Rolling back democracy won’t remove the desire for freedom in the Arab world.
While the Arab Spring caught pretty much everyone by surprise (don’t believe anyone who says otherwise), Tunisia’s present crisis that risks upending its fragile democratic experiment was most assuredly expected.
After all, since the Arab Spring exploded onto the scene and toppled four decades-old dictatorships – and threatened to dispense with yet more – it has been resisted by counterrevolutionary forces in a vicious fightback primarily orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other despotic regimes, tacitly backed by the West.
Tunisia was the cradle of the Arab Spring, launching a series of sustained protests calling for greater participation in political life and greater economic opportunity that lingers in some fashion to this day.
While Tunisia gave birth to the Arab Spring, if President Kais Saied overturns democracy, then Tunisia will also be its grave.
Hope turned to despair
On January 14, 2011, Tunisia’s dictator of almost 24 years, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia and was the first tyrant to fall to what seemed like the unstoppable wave of Arab fury at their corrupt, violent and oppressive rulers. It was not long before he was followed by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. Syria’s Bashar Al Assad was beginning to also feel the heat and was in the early phases of what would ultimately become a savage campaign of mass murder against the Syrian people, aided and abetted by Iran and Russia.
What we saw was unprecedented. All previous attempts at revolt had been brutally suppressed, with Assad’s father famously killing thousands in Hama in 1982 amongst other bloody massacres perpetrated by other Arab dictatorships to ensure their people stayed in line.
Everyone was hopeful. There were significant problems including chaotic demonstrations and counter demonstrations, lengthy parliamentary discussions about redrafting tyrannical constitutions, and economic and political instability leading to insecurity and the rise of armed groups across the region.
However, and despite the mess, elections were ultimately held in several of the region’s legislatures and many believed that the days of entrenched despots passing on power to their sons in monarchies dressed as republics were long behind them.
Sadly, that was not meant to be.
Egypt was the first to fall to the darkness of dictatorship after General Abdel Fattah el Sisi betrayed his commander-in-chief and overthrew the first and only democratically elected government of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 in a bloody putsch that claimed thousands of lives.
In Yemen, a combination of Iranian interference and Saudi Arabian paranoia led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. The Libyans fared little better, with the country effectively cleaved in two by competing parliaments, with the UN-backed administration almost falling were it not for Turkey’s timely and wildly successful intervention in 2020 that forced warlord Khalifa Haftar to flee back to the eastern half of the country.
The one relatively stable success story of the Arab Spring remained the place where it all began – Tunisia. Even there, however, the country went through years of instability caused by weak governments and power-sharing deals, with the democratic conservative (and not Islamist) Ennahda party being hesitant to repeat the Egyptian experience and so agreed to several coalition governments.
However, all that is now at great risk of unravelling due to the actions of President Saied who decided to eschew the ballot box as the only legitimate way to transfer power and decided to suspend parliament and declare emergency powers for himself.
This is a pattern the Arab world has seen time and again, and all Arabs know that these “emergencies” never end, keeping the newly empowered dictator ensconced at the head of what’s left of their state.
The desire for freedom remains
Ennahda were all too aware that, in each of the failed dalliances with democracy above, the UAE and its allies were working night and day to roll back all the gains of the Arab Spring. After all, how dare Arabs consider themselves to be worthy of dignity, a life without nepotism and corruption marring their economic opportunities?
How dare they have the temerity to desire a say in who gets to govern them? Such insolence, as these tyrannical regimes saw it, needed to be punished with an iron fist so that the Arab public never again think about democracy.
Tacitly supporting the UAE in its regressive mission of subjugation was none other than the West, those champions of democratic values and human rights. After lecturing the Arab world on the importance of change and governments that reflect the people’s will (who can forget former US President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo?), the US stood back as Sisi – backed by his Gulf Arab financiers – slaughtered thousands.
The West also lectured Turkey after it single handedly rescued the legitimate authorities in Libya from an autocratic warlord. The West also did precious little as Assad repeatedly gassed his own people.
With Tunisia as one of the final standing bastions of democracy in the Middle East – and with the UAE nefariously involved in Turkey’s own aborted coup attempt in 2016 – it is clear that its fall to the forces of anti-freedom monarchs and dictators will essentially spell the end of the democratic experiment in the Arab world.
After seeing how none of the promises of the West were kept in terms of supporting these young democracies, Arabs will come to understand that the West always prefers to deal with a single autocrat rather than the will of the people who will determine what is in the nation’s best interests rather than what is in the interests of a corrupt leader.
Arabs have now come to understand that, to the West and its Arab tyrant allies, democracy is only acceptable when the people vote for the parties they want in power. Other than that, the people cannot be trusted and must be punished severely.
This can be seen in how they reacted to a Hamas election victory in 2006, how they would not call Sisi’s coup a coup in 2013, and how Secretary of State Antony Blinken is now having friendly chats with President Saied while he tears up the Tunisian constitution today.
When this is what Arab experience of democracy has been, we should not be surprised if they sought out other ideological and political tools to aid them in their quest for emancipation.
Just because democracy as an ideology may be dying in the Arab world, that does not mean that Arabs have given up on their freedom. Arab rulers ought to fear the next wave of popular protests because now their subjects are wiser to their games and will not let the Arab Spring experience happen again.
Tallha Abdulrazaq is an award-winning academic and writer, with a specialism in Middle Eastern strategic and security affairs.