested in perpetuating their power.

With the benefit of hindsight, the West should refrain from new overt/covert interventions but give unreserved political and economic support to Tunisia’s fledgling democracy because all the Middle East needs is one, just one success story.




About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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