Research Paper: Arab Spring the Revolutions

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Arab Spring

The revolutions that took place in Arab countries in the spring of 2011 have shaken the leadership, the laws, and the politics of several states, including Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. This paper addresses issues about those uprisings -- and other rebellions in the region -- and offers background and perspective.

What were the Reasons for the Arab Spring Uprisings?

Lisa Anderson writes in the peer-reviewed journal Foreign Affairs that while social media played a role in the Arab revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya -- helping the demonstrators stay in communication with each other -- the uprisings were based more on responses to repression in "various local contexts" (Anderson, 2011, p. 2). In Tunisia the demonstrations "…spiraled toward the capital from the neglected rural areas"; and as those demonstrators neared the capital, they joined in solidarity with the "once powerful but much repressed labor movement" (Anderson, 2).

Tunisia: What drove the Tunisia revolution to the point of forcing dictator Zine el-abidine Ben Ali out of power? Anderson said it is ironic that Ben Ali would be first to go in the Arab world because Tunisia has the Arab world's "best educational system, largest middle class, and strongest organized labor movement" (2). But Ben Ali kept a "tightly restricted" legal hold on free speech and political parties, Anderson explains, while at the same time Ben Ali promoted a picture of Tunisia as a "modern, technocratic regime and tourist-friendly travel destination" (3). In fact Anderson describes the "cosmopolitan facade" that Ben Ali projected to the world as "almost Orwellian" given that just outside the gleaming cities "…lay bleak, dusty roads and miserable prospects" while the amount of corruption in the government "was breathtaking" (3).

And so the revolution against Ben Ali's corrupt government was quick to get organized, led for the most part by young people in Tunisia, who are and were mainly concerned with freedom of speech, freedom of belief, and getting what they view as a "fair share of the country's wealth and employment opportunities" (Anderson, 3). For many young people growing up in Tunisia, they had only experienced "…theoretical exposure" to freedoms previously, and they were eager to have "open political debate and contestation" (3).

In Tunisia today, the government is headed by a "formerly-banned Islamist party" known as Ennahda, a group that won 40% of the seats in parliament in October's free democratic elections (Gilbert, 2012). However, an Islamist party makes some citizens nervous due to the potential of a crackdown on women wearing short skirts or smoking, for example. For now, things are reasonably peaceful albeit an unemployed man recently "immolated himself" over the frustration of lack of jobs in Tunisia.

Egypt: In Egypt the revolution was quite different than in Tunisia, Anderson explains. First of all, there was widespread poverty and unemployment and "tens of millions of Egyptians" were alienated from the power brokers and business elite, which were linked to Mubarak's son Gamel, Anderson points out (3). There was public-sector "corrosion" that led to the impatience of the citizens for change; just about everything that people need to do in Egypt (like getting a driver's license or receiving an education) is "cheap" on the one hand and expensive on the other hand.

That is, individuals were obliged to pay on the side -- under the table -- for services; and teachers were paid "a pittance" under the autocratic regime, so teachers were forced to provide private tutoring sessions to earn enough money to survive. Moreover, ordinary citizens had to "bribe police officers" that were prepared to "confiscate licenses and invent violation," and it was that kind of corruption and intimidation at all levels of government -- not taking away freedom of assembly or freedom of speech as in Tunisia -- that led to the revolt that toppled Mubarak in Egypt (Anderson, 4). Moreover, the national police were "widely reviled long before the brutal crackdown at the inception of the January 25 revolt" because the police were seen as "a nationwide protection racket" (Anderson, 4).

The political situation today in Egypt is a chaotic scene where clashes between demonstrators and the military are frequent. Worldwide headlines and photos in December, 2011, reflected that thousands of Egyptians are protesting the military rulers' treatment of women. In one video that was seen by people all over the world a group of soldiers beat a female demonstrator, stripped her and dragged her along the dirt road (Voice of America News -- VOA). Some of the demonstrations are calling for the military rulers to "speed up their plans to transfer power to a civilian government"; although the military is overseeing parliamentary elections and promise to hand power to an "elected president" by July, 2012, activists in the streets argue that the military council is "manipulating the country's transition process" so it can "retain permanent powers" (VOA).

Meanwhile, the National Public Radio report on January 4, 2012, suggests that one of every four demonstrators protesting the military government in Egypt today is "a child" (Nelson, 2012). Apparently many of the children taking part in protests are street children, and a YouTube video shows a wounded little boy who was shot by Egyptian soldiers with rescue workers trying to stop the child from bleeding to death (a bullet hit him in the chest).

Attorney Tarek El Awady represents 82 children that have been recently arrested for participating in December's demonstrations outside the parliament and Cabinet buildings (Nelson, p. 3). While General Adel Emara has accused activists of paying children to throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces, Awady claims the children are basically street children and the protestors provided shelter, "food and companionship" -- but did not and do not pay them to attack soldiers.

In short, the political situation in Egypt is volatile, violent, and citizens -- especially women -- are on edge, not knowing if the soldiers in the streets are their friends or foes. More elections are to be held and the transition to civilian rule is supposed to take place this July.

Libya: This revolution was unlike either Egypt or Tunisia, in that Qaddafi did not just leave the country because of massive protests and in fact the revolution turned into a civil war. The dictator was determined to stay in power. The country was chaotic long before the demonstrations began in the spring of 2011. It had long ago come down to "kin networks" in terms of providing safety and access to goods and services for Libyan citizens. So when the demonstrations began in earnest, some military groups sided with the rebels and others with Qaddafi's forces. Once the world could see that Qaddafi was ordering military forces loyal to him to kill Libyan citizens in the streets, NATO got involved, and eventually Qaddafi fled his palace and was killed in the streets like a dog. The violent, hideously brutal YouTube video of his last moments (after he was discovered in the streets) is a grim reminder of the violence that takes over when there is no structure, no rule of law, and people are full of hate for the fascism that has kept them down for forty years.

Gaddafi had worked to consolidate his brutal power base, deliberately making "consumer goods" and "basic medical care" scarce to the citizens of Libya. He generated "widespread corruption" and basically created a fractured nation, in which "…every national institution, including the military," was divided by the "cleavages of kinship and region" (Anderson, 5).

There were no national organizations "of any kind" in Libya, no network of economic associations, and Qaddafi had prohibited private ownership, retail trade, and he prohibited a free press while subverting the civil service and the leadership of the military.

Today in Libya there is a risk of "sliding into a civil war" because there are "rival militias" striving to fill the vacuum left by Gaddafi's demise (Habboush, et al., 2012). The problem at hand is the militias, "drawn from dozens of towns and ideological camps," are still in the streets of Tripoli, Habboush explains. The city is currently what Habboush describes as "an unruly patchwork of fiefdoms, each controlled by a different militia" and police are "rarely" seen except when directing traffic. The reason these competing militias are in Tripoli is that they believe they must maintain an armed presence "…to ensure they receive their share of political power" (Habboush, 1).

What does the Arab Spring Mean for U.S. Influence in the Middle East?

A story in CBS News points out that some observers believe that Washington was caught "flatfooted" by the uprisings -- and yet others see that there is an "alternative narrative" for the U.S., and that is an open "…opportunity to enhance Washington's role in a region hungry for democracy and innovation" (CBS, 2011). When Egyptian and Tunisian leaders fell, those revolutions did in fact impact the United States because they "…blew apart the regimes' ossified relationships with the U.S." -- and in the process the revolutions opened the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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