1. The Awakening of the Arab World
It was the 17th of December 2010, when the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire as a sign of protest to the police corruption and abuse, of which he himself had been a victim of, just a few hours earlier. Bouazizi died on the 4th of January 2011. This extreme act would then be the fuse of years of unprecedented popular riots and protests in several Middle Eastern and North African countries. The Arab Spring had begun.
During the days that followed the self-immolation, a series of violent demonstrations spread throughout Tunisia, causing the death of almost 300 people among civilians, and armed forces. The so-called Jasmine Revolution took place. The authoritarian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been ruling the country for 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia on 14th January 2011 and in October 2011, the first democratic parliamentary elections of the country were held.
The successful Tunisian uprising inspired other riots in many other Muslim countries of the MENA region, with protesters complaining about corruption, poverty, and oppressive regimes. The first country to face ferocious protests was Egypt. On February 11, President Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation, after 30 years of undemocratic and liberticide governance. It is also worth mentioning the cases of Syria, Libya, and Yemen, which challenged the most violent rebellions. The death toll of these three countries counted thousands of deaths and the clashes would soon turn into civil wars, and still today, as we will discuss later, they are facing political instability and fragmentation.
2. A new French Revolution?
France. July 11, 1789. Jacques Necker, Contrôleur général des finances for Louis XVI, is dismissed by the king for his pro-popular ideas. Due to the esteem he enjoyed among the French people, a sense of indignation spread among the population. His dismission would be one of the main factors for the following outbreak of the French Revolution. If you have thought for a moment about the comparison between Necker and the street vendor Bouazizi, know that the similarities between the Arab Spring and the French Revolution did not end there.
a. The Request for Human and Political Rights
A first reason for comparison is given by the political purposes behind the two uprisings: the demand for democratic governments, capable of ensuring civil rights and fundamental freedoms. From the first years of the 1990s, Middle Eastern and North African regimes have opted for an economic policy based on liberalization and privatization. Reforms adopted were never fully able to grant economic growth for all the social classes. In particular, the middle class and young people were excluded. Indeed, it is not a case that the main protagonists of the protests were the youth. Not only, but the liberalization policy was not accompanied by adequate social reforms. On the contrary, authoritarian regimes strengthened their power, further limiting fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of expression, of vote, of press and of association. These limitations were implemented also in countries in which there was actually a constitution, like Egypt and Tunisia, with the creation of ad hoc constitutional reforms. A report from Amnesty International, published in 2007, affirmed that tortures and illegal detentions were systematically practiced by the Egyptian authorities to contrast terrorism in the context of the War on Terror. UK director of Amnesty International Kate Allen reported: ‘We are now uncovering evidence of Egypt being a destination of choice for third-party or contracted out torture in the war on terror’. The request for democracy, human and political rights of the Arab people can easily let us think to the French Revolution’s motto Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, but it is still too early to say whether the Arab Spring ideas can be considered an imitation (or kind of) of the French Enlightenment or rather the affirmation of a new thought, with its own cultural and philosophical features. For sure, we cannot help to notice an important distinction: if the French Enlightenment was based on secular and liberal thoughts, on the contrary the impact of Islam is so predominant that it is difficult to imagine a secularization of politics in the MENA countries. Hopes for liberalization and democratization had to contend with religious patterns and ethnic identities too deeply rooted in Arab society.
To conclude this paragraph, we cannot forget to stress the role that corruption had for the outbreak of both the French Revolution and the Arab Spring. Similar to the French deep inequalities between the people and the elite, broadened by corruption and economic waste to accomplish the vices and the desires of the noble class, huge social disparities were present (still today) also in the authoritarian regimes of the MENA region. Just think of the rich families of Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Ben Ali. Not only, but the inefficiency of the regulations and the lack of transparency put the basis for the development of corruption in many sectors of these countries. In 2007, a research conducted by Transparency International affirmed that both petty and grand corruption are widespread in the region and deeply rooted in the political infrastructure of the state, and in the institutional infrastructure of the public sector.
b. The Role of Social Media
During the months preceding the revolution, and in the years of the revolution itself, the French press assumed a role of great importance. The pamphlets and the so-called cahiers de doléances circulated among the population, making them aware of the privileges of the courts. During the Revolution, these topics increased in large numbers in French newspapers, helping to spread the ideas of the Enlightenment to the whole population. The role of the French press can be compared to the one that social media had during the riots and the protests of the Arab Spring. During the period of the protests, the use of social platforms in MENA countries saw a significant increase, as activists used to organize and advertise demonstrations through online platforms. They had a key role also to increase awareness regarding the numerous violations of human and political rights carried out by the regimes. Arab governments had sensed the dangers of social media and tried several times to break down the connection to the servers, but in most cases, their attempts were unsuccessful or short-lived.
3. The Apparent Failure of the Revolution
Ten years have passed since the beginning of the uprisings. At first sight, we might infer that the Arab Spring was a failure. In the countries of the Gulf peninsula, such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, protests were stopped almost immediately by regimes. In Morocco, Jordan and Algeria, governments adopted populist policies to accomplish few of the people’s requests. Only Tunisia and Egypt have faced a sort of transition toward democracy, even though results tell us how corruption, unemployment and general economic conditions still show bad values. Actually, today Egypt is not so different from the pre-revolution period, since it is under the presidency of El- Sisi, who pushed through constitutional amendments to strengthen his position and the military’s power. Overall, if the goal was to bring democracy and greater individual freedoms in the MENA region, the results show that not only has this change not happened, but indeed in many countries the revolts have brought even more death and terror. It is the case of Libya, Syria, and Yemen, where the popular protests have rapidly brought to ferocious civil wars, causing millions of deaths and refugees, and leaving room for terrorist Islamist groups such as ISIS.
Even though the aims of the Arab protesters were not reached, the Arab Spring has shown some positive aspects, that dictators can be overthrown without necessarily military coups and that the Arab populations can no longer accept corruption, limitations of fundamental and political rights. Some would argue that the revolts were useless and brought even more social and political instability to the region, but the answer to this argument may lie in past history. We should bring back to the memory the post French Revoultion period, in which the period of ‘Terror’ took place, followed by a return to despotism with Napoleon. In those years, fear and repression re- hit the population, but they would only have to wait a few more years to see the true effects of the Enlightenment and of the Revolution. Maybe we will see the same for the Arab people.
Federico Mancuso (2021), Arab Spring and French Revolution: strong analogy or weak comparison? Academic Essay, History and Civilization, Prof. Uzi Rabi
History.com Editors, ‘Arab Spring’, HISTORY, January 10, 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/middle-east/arab-spring (accessed May 31, 2021)
Chris McGreal, Jack Shenker, ‘Hosni Mubarak resigns – and Egypt celebrates a new dawn’, The Guardian, February 11, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/feb/11/hosni-mubarak- resigns-egypt-cairo (accessed May 31, 2021)
Uzi Rabi, The Return of the Past: State, Identity, and Society in the Post–Arab Spring Middle East (Lexington Books, 2020), 220
Andrej Zwitter, The Arab Uprising – State of Emergency and Constitutional Reform (ASPJ Africa & Francophonie, 2015)
Mohammed D. Cherkaoui, What is enlightenment: continuity or rupture in the wake of the Arab uprisings (Lexington Books, 2016), 387
Marie Chene, ‘Overview of Corruption in MENA Countries’, Transparency International, November 7, 2007. https://www.u4.no/publications/overview-of-corruption-in-mena-countries.pdf