By Stefan Wolff
The opinions expressed are his own.
When Mohamed Bouazizi, a jobless graduate in the provincial city of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, about 200km southwest of the capital Tunis, set himself on fire on December 18, 2010 after police had confiscated a cart from which he was selling fruit and vegetables, few would have predicted that this event would spark the phenomenon we now refer to as the Arab Spring. Protests quickly escalated in Tunisia and within four weeks Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had to flee to Saudi Arabia having failed to stop the protests either by repression of promises of reform.
On 17 January, one day after Ben Ali’s departure, another young man set himself afire near the Egyptian parliament. Within a week, coordinated mass protests began in Tahrir Square, and forced the resignation of long-serving Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who handed power to the military on 11 February.
Since then, the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt have made at best incremental progress in some areas. In Tunisia, the first elections anywhere as a result of the Arab Spring went ahead in October and the newly elected parliament had its inaugural session on November 22nd. The election winners, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda (Renaissance) will have a coalition arrangement with a liberal and a centre-left party. While Tunisia avoided the appalling violence that characterised the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the new government and parliament still face an up-hill battle in the transition to a more democratic political system, including drafting a new constitution.
In Egypt, the military was instrumental in pushing Mubarak out of office, but the slow progress towards democratic reforms, several deadly sectarian clashes between Islamists and Christian copts, tensions and violence on the border with Israel, and a heavy-handed police crack-down on continuing protests in Tahrir Square do not bode well for the country’s immediate future—even if parliamentary elections go ahead on 28 November. While the army seems keen not to want to actually govern the country, they seem equally determined not to give up their privileged position that gives them political influence and control over significant economic assets.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, it seems as if the old regimes are determined to hold on to power at all cost, and despite diminishing chances of success. In Yemen, a crisis that had engulfed the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh long before the Arab Spring began is nowhere closer to a resolution even after Saleh at long last agreed to a transition plan sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council. This plan saw Saleh hand over power to his Vice President (not the opposition), allows him to retain the title of President for another three months, guaranteed him immunity, and left his assets untouched and members of his family in charge of most of the government’s hard power. Forcing Saleh out of office does also not address at least two of the country’s major crises—the Houthi rebellion in the North and the secessionist insurgency in the south, the latter of which has formed an alliance of convenience with al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula. Unsurprisingly, violence in Yemen has continued unabated since Saleh signed the GCC transition plan on 23 November.