The uprisings that took place across northern Africa and the Mideast aimed to democratize the authoritarian region. Instead, it left nations politically splintered, economically tanking and wondering whether they are better off.
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On December 17, 2010, 26-year-old fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi was approached by police in a town in Tunisia’s neglected interior. Lacking a permit for his cart and with no funds to bribe, the authorities humiliated Bouazizi and tossed aside his cart. When he tried to complain at a government office, they refused to listen. He then walked outside, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire.
One man. One act. In one remote place.
That is all it took for tens of millions of citizens to flood the capitals and working-class neighborhoods of nations across northern Africa and the Middle East. The death of the Tunisian fruit seller unleashed simmering discontent and mass demonstrations against poverty, joblessness and the repression of authoritarian rule, triggering what is known as the Arab Spring uprisings.
“The people want the downfall of the regime” became the movement’s rallying cry. In less than a month, Egypt’s president for 30 years Hosni Mubarak was ousted. An autocrat in Tunisia was overturned. Two more regimes fell later on: Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down from office while Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi—in power for nearly four decades—fled before eventually being captured and killed by opposition forces. Wealthy Persian Gulf kingdoms Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia gave payouts to appease protesters and promised changes such as voting rights to women.
From Jordan and Lebanon to Iraq and Syria, governmental shifts were promised. It had seemed the Arab world was on course toward a freer, brighter future.
Fast-forward a decade. Now that world looks a lot like it did in 2011—in many cases worse.
Today “more Arabs are now living in poverty, more are unemployed and more are imprisoned for their political beliefs than a decade ago,” The Independent reported. The news outlet also reported that the Middle East is the only region in the world with a population that has been getting poorer overall.
Even in the birthplace of the history-making revolution, a third of young Tunisians are unemployed and a fifth of the country lives under the poverty line, according to the National Institute of Statistics. Discontent has spurred a wave of protests across the nation, including a rally backed by the country’s most powerful political organization, the Tunisian General Labor Union. Samir Cheffi, a senior official of the union, proclaimed, “Today is a cry of alarm to defend the revolution, to protect freedoms under threat.”
Yet the recent protests led to a muscular response from authorities who fear a repeat of the demonstrations that led to the exile of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 10 years ago.
Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has also doubled down on dissenters with an iron fist. International and Egyptian organizations have found that crackdowns on opposition are “escalating, demonstrating a clear pattern of intimidation and harassment,” Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, Libya, Syria and Yemen are still trapped in civil wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people. Those conflicts have sent millions fleeing to Europe, triggering the migrant crisis that has overwhelmed that continent over the last decade.
Why have the Arab Spring protests born so little positive fruit over the last 10 years? To understand, it helps to look at how uprisings in specific nations began.
Shortly after Tunisia’s 2010 uprising, some young Egyptian activists formed the Revolution Youth Coalition to draw together the movement’s disparate strands and give the protesters occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square a coherent voice.
They demanded freedom, dignity, democracy and social justice amid battles with police and state-hired thugs. It seemed to work. On February 11, President Hosni Mubarak resigned.
But the coalition fragmented as it faced two much more established forces: the pro-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood that swept to power in later elections, and the military that toppled the Brotherhood in 2013.
The military continues to dominate the political landscape today. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who became president in 2014 after leading the overthrow of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, has overseen a crackdown that activists call the harshest for decades.
“Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt has outdone itself as a prolific jailer and executioner—Human Rights Watch recently estimated the number of political prisoners at 60,000 and rising,” CBC reported.
“According to activists, the government has also deployed a persistent campaign aimed at framing the revolution as the harbinger of Egypt’s myriad woes and the reason it has been ‘brought to its knees.’
“Egypt is now a country where the ‘Tahrir people’—as they’re pejoratively referred to by supporters of the regime—are either out of the country, if they haven’t been arrested, or keeping a silent vigil.”
General el-Sissi said in response that he has brought stability, allowing the country to move on from the turmoil that followed 2011. He has referred to the uprising as a “great revolution” while blaming it for unleashing economic disruption and security problems.
The Revolution Youth Coalition is now shattered. Some of its founders are now in prison or exile, while others have sided with the current ruling government. For example, one is a pro-Sissi member of parliament.
“One of the lessons of the Arab Spring, unfortunately, is that repression works, that the wall of fear can be rebuilt,” Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution Senior Fellow, told NBC News.
Egypt’s political outcome portrays that lesson.
Ten years after joining an uprising in Yemen against autocratic rule and an economy in shambles, the same activists find themselves on opposite sides of a war that has pushed the country to the brink of famine with dim prospects for peace.
Ahmed Abdo Hezam, 35—a fighter with government forces who goes by the name Ahmed Abu Al-Nasr—had been a university graduate in the agro-industrial city of Taiz when he first joined youth-led protests that ended Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule.
Even back then, some 40 percent of Yemen’s population lived on less than $2 a day and a third suffered chronic hunger. The state was also facing a resurgent al-Qaida wing and rebellions by the Houthis in the north and separatists in the south.
“When we joined the uprising it was like a breath of air. They tried to drag us into violence…but we remained peaceful,” said Mr. al-Nasr who like many resented cronyism in the public jobs sector, the biggest employer.
More than 2,000 people died in the uprising before Saleh in 2012 yielded to pressure from the United States and Gulf Arab states to step down. He was the fourth autocrat to be toppled in the Arab Spring unrest.
The U.S. and its ally Saudi Arabia hoped former Saleh deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi would oversee a transition to democracy. Instead, it disintegrated.
The Houthis, enemies of Saudi Arabia and friends of Iran, partnered with former foe Saleh to seize the capital, Sanaa, and ousted Hadi’s government in late 2014, triggering a Saudi-led military coalition backed by the West to intervene.
Mr. al-Nasr, a poet with four children, joined government forces when the Houthis, who later killed Saleh when he turned on them, entered Taiz, which is still effectively under siege.
“We did not think the uprising would lead to this,” said Mr. al-Nasr, who has seen comrades die, his home destroyed and family scattered. “We were forced to take up arms to defend ourselves.”
“I hope with all my heart the war ends…that weapons are laid down and all factions sit at the table.”
The war has killed more than 100,000 people and pushed millions to the brink of starvation. Now 80 percent of the population, or some 24 million, need help and are vulnerable to disease, first cholera and now COVID-19.
Ali al-Dailami, a rights defender briefly detained under Saleh’s rule who is now Houthi deputy minister of human rights, joined the uprising in “Change Square” in Sanaa in the hopes it would lead to a state representing all.
Speaking to Reuters in the square, Mr. al-Dailami recalled the early days of the revolution and lamented its results.
“At times we thought we would not live to see the sun rise because of the threats and [pro-Saleh] soldiers and hoodlums,” he said. “We wanted to move from a failed state, we wanted to break the impasse.”
He saw the Gulf initiative that ushered in Hadi as interference that “killed the revolution’s principles.”
“We wanted real change, not to repackage the old system as democracy.”
Raja al-Thaibani, a Yemeni-American who put her university studies on hold in 2011 to participate in the uprising, said to The Guardian, it “was so powerful and intoxicating, that feeling that for the first time ever, people in Yemen were unified. It didn’t matter what your tribe or religious or political affiliation was, the gender dynamic, we all showed up together, week after week.”
But, Ms. al-Thaibani continued, it only took a few months until “the cracks in that unity started to show, but I think a lot of us refused to acknowledge it.”
Back at ground zero of the revolution, Tunisia, conditions appear much more aligned with the goals of the 2011 revolutionaries. Tunisians have held numerous democratic elections, for mayor, parliament and president, notably putting a constitutional law professor, Kais Saied, into the presidential palace in 2019.
The Tunisia of today “joins advanced countries” as far as democracy is concerned, said Najib Chebbi, founder of the Progressive Democratic Party, the main political opposition under Ben Ali.
But a pall of disenchantment hangs over the country, marked by extremist attacks, political infighting, a troubled economy and promises unfulfilled, including development of the interior.
Despite guaranteed rights and numerous democratic elections, protests have continued to flourish—especially in the central and southern regions where the jobless rate among youth reaches 30 percent and the poverty level is above 20 percent. According to the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights, more than 1,000 demonstrations were counted in November alone. Months of sit-ins paralyzed oil and phosphate production, putting billion-dollar holes in the budget.
“The Tunisian people have political rights, but are still waiting for their demands for dignity and work to be fulfilled,” he said, alluding to the revolutionary slogan of demonstrators crying out, “freedom, jobs and dignity.”
Analyst Slaheddine Jourchi said that what has been accomplished in the decade since the revolution “is far from answering the population’s demands, especially expectations of youth—the backbone of the revolution.”
“The revolution needs a deep evaluation,” he said.
On the other hand, some “people here are now asking for the parliamentary system to be removed,” Wael, a 27-year-old civil society activist, said to BBC’s North Africa correspondent.
“The president has no power, he’s like a symbol of the state only,” he continued.
The news correspondent stated, “I listened with intrigue—here is a young man from a neighborhood that is reputed to have been the pulse of the 2011 revolution that overthrew an all-powerful president, now asking for a head of state with yet more power.”
“It’s true we have freedoms now,” Wael admitted to BBC, “but we discovered that our dreams will not materialize.”
The BBC correspondent continued: “When I ask him about the teenagers who were arrested recently, Wael quickly points to the high number of school drop-outs in his area. ‘Maybe this system we have works elsewhere, but it doesn’t work here…all the political parties failed us.’”
“So, what do people want?” the BBC asked of Tunisians. A businessman responded: “We need something in-between…a strong leader who supports freedoms. This parliament, and all these political parties who work against each other are paralyzing the country.”
A strong leader who supports freedoms. That ideal could not sound more out of place in the context of the Arab Spring. Given its outcomes, either citizens suffer from limited freedoms under corrupt, overbearing governments that nevertheless offer structure, or have limited government that affords certain freedoms but inevitably bring instability, division and even violence.
But the man’s response does reveal a key facet of all mankind: it recognizes that a strong government is essential for stability. Even revolutions that seek reform show people understand some form of leadership is needed to secure their livelihoods.
Where will this leadership come from? The Arab Spring, writ large over many nations, has failed to secure a form of government that can deliver peace and prosperity. Even in the more stable nations of the West, universal contentment is always out of reach.
The problem in all of these cases is the human factor. To figure out why the Arab Spring has failed—and another one appears to be on the horizon—one must study human nature. Unknown to most, the Bible is the handbook for describing human nature and exhaustively details the innermost motives of mankind.
A verse in the book of Jeremiah begins to frame why this world’s governments can never truly deliver: “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walks to direct his steps” (10:23).
Grasp this. Left alone, man cannot attain ultimate happiness. He may attempt to “direct his steps,” but he cannot do so without avoiding problems that come along with it.
The record of history proves this verse true!
Yet, while the Bible details man’s shortcomings, it also holds incredible good news of the only solution to mankind’s governance cycle.
Consider what is written in the Old Testament book of Isaiah: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (9:6).
The “Child” mentioned in this passage is Jesus Christ. Notice He has a government. The next verse states, “Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end…and upon His kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever " (vs. 7).
Peace has not been increasing since Christ’s earthly ministry. In fact, the opposite has happened—war has increased! Therefore, this Kingdom must yet be established in the future.
Part of how Christ will rule this coming supergovernment is detailed in verse 6. Most imagine Him as a helpless baby in a manger or weakling on a cross. Yet the meaning of the original Hebrew for the words of His described characteristics reveals the traits a truly great leader must have (all definitions taken from Gesenius’s Lexicon).
Wonderful: “admirable” and “distinguished.”
Counselor: “to advise, consult, give counsel, counsel, purpose, devise, plan.” Under His rulership, mankind will receive perfect advice and solutions to its problems.
Mighty God: this has a similar meaning to the modern term “strong man.”
Prince of Peace: this phrase connotes “welfare, peace,” “safety,” “health, prosperity,” “quiet, tranquility, contentment,” “friendship,” as well as peace in “human relationships,” “with God,” and “from war.” This is true peace!
Additional qualifications for Christ ruling Earth are found throughout the Bible. In gospel accounts, Jesus is seen to be an exceptional speaker, sometimes teaching crowds of thousands (Matt. 14:13-21). He must have been effective because they refused to leave even when hungry. In addition, He is shown to be a leader with integrity, good judgment, and vision—who selflessly puts others first. And as the account in Matthew 4 demonstrates, He is immune to bribery and corruption.
In short, He will be the perfect leader because He possesses perfect character! (Read Hebrews 5:8-9.)
With this soon-coming supergovernment in place—to be ruled by Christ, the Father and the saints—people will again come from near and far to hear God’s teachings. At that time: “…many people shall go and say, Come you, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths…And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:3-4).
Back to the subject at hand. Will another Arab Spring break out this year? Sadly, it might. But be assured that the greatest overturning of governments is coming soon—the establishment of God’s government on Earth.
Only when all of man’s failed attempts at governing himself are wiped away, and the ultimate leader takes His throne over Earth, will peace and prosperity finally “break out” across the globe. These conditions will then continue “from henceforth even forever.”
Man’s long-running search for true leadership will finally be over. Only then, with rulers who truly serve the people they are under, the cycle will cease. It will be one world government, under one ultimate ruler, and people unified under one purpose.