Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2012 (March 20, 2012 at 12:00 am)

Understanding the Arab Spring

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March 20, 2012 at 12:00 am
By Lynn Vollbrecht’06

When a young Tunisian man set himself ablaze more than a year ago to protest police mistreatment, he captured the world’s attention—and the media’s gaze has been trained on the Middle East and North Africa ever since. Still, even the most well-informed consumer of news can become overwhelmed by the reports of protests, violence, revolution, and ever-shifting power structures that have characterized the Arab Spring over the past year. It helps to understand the underlying social elements that caused this public dissension to come to a head. 

Beth DoughertyAccording to Beth Dougherty, professor of political science and Manger Family Professor of International Relations, the countries that constitute the key players in the Arab Spring all had very similar underlying problems.

“All of these regimes in the Middle East, to one degree or another, are authoritarian regimes. You have a continuum, with Jordan at the low end, and places like Libya and Syria and Iraq at the high end,” Dougherty says.

Economic problems are another commonality. “All of them had very stagnant economic systems, with really bloated public sectors; economic power was being distributed to cronies of the regimes,” Dougherty explains. As expected, the poor economy led to high unemployment, but unemployment in the Middle East was and is especially high for those under the age of 30, many of whom are well-educated university graduates.

“Those demographic factors have played a huge role in this, because this is a technologically savvy generation, and they were not willing to put up with conditions their parents were willing to put up with,” Dougherty says. “When a generation thinks it’s worse off than its parents were, it’s never a good sign.”

While underlying social problems set the stage for revolution, they don’t explain why these protest movements finally saw a degree of success, after years under authoritarian regimes’ thumbs. Across the region, prime ministers resigned and heads of state who had been in power for decades—most notably Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi—stepped down or were forcibly deposed. In some instances, foreign military (including the United States) intervention was involved, especially in the case of Libya, where international coalitions enforced a no-fly zone.

Dougherty explains that events in Tunisia broke a “wall of fear” that held back most citizens in these countries, and for good reason. Political opposition and protests of human rights violations were often brutally stamped out with imprisonment and torture. But for several years prior to the Arab Spring, labor protests in Egypt had been met with a lighter hand, and were more openly covered in the press. New technology helped.

“When everyone has a cell phone that has a camera on it, and all you need to do is get an Internet connection to load your video to YouTube, it is a lot harder to maintain the lid on what’s going on there,” she says. It also aided protest organizers. Instead of having to run off flyers and leaflets, protestors could organize online using social media before meeting in person.

“The youth bulge, combined with this technology, was the right set of circumstances that allowed these things to blossom the way they did in Tunisia and Egypt,” Dougherty says. Even more importantly, the Egyptian military decided not to fire on its own people, which would have created a much more volatile situation.

One of Beloit’s own, Bahraini citizen Zainab al-Khawaja’06, fits the description of the young, educated, and technology-equipped activist. The daughter of a prominent Bahraini human rights activist, she gained international attention last year for her hunger strike in protest of the beating and arrest of her father, husband, and brother-in-law in Bahrain. She has continued to protest, has been arrested and subsequently released, and documents her struggle on the microblogging website Twitter, under the handle @angryarabiya.

Another Beloiter with a frontline view of the Arab Spring is Michael Lethem’11. A political science major, Lethem works as a researcher, editor, and communications officer for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Democracy Studies in Cairo, Egypt, where he lives.

Though Mubarak is out of power, Lethem explains that corruption is still evident. His organization has conducted election monitoring for the Egyptian parliamentary elections that took place between November 2011 and January 2012.

“We documented hundreds of violations of election law,” Lethem says. “The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF)—which has had executive power since Hosni Mubarak stepped down—also threatened to fine anyone 500 Egyptian pounds (roughly $85, and considerably more than most Egyptians make in a month) if they didn’t vote. This had very serious implications.” It caused many voters to cast a ballot not because they wanted to and were informed, but because they were afraid of the fine.

“Despite widespread violations, many Egyptians see the elections as an important step forward because they were still the most free and transparent elections Egypt has seen in 60 years,” Lethem says. Still, he describes the mood in Cairo as extremely tense, and the youth as distrusting of those who have taken power.

Most young people, he says, boycotted the elections, and the first-year anniversary of the Egyptian Arab Spring revolution was not celebratory. “I was marching in Cairo all day and in Tahrir well into the night. People, while celebrating the fact that they overthrew one dictator, were also almost unanimously protesting the continuation of military rule in Egypt,” Lethem says. Many Egyptians at this point, he adds, are hoping for stability, but the youth are frustrated with what they see as a puppet government. “The youth who were the backbone of the revolution are still completely committed to fighting this system with whatever means necessary,” he explains. “What I always try to tell my friends in the square is that patience will bring rewards here; that there is a time to take to the street and a time to go home.”

So what’s next for the Middle East? Only time can tell, and Dougherty says she doesn’t want to start making predictions.

“If you had asked somebody five years ago how many of these regimes would still be in power now, most people still would have figured all of them,” she says. “So much depends on the leadership that emerges, on economic trends, so I think it’s one of those things you have to set as your goal—the emergence of more representative forms of government.”

It’s not that the Middle East is incapable of democracy, Dougherty says, but it will not happen overnight.

“Everyone’s going to have to be a little bit patient with what happens here. You don’t overthrow decades of dictatorship and expect democracy the next day,” she says. “Democratic transitions from authoritarian regimes take time to consolidate.”    

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