25 Jan 2016

Five Years On, Afro-Arab Spring Has No Bounce

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 355: Five Years On, Afro-Arab Spring Has No Bounce / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
25 January 2016

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the "Afro-Arab Spring". When an unemployed 26-year-old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, immolated himself in frustration over government repression in December 2010 in the remote Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, his martyrdom triggered a political revolution that toppled autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, spreading the culture of protest to Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

Caught up in the euphoria of the Egyptian uprising a month later, US President Barack Obama praised the "moral force of nonviolence" and reminisced about "Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice". But 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 went so horribly wrong?

Starting with Tunisia, the "Jasmine Revolution" of 2011 saw the electoral victory of Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party. As the political system teetered on the brink of disaster, a civil society coalition — it 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 Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda.

Despite this remarkable achievement, the country suffered three high-profile terrorist attacks last year that killed more than 70 people. Tunisia's political system also remains riven with ideological and personal schisms. The economy remains weak, with 1.5% growth and 15% unemployment.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak's 30-year autocracy was memorably ended by high-tech revolutionaries in Tahir Square in February 2011. The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, in presidential elections 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 1,000 Brotherhood supporters and arrested thousands of others. Yet Obama refused to call this unconstitutional change of government a coup and the US has not halted its $1.5bn annual support to the Egyptian army. 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 2014, the New York Times called for a halt to the delivery of $550m 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 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.

Sisi's grandiloquent opening of the $8bn extended Suez Canal last year, and plans to build a new $45bn 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. Amid high unemployment, growing corruption and a declining pound, the vital tourism sector has seen a sharp drop from 15-million visitors in 2010 to 10-million in 2014.

Turning to Libya, Muammar Gaddafi had toppled King Idris in an act of regicide in 1969, but his 42-year rule came to resemble the very monarchical system he dislodged: the eccentric leader had himself crowned the "King of Kings" by 200 traditional African rulers in a bizarre ceremony in Benghazi in August 2008.

The chaos that Gaddafi predicted only his rule 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-brokered unity government, hardline groups Islamic State and Ansar al-Sharia continue to fuel the violence.

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 — in this case the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation — 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 in Cape Town and visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg

This article was also published in Rand Daily Mail under the headline "How Afro-Arab Spring Has Been Smothered by Weight of History" on 26 January 2016 and in The Guardian of Nigeria headlined "Afro-Arab Spring: Winter of Discontent" on 29 February 2016.

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