A look at 2011, the year of the Arab Spring
2011 was an important year for the political development of several North African and Middle Eastern states. After decades of autocratic rule, dictators were toppled. Protestors received at least the promise of reform in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
The uprisings were, in a large part, triggered by people’s frustration with unemployment and rising living costs.
Youthful populations throughout the region believe they have been deprived of the ‘trickle-down’ benefits of economic development. Throughout 2011, they used social networking internet sites to orchestrate a high level of social unrest and civil disobedience. The rest of the world is watching for the outcome.
North African and the Middle Eastern politics in a global context
The geographical context of the uprisings
Despite their middle-income status, many North African and Middle Eastern countries have been slow to introduce the political reforms that frequently go hand-in-hand with economic development. What are the reasons for this and why has the global community not done more to promote democracy in the region before now?
Many North African and Middle Eastern states have functioned as autocracies (governed by an individual with unrestricted authority; country, society etc. rules by an autocrat) for most of the post-colonial era. Following de-colonisation, some former European colonies experienced a power vacuum that helped senior army leaders to assume state control. Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, amongst others, were effectively under military leadership by the 1960s and 1970s.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the global community did little to help promote any further political development or change in these countries. Allegations of human rights abuses in Tunisia and Egypt were widely reported by Amnesty International, but this information did not bring about any forceful United Nations or European Union intervention. The USA did, however, launch a short-lived air strike on Libya in 1986 but the action failed to dislodge Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi.
Relations between the UK and Libya were severely strained following incidents such as the Lockerbie bombing (1988) and the London Libyan embassy siege (1984), yet the UK did not take up arms against Libya. Indeed, in later years UK prime minister Tony Blair held meetings and built up a personal relationship with Colonel Gaddafi (Guardian, 06 November 2011).
There are several possible reasons why the international community did not do more to directly intervene in the affairs of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia or Syria during this period.
Global attention was directed elsewhere until the end of the 1980s, due to the Cold War. In the 1990s, Iraq became the primary focus for US foreign policy, while UN peacekeepers were occupied with serious war crimes, including genocide, committed in Kosovo, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. In contrast, North African regimes, with the exception of Libya, were tolerated (and sometimes even feted) by world governments, the global media and transnational corporations (including tourist operators).
Despite the international community’s concerns with restricted political freedoms in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya, economic and social development indicators for North Africa have risen far higher than those for war-torn parts of central Africa. Life expectancy in Libya was 69 in 2010, compared with just 47 in Sierra Leone. Social development indicators may have led the international community to "turn a blind eye" to the region’s lack of political development.
The strategic importance of energy pathways in this region - notably, the flow of oil from Libya - was another reason why governments of oil-dependent nations outside the region chose not to "rock the boat". (Libya currently has 44 billion barrels of oil reserves, while Algeria has 12 billion and Egypt 3.7 billion.)
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001, the USA and its European allies were keen to support "non-Islamist" governments, a category that includes the autocratic regimes under discussion here. Egypt, under President Mubarak’s rule, was a major recipient of western aid; after 2001, the USA took the view "that either Egypt is accepted as a police state or the state will fall into the hands of Islamic extremists," according to the New Statesman (04 February 2011).
Since the uprisings, increased development aid to the region has been agreed by western governments who are now fearful that radical Islamic groups could now gain influence. For instance, the EU commission has already pledged €100 million in aid for post-revolutionary Egypt.
A combination of specific triggers and long-standing grievances led to the mass-scale insurrections of 2011.
The spark that finally lit the tinder box in December 2010 was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. This young Tunisian set fire to himself; it was the ultimate act of protest against poor living conditions and the widespread political corruption in Tunisia that Mohamed grew up with. Angered by his death, young people mounted demonstrations across the country. Spurred by Tunisia’s example, unrest quickly spread in neighbouring countries too.
Timelines for Arab Spring uprisings
December (2010): Mohamed Bouazizi sets fire to himself in protest against corruption in Tunisia. Demonstrations spring up all across Tunisia
January: President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali resigns from power and flees the country
October: Tunisia holds its first free elections; the greatest share of the vote is won by Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party
January: Inspired by the Tunisian Revolution, thousands of demonstrators take to the street in a ‘Day of Wrath’
February: Following weeks of unrest and the death of 850 protestors, President Hosni Mubarak stands down from office after 30 years in power, though his government remains in place
December: New anti-military protests bring more deaths even though elections are finally underway (the result is due by March 2012). Early election results show Islamist parties (including Salafi al-Nour Party, an anti-democratic party) gaining far more votes than liberal and secular parties. The transition to democracy may not follow as easily as the protestors at first hoped
February: Anti-government protests take place against the leadership of Colonel Muammer Gaddaffi. Protests quickly spread to the capital Tripoli
March: The UN Security Council votes on a resolution to protect civilians in Libya, prompting international military action. NATO forces, including UK jet fighters, begin air strikes
October: Colonel Gadaffi is captured and killed by members of the Libyan National Liberation Army
March: Protests take place across Syria. The government responds aggressively, leading to numerous civilian deaths
May: The EU and UN impose sanctions on President Assad and other officials in response to the continued fierce repression of protestors
June: Internet access is cut. Over 100 are killed by Assad’s forces over two days of protests
December - January: Assad holds on. His forces continue to massacre protestors, despite calls from the Arab League (a powerful grouping of neighbour countries) for him to step down
OTHER STATES IN 2011
King Abdullah II pledges to implement political reform after January protests
Political and social changes are promised following small protests in February and March.
March brings Shia Muslim anti-government protests. Saudi Arabia sends troops to boost those of King Hamad. State of emergency declared
President Saleh agrees to hand over power to his deputy, with an election to follow. But several people are shot dead at a rally held to protest a clause in the power deal guaranteeing President Saleh immunity from prosecution
King Mohammed VI agrees to constitutional reforms after February protests
The government cuts taxes on food following protests
A range of geographical factors help explain why local communities in this part of the world finally took action against institutionalised corruption in 2011.
Population structure changes All the countries experiencing uprisings have recently entered Stage 3 of the demographic transition model. This means that there is a very large "bulge" in the young working cohorts aged 15-30 (the last generation to have been born while birth rates were still extremely high). Very large and technologically "switched-on" youthful populations have been able to exert "people power".
Economic uncertainty Since 2008, food and energy prices have increased sharply worldwide, doubling since 2000 (see four corners of the food crisis). The global economic problems that escalated in 2008 have made matters even worse. The value of migrant remittances has fallen; so too has North Africa’s income from tourism and the value of out-sourced work for French TNCs operating in French-speaking North Africa. Rising unemployment has left too many young people competing for too few poorly-paid jobs.
Use of technology Right across Africa, mobile phone ownership has passed 40%. Some of the highest rates of internet take-off are found in countries where there has recently been an uprising (Figure 2). These countries are "switched-on" to telecommunications and social networking as part of a wider, global picture: from Indonesia to London, young people have recently orchestrated demonstrations and civil disobedience using sites like Facebook. In Egypt, Facebook and Twitter were used to organise mass protests on January 25, nick-named "police day" (Financial Times, 14 February 2011). Internet users visiting foreign news websites also discovered information about the extent of their government’s corruption.
Figure 2 The top internet-using countries in Africa, 2009
Aspirational culture These countries are emerging economies whose young people consume global media and have often developed consumerist aspirations. MTV broadcasts throughout North Africa and the Middle East, courtesy of MTV Arabia (see Going Global: MTV networks). Music videos often celebrate conspicuous consumption; such images can lead young viewers to question the lack of trickle-down of national wealth into their own poor neighbourhoods. Also, the Al Jazeera television station, broadcast from affluent Qatar, has raised political and environmental awareness amongst the poorer residents of cities like Cairo. From this source, they have learned that President Mubarak’s multi-billion dollar empire was partly built from luxury Red Sea property deals. Egypt’s poor are questioning why they still must endure ashwa’iyat slum conditions at risk of flooding and landslides (Guardian, 25 June 2011).
Ending autocracy Until recently, political power seemed certain to be transferred from generation to generation within the ruling families of several states, angering citizens. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled from 1971-2000. The Gaddafi clan’s power extended deep into Libya’s business community. Attempts in Egypt by President Hosni Mubarak’ son, Gamal Mubarak, to seize more power, infuriated political opposition.
Major political shockwaves spread through North Africa and the Middle East during 2011.
Of all the uprisings, events in Libya caused the greatest loss of life (up to 30,000 are reported to have died). The uprising in Libya was also accompanied by major international involvement, with the mobilisation of air force and ground strikes by UK and American forces.
In contrast, the uprisings in Egypt and Libya were, at first, relatively peaceful, although tensions in Egypt built up once more in late 2011. Frustration with the slow pace of reform brought fresh skirmishes between protestors and the army (for instance, when the Coptic Christian minority clashed with Egypt’s interim army in October, 27 people were killed).
Other neighbouring countries may yet experience regime change. History shows that democracies have increased in number over time, while the number of autocracies has fallen (Figure 3). At the time of writing, the future looks uncertain for Syria.
Figure 3 Global trends in governance Source: Financial Times, 15 February 2011
Tunisia’s first free elections took place in September; Egypt’s began in November. However, although a promise of reform was achieved by protestors, it remains to be seen how fast greater economic and social development may now follow. If environmental and economic conditions do not improve quickly in urban areas such as Cairo, further instability could ensue.
One political theory suggests that democracy generally succeeds once a country has achieved a GDP per capita of $6,000 or more; however Egypt’s un-adjusted figure is still lower than this, according to the (Financial Times 14 February 2011). Moreover, unemployment is still rising and not falling In Tunisia and Egypt, partly because levels of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) have fallen, due to the increased investment risks perceived by transnational corporations. In Libya, the protracted conflict is estimated to have caused GDP to contract by 28% in 2011 (Financial Times, 10 October 2011).
Without greater economic stability across the region, further turmoil may yet ensue.
1. Questions for discussion
Examine the view that economic and political development usually go hand-in-hand.
To what extent could western governments be held responsible for alleged human rights abuses recorded in Tunisia and Libya during the 1990s?
Discuss possible practical solutions for Cairo’s current housing crisis.
2. On-going research
Events in North Africa are still un-folding; notably, Egypt’s staggered election result will not be known until well into 2012 (the Muslim Brotherhood is predicted to be a big winner of votes). Students could compile their own "geography in the news" file - or maintain a bulletin board displaying news cuttings about events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria.
"There’s no shame in talking to people like Gaddafi" Guardian, 06 November 2011
"Democracy is our revenge" New Statesman, 04 February 2011
"Evolution of an uprising" Financial Times, 14 February 2011
"For Cairo's slum dwellers, rockfall fears prompt hopes of a broader revolution" Guardian, 24 June 2011
"Shaky hands syndrome" Financial Times, 10 October 2011
"Egypt has history on its side" Financial Times, 15 February 2011
BBC The Arab uprising
Arab spring: an interactive timeline of Middle East protests. Guardian 21 November 2011
Written by Dr Simon Oakes, a Geography Chief Examiner who teaches at Bancroft’s School, Essex
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