Down but not out: Can the Arab Spring (up)rise again?

By Yizhar Be’er (Translated from Hebrew by Miriam Erez)


Three years after the Arab Spring, the youth of the revolution sound worried, fearful and fatigued. Yizhar Be’er reports from a regional gathering in Amman

In December 2011, as the Arab Spring aroused sky-high expectations, I published my impressions of a conference organized by Mediterranean countries held in Tangier. The important guests at the conference were young activists from Arab countries who bore the struggle on their shoulders. This week, three years later, and with barely a rustle, another gathering was held in Amman. This time, however, the activists sounded worried, fearful, fatigued, and with wings clipped. Those who had spoken openly and joyfully in Tangier sought to remain anonymous and keep a low profile in Amman. This too is a consequence of the chasms we see across the Arab world in 2014.

Let’s begin in Tunisia. Tunisia is the trailblazer of the Arab Spring, and the only Arab country wherein there is a chance of institutionalizing another sort of politics – where there is still a genuine attempt to create a parliamentary system that acts as an alternative to the old regime. In Tunisia’s first free elections after the deposing of President Ben Ali, the Islamic Nahada party won the majority, even after two assassinations of liberal candidates. Somehow a delicate balance between secularism and religion was reached. [Editor’s note: Tunisians recently went to the polls once again, and elected the liberal, secular Nida Tunis party to form the new government].

Since the revolution, buds of civil society have begun to sprout in Tunisia. For example, no fewer than 17,000 registered non-profits have been founded in the country (similar to the number of non-profits in Israel). Until recently, those same organizations enjoyed generous support from the West, which was amazed at the “spring breeze” that has begun to blow in Tunisia. This influx of money has also brought with it corruption, and now with the honeymoon phase over and the international community’s attention turning to other affairs, the donations have slowed to a trickle, leaving social affairs non-profits floundering and turning to the government for assistance.

At the same time, Tunisians are groaning under the weight of waves of immigration from neighboring Libya. The Libyans, in contrast to the Tunisians, did not succeed in institutionalizing a different kind of politics after deposing Muammar Qadafi. As in Iraq, the country that was once united under the iron fist of a tyrant is now splintered into tribes.

Two million Libyans are pouring into Tunisia’s streets and cities. Besides suffering from the rising cost of living, Tunisians are now wailing under the predation of the immigrants. The paranoid Qadafi, fearing an American invasion, issued orders to uproot all road signs in Libya, which he believed would confuse the potential invaders, preventing them from reaching their target. Qadafi, however, did not expect his end to come precisely on one of those unmarked desert roadways, inside a sewer pipe. In the meantime, a new generation of Libyans has come of age, one that knows not of road signs, compelling Tunisians to take extra precaution while doing something as simple as crossing the street.

As for Libya, D. of Beirut tells of a delegation of Qadafi supporters from Lebanon that was invited to meet with the ruler during his last days in power. The delegation members waited for six days in a Tripoli hotel until a bus came to pick them up. After a journey of a few hours, they boarded a plane, and five hours later landed somewhere in the desert. Next they boarded a bus that traveled a perilous route to a tent in the desert, where they were received by Qadafi with a three-hour speech. At the end of the meeting, the delegation again boarded a bus, and a mere ten minutes later found themselves back at their hotel in Tripoli. Their air-and-overland odyssey reflecting Qadafi’s paranoia testified to the insane power of tyranny on the eve of the Arab Spring.

Cairo 2011. Photo: protest egypt, cc by-nc-sa

Cairo 2011. Photo: protest egypt, cc by-nc-sa

The picture in Egypt, the second Arab country to be seized by the spirit of revolution, is no less oppressive in terms of civil society. While President General a-Sisi has managed to improve the economy with the help of billions in Gulf aid, as well as the recovery of the tourism industry and a returning sense of personal safety, his restrictive regime has put a stranglehold on civil rights – not like the days of Mubarak, as S., a human rights activist attests – but to the days of Nasser:

Nighttime arrests of young people, students, and ‘suspects’ are more common than ever. The legal system is a travesty, and the press has gone back to being fully monitored.

In other words, a stale, old wind is blowing through the “new” Egypt. Recently a-Sisi issued a presidential order decreeing lifetime imprisonment for anyone receiving monetary support from abroad. Because of this new law, among others, no one is forming pro-democracy organizations.

Similar laws that severely restrict the freedoms of civil organizations have been enacted in Tunisia, Algeria, and Jordan. New laws and regulations impose obligatory reporting and record-keeping on the parts of non-profits, which for all intents and purposes prevents them from engaging in any significant activity.

Democracy has become a dangerous, dirty word for its proponents in the Arab world today. The raft of regulations and laws restricting the activities of social welfare organizations throughout the Arab world, and the suspicion of any support from abroad bear a striking similarity to the many anti-democratic proposals raised – some of which have been passed in Israel, a country ironically identified with civil rights and freedom of speech. This is perhaps the only parameter that testifies to Israel’s integration into the region.

All this doesn’t even begin to touch on Syria and Iraq, which are torn to shreds: 10 million Syrians – half of the population – have abandoned their homeland and become refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and other countries in the region. Syrian refugees make up 30 percent of Lebanon’s residents. Millions of refugees have left Iraq, and the spread of Islamic State has brought with it new waves of emigration. Entire countries are emptying of their citizens, while others are political powder kegs, and no one can predict their fates.

Yizhar Be’er is a former journalist for Haaretz and former director of B’Tselem who serves today as director of Keshev, which monitors Israeli media coverage. 

This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.


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