News / Middle East

    Arab Spring Challenges, Two Years In

    Egyptians walk past graffiti on a wall at Tahrir Square in Cairo, January 16, 2013.Egyptians walk past graffiti on a wall at Tahrir Square in Cairo, January 16, 2013.
    x
    Egyptians walk past graffiti on a wall at Tahrir Square in Cairo, January 16, 2013.
    Egyptians walk past graffiti on a wall at Tahrir Square in Cairo, January 16, 2013.
    Mohamed Elshinnawi
    The wave of popular uprisings that started in Tunisia two years ago and subsequently swept through much of the Middle East has largely subsided, leaving in its aftermath a tense atmosphere of political and economic uncertainty at best, and deadly conflict at worst.

    Looking back and assessing what’s ahead, analysts agree that people who took to the streets in what at the time quickly became known as the “Arab Spring” today face bleak prospects in their quest for the changes they sought.

    In Tunisia, instability and social tensions persist, and Middle East analysts say the fear of violence, economic paralysis and political and religious divisions also trouble Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and other countries.

    In addition, the issues of governance and justice loom large.
     
    Daniel Brumberg is a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace on issues of democratization. He argues that each country has its own individual dynamics and has to be judged on its own terms.
     
    Supporters of President Mohamed Morsi chant slogans holding the Quran ahead of Egypt's controversial constitutional referendum, Cairo, December 14, 2012.Supporters of President Mohamed Morsi chant slogans holding the Quran ahead of Egypt's controversial constitutional referendum, Cairo, December 14, 2012.
    x
    Supporters of President Mohamed Morsi chant slogans holding the Quran ahead of Egypt's controversial constitutional referendum, Cairo, December 14, 2012.
    Supporters of President Mohamed Morsi chant slogans holding the Quran ahead of Egypt's controversial constitutional referendum, Cairo, December 14, 2012.
    ​“In Egypt, from the perspective of President [Mohamed] Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the first goal to pursue was to neutralize the challenge of the military and they have done that quite successfully,” Brumberg said.
     
    He adds, however, that the issue of “transitional justice” has been “pushed aside.” This includes, he explains, mechanisms to prosecute those most responsible for abuses by the previous regime, reparations for victims of the regime, reform of abusive institutions and creating commissions to investigate systematic patterns of abuse.
     
    Brumberg describes a different situation in Tunisia.
     
    “The democratically-elected government has assigned a minister for transitional justice, but he has met resistance from within the Interior Ministry and even from elements of the Justice Ministry itself and the struggle goes on,” he said.
     
    Brumberg pointed to different challenges facing the administration of justice in Libya.

    “You have militias with arms, a weak national army and a desire from those militias to take the mission of transitional justice into their hands, which is a real concern,” he said.
     
    F. Gregory Gause, a non-resident senior fellow specializing in domestic politics at Brookings’ Doha Center, believes that the consequences of government weakness severely limit even freely elected governments to do their jobs.
     
    “They do not have functioning bureaucracies to implement policies and, in the Libyan case, they struggled to rebuild police and military forces in the face of militias that are, in many cases, better armed, better funded and better organized,” Gause said.
     
    “Tribal, regional, and sectarian factionalism made political progress in Yemen agonizingly slow, as did tribal and regional divides in Libya,” he added.
     
    Militia fighters are seen shooting at a building in the center of Bani Walid, Libya, October 24, 2012.Militia fighters are seen shooting at a building in the center of Bani Walid, Libya, October 24, 2012.
    x
    Militia fighters are seen shooting at a building in the center of Bani Walid, Libya, October 24, 2012.
    Militia fighters are seen shooting at a building in the center of Bani Walid, Libya, October 24, 2012.
    Political polarization
     
    While Egypt and Tunisia are not considered weak states, both are suffering from unprecedented political divisions between Islamists and secular groups, says Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

    “There is such mistrust between the two sides that even on many issues that they have common goals, especially overcoming the legacy of older regimes, they can’t agree on how to proceed,” Ottaway said.
     
    Daniel Brumberg agrees.
     
    “There is a struggle over identity issues between Islamists and secularists which is really undermining the capacity to create the kind of consensus for peaceful change,” Brumberg said. “Political polarization is definitely disrupting the transition to democracy and even security reform and other transitional justice mechanisms due to the lack of consensus.”
     
    He said that even when an elected administration, the Tunisian government, tried to be inclusive and shared power with secular groups, the Muslim conservative Salafi groups pushed for more Islamic policies thus scaring off secular groups.
     
    Constitution drafting
     
    Marina Ottaway warns that if the secular groups and political parties cannot overcome their divisions, Islamist groups will become dominant. As an example, she cites Egypt.
     
    “Unless the secular parties manage to win more seats in the next parliament, then the constitution risks to be read in such a way that favors the Islamists and might cause a transition to an Islamic state,” she said.

    Gause of the Brookings Doha Center shares the same concern.
     
    “In both Egypt and Tunisia, the process of writing a new constitution has polarized society. Strong electoral showings have given Islamist parties the upper hand in the constitution-writing process,” Gause said. “Secular forces are actively opposing, but do not seem able to rally enough support in the society to block the Islamist constitutional projects.”
     
    A demonstrator holds a Tunisian flag as he joins others demanding more compensation for the families of those injured or killed during the uprising against now deposed President Ben Ali, Tunis, January 17, 2013.A demonstrator holds a Tunisian flag as he joins others demanding more compensation for the families of those injured or killed during the uprising against now deposed President Ben Ali, Tunis, January 17, 2013.
    x
    A demonstrator holds a Tunisian flag as he joins others demanding more compensation for the families of those injured or killed during the uprising against now deposed President Ben Ali, Tunis, January 17, 2013.
    A demonstrator holds a Tunisian flag as he joins others demanding more compensation for the families of those injured or killed during the uprising against now deposed President Ben Ali, Tunis, January 17, 2013.
    The economic challenge
     
    In addition to facing political, ethnic and religious tensions, Arab Spring countries  are confronted with  failing economies.
     
    Ottaway considers this the most daunting challenge of all because these countries have lost tax revenues, their gross domestic products have plummeted, investments have declined and tourism has all but vanished.
     
    Egypt is seen as having lost the most from the collapse of tourism. Cairo's foreign currency reserves have been depleted and there is no incentive for investors to put money on the table.
     
    In the case of Tunisia, Brumberg says, the drop in tourism is coupled with a host of other challenges.

    “Besides the fact that tourists are not coming back in huge numbers, there are also many deep structural problems such as dependence on tourism over trade,” Brumberg said. “Much of the Tunisian uprising was about jobs and social issues, but there was no sufficient change to really address the deep economic and social issues which is really fostering Islamic radicalism.”
     
    Experts agree that what complicates the economic challenges confronting the countries of the Arab Spring is that other, richer nations are held back by the global economic downturn.
     
    “There is not much aid available to help troubled economies like the Egyptian and Tunisian economies,” said Brumberg.

    You May Like

    Vietnam Urges US to Lift Lethal Weapons Ban Amid S. China Sea Tensions

    US president’s upcoming visit to Vietnam underscores strength of relationship, and lifting embargo would reflect that trust, ambassador says

    Are US Schools Turning a Blind Eye to Radical Qatari Preachers?

    Parade of radical Islamist clerics using mosque at Qatar’s Education City draws mounting criticism for American universities that maintain satellite branches there

    Why Islamic State Is Down But Not Out

    Despite loss of territory, group’s ferocious attacks over past three months seen as testimony to its continued durability and resourcefulness

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroadi
    X
    May 02, 2016 1:36 PM
    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With the conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, between the rebel PKK and the Turkish state, many Kurds are trying to escape the turmoil by focusing on the success of their football team Amedspor in Diyarbakir. The club is increasingly becoming a symbol for Kurds, not only in Diyarbakir but beyond. Dorian Jones reports from southeast Turkey.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora