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Arab Spring Uprisings

Country Guide to Arab Uprisings

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The Arab Spring was a series of protests and uprisings in the Middle East that began with unrest in Tunisia in late 2010. The Arab Spring has brought down regimes in some Arab countries, sparked mass violence in others, while some governments managed to delay the trouble with a mix of repression, promise of reform and state largesse.

1. Tunisia

Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring. The self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a local vendor outraged over the injustices suffered at the hands of the local police, sparked countrywide protests in December 2010. The main target was the corruption and repressive policies of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced to flee the country on January 14 2011 after the armed forces refused to crack down on the protests.

Following Ben Ali’s downfall, Tunisia entered a protracted period of political transition. Parliamentary elections in October 2011 were won by Islamists who entered into a coalition government with smaller secular parties. But instability continues with disputes over the new constitution and ongoing protests calling for better living conditions.

2. Egypt

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, but the decisive moment that changed the region forever was the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the West’s key Arab ally, in power since 1980. Mass protests started on January 25 2011 and Mubarak was forced to resign on February 11, after the military, similar to Tunisia, refused to intervene against the masses occupying the central Tahrir Square in Cairo.

But that was to be only the first chapter in the story of Egypt’s “revolution”, as deep divisions emerged over the new political system. Islamists from the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won the parliamentary and presidential election in 2011/12, and their relations with secular parties soured. Protests for deeper political change continue. Meanwhile, Egyptian military remains the single most powerful political player, and much of the old regime remains in place. The economy has been in freefall since the start of unrest.

3. Libya

By the time the Egyptian leader resigned, large parts of the Middle East were already in turmoil. The protests against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya started on February 15 2011, escalating into the first civil war caused by the Arab Spring. In March 2011 the NATO forces intervened against the Qaddafi's army, helping the opposition rebel movement to capture most of the country by August 2011. Qaddafi was killed on October 20.

But the rebels’ triumph was shortlived, as various rebel militias effectively partitioned the country among them, leaving a weak central government that continues to struggle to exert its authority and provide basic services to its citizens. Most of the oil production has returned on stream, but political violence remains endemic, and religious extremism has been on the rise.

4. Yemen

Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh was the fourth victim of the Arab Spring. Emboldened by events in Tunisia, anti-government protesters of all political colors started pouring onto the streets in mid-January 2011. Hundreds of people died in clashes as pro-government forces organized rival rallies, and the army began to disintegrate into two political camps. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in Yemen began to seize territory in the south of the country.

A political settlement facilitated by Saudi Arabia saved Yemen from an all-out civil war. President Saleh signed the transition deal on 23 November 2011, agreeing to step aside for a transitional government led by Vice-President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi. However, little progress toward a stabile democratic order has been made since, with regular Al Qaeda attacks, separatism in the south, tribal disputes and collapsing economy stalling the transition.

5. Bahrain

Protests in this small Persian Gulf monarchy began on February 15, just days after Mubarak’s resignation. Bahrain has a long history of tension between the ruling Sunni royal family, and the majority Shiite population demanding greater political and economic rights. The Arab Spring reenergized the largely Shiite protest movement and tens of thousands took to the streets defying live fire from the security forces.

Bahraini royal family was saved by a military intervention of neighboring countries led by Saudi Arabia, as Washington looked the other way (Bahrain houses US Fifth Fleet). But in the absence of a political solution, the crackdown failed to suppress the protest movement. Protests, clashes with security forces, and arrests of opposition activists continue (see why the crisis won't go away).

6. Syria

Ben Ali and Mubarak were down, but everyone was holding their breath for Syria: a multi-religious country allied to Iran, ruled by a repressive republican regime and a pivotal geo-political position. First major protests began in March 2011 in provincial towns, gradually spreading to all major urban areas. The regime’s brutality provoked an armed response from the opposition, and by mid-2011 army defectors began organizing in the Free Syrian Army.

By the end of 2011, Syria slid into an intractable civil war, with most of the Alawite religious minority siding with President Bashar al-Assad, and most of the Sunni majority supporting the rebels. Both camps have outside backers – Russia supports the regime, while Saudi Arabia supports the rebels – with neither side able to break the deadlock.

7. Morocco

The Arab Spring hit Morocco on February 20 2011, when thousands of protesters gathered in the capital Rabat and other cities demanding greater social justice and limits on the power of King Mohammed VI. The king responded by offering constitutional amendments giving up some of his powers, and by calling a fresh parliamentary election that was less heavily controlled by the royal court than previous polls.

This, together with fresh state funds to help low-income families, blunted the appeal of the protest movement, with many Moroccans content with the king’s program of gradual reform. Rallies demanding a genuine constitutional monarchy continue, but have so far failed to mobilize the masses witnessed in Tunisia or Egypt.

8. Jordan

Protests in Jordan gained momentum in late January 2011, as Islamists, leftist groups and youth activists protested against living conditions and corruption. Similar to Morocco, most Jordanians wanted to reform, rather than abolish the monarchy, giving King Abdullah II the breathing space that his republican counterparts in other Arab countries didn’t have.

As a result, the king managed to put the Arab Spring “on hold” by making cosmetic changes to the political system and reshuffling the government. Fear of chaos similar to Syria did the rest. However, the economy is doing poorly and none of the key issues have been addressed. The protesters’ demands could grow more radical over time.

Go to Current Situation in the Middle East

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