Foreign Policy Blogs

Arab Spring: Winners and Losers in 2011

It is still too early to determine which Arab Spring countries will eventually become successes in their government reforms and transitions and which stagnate or descend into chaos.

Tunisia. With a homogeneous and well-educated citizenry, distaste for Islamist extremism, and recent free and fair elections, Tunisia stands the most to gain from the “Arab Spring.” A year ago in January, the Tunisian people disposed of former dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali and, with some difficulty, set up a transitional government. In October, Tunisians took their first step toward democracy and voted in the national assembly elections, with the Islamist Al-Nahda party winning the most seats. Less than a month after the elections, Al-Nahda formed a coalition with the center-left and secular Ettakatol party and began to shape the interim government. In the new year, Tunisia’s primary objective will be the re-writing of the constitution and the transition from an interim government to one that will, after a quarter century, reflect the will of the Tunisian people.

Morocco. Despite widespread protests early this year, Morocco’s opposition movement was unsuccessful in transitioning Morocco from a constitutional to a parliamentary monarchy. Last July, King Mohammed VI introduced constitutional reforms, including the appointment of the prime minister from the political party with the most seats in parliament and giving the prime minister new powers, including the ability to dissolve parliament and make appointments. Last month, Morocco held parliamentary elections and, like Tunisia, the Islamist party—the Justice and Development Party (PJD)—was the clear winner. The PJD succeeded in claiming 107 out of 395 seats, considerably short of an absolute majority. As a result, the PJD will form a coalition with the nationalist Istiqlal party. Many in the opposition movement remain frustrated as they believe that this will force parliament to compromise meaningful democratic change. While some protests may continue into next year, the monarchy is still widely popular.

Bahrain. A Shia-majority country ruled by a predominantly Sunni government has resulted in major sectarian divisions. Last February, Bahrain’s youth-led opposition movement took to the streets, demanding democratic reforms. Their calls were quickly overshadowed by the country’s leading Shia opposition movement, al Wefaq and related entities. Bahraini security forces responded by violently suppressing the opposition, leading to dozens of deaths.

Crown Prince Salman has attempted to negotiate with the opposition movement on several occasions but has been quickly rejected. Al Wefaq refused to engage in July’s National Dialogue and in the special elections last October, which filled the seats vacated by al Wefaq members earlier in the year.

In November, the government-directed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry gave a detailed account of the effects of the crackdown earlier this year. Bahrain is processing these recommendations and has pledged meaningful reform. The opposition has characterized the government’s vows to reform as meaningless.

Considering past attempts to overthrow the government—encouraged by the regime in Tehran—Bahrain’s opposition movement is likely to maintain momentum well into 2012 unless the government follows through on its reforms and ensures that they have a positive and noticeable impact on the Bahraini people.

Egypt. Amid weeks of violence and protests against Egypt’s military-led transitional government, Egyptians headed to the polls last week to cast their ballots in the country’s first free and fair elections. Since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last February, the military—credited with protecting protesters against regime brutality—has used a ham-fisted approach in restoring governance to Egypt. Promises for a speedy transition have not been kept, and the military has attempted to reserve special influences for itself, particularly over budgetary matters.

Last week’s first round of parliamentary elections took place among an explosion of violence when police cracked down on protesters in Tahrir Square. Despite this, 62 percent of eligible voters (9.7 million) cast ballots, making it the largest voter turnout in Egypt’s history. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won 36.6 percent of the vote, while the hard-line Salafi Al Nour Party won 24.4 percent. The next round of elections will take place next week and the last round the first weekend in January. If the Islamists continue on their current trajectory, it is likely that they will control parliament. While the Muslim Brotherhood has pledged a moderate Islamist approach toward governance, women and minorities are fearful that the government will reduce their rights.

Libya. Experiencing one of the bloodiest uprisings in the “Arab Spring,” Libya witnessed a civil war that started in February and ended with Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s death in October. When the Qadhafi regime began the widespread killing of opposition activists, the Obama Administration felt compelled to act—but only with the approval of the United Nations. In March, the U.N. adopted Resolution 1973 authorizing a no-fly zone over Libyan territory. After taking the initial lead in implementation, the Obama Administration quickly pawned the mission off on NATO, with the U.S. claiming the nonsensical role of “leading from behind.”

After a long summer of fighting that saw the opposition vacillate between gaining and losing ground, the opposition liberated Tripoli in August and captured and killed Qadhafi in October. As the Transitional National Council looks toward elections and the formation of a central government, it will face numerous security challenges, including spoilers looking to hijack the political process, weapons proliferation, and armed militias that operate independently of the interim government. The country’s interim leaders hope to hold parliamentary elections as early as June. As a country that has not held elections in more than four decades, the interim government is starting from scratch on election procedures. While 2011 saw the liberation of the Libyan people, 2012 will represent the success or failure of the new Libya.

Syria. Facing poor socioeconomic conditions and political oppression as in other Arab Spring countries, last winter, Syrians revolted against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. On February 4, Syrian activists initiated the country’s uprising against with a “day of rage.” However, it wasn’t until March when a government crackdown in Dara’a fueled the full mobilization of the opposition.

With widespread unrest throughout the spring and summer, the Assad regime has lost significant support from its neighbors and in the international community. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, though slow to denounce his former friend, has called upon Assad to step down and has provided significant support to the opposition. Last month the Arab League followed the United States and the European Union in levying sanctions against the regime. Currently, the Arab League is in negotiations with Assad to allow observers to investigate the brutality inflicted upon protestors. According to the U.N., up to 4,000 people have been killed.

The Assad regime is quickly losing influence, as many of its once-reliable partners have turned against it. The Sunni merchant class, which once profited off the regime, is starting to feel the impact of the sanctions and could soon abandon Assad. If the regime falls, the Syria’s once-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood is likely to fill the power vacuum and is considered by many as the heir to the regime. Despite its claims of moderate Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood is prone to double-speak. It’s unclear as to how a Shiite-dominated government would treat the minorities in Syria, particularly Christians, who often fare better under authoritarian regimes. It is becoming increasingly likely that in 2012 Syria will undergo a government transition. With power dwindling rapidly, the Assad regime is running out of options.

Yemen. Yemen’s uprising has escalated to the brink of civil war. Divided according to tribe, the country is split between loyalists to the regime and an opposition movement supported by General Ali Moshen, leader of Yemen’s First Armored Division and a regime defector. Despite President Ali Abdullah Saleh handing over authority to his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, last week, Saleh retains influence and maintains control over the regime’s security forces.

Since February, Yemen’s opposition movement has called for Saleh to step down. An attack on the presidential compound in June resulted in a wounded Saleh fleeing to Saudi Arabia. While away, protests continued but declined in momentum. In September, Saleh’s unexpected return reignited protests. Despite the embattled leader’s pledge to vacate power on three separate occasions, he continued to thwart the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) transition deal. It wasn’t until last month, when the GCC threatened with sanctions and the freezing of family assets, that Saleh agreed to a transition. While the GCC deal empowers Hadi to take over as interim leader effective immediately, it permits Saleh to keep his title until February’s elections. The opposition movement, which was not included in the formation of the deal, adamantly rejects it, as Saleh and his family were offered immunity from prosecution and the government will not be overhauled. In addition, Saleh still controls the security forces.

Yemen’s governmental instability has distracted attention from the growing terrorist threat. In September, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) occupied Arab Spring: Winners and Losers in 2011Zinjibar, the capital city of Abayan province. Forces are currently combating militants and have pledged to retake the city. The U.S. has acknowledged Yemen’s increasing attractiveness to terrorist activity. In October, Anwar al-Awlaki, the infamous AQAP propagandist and a high-value target, was killed with the assistance of Yemeni forces. While President Obama applauded the new transition deal, it is far from ideal and offers no guarantees to Yemen’s stability. With elections scheduled for February, Hadi stands as the only candidate and, according to the GCC deal, will run the country as a transitional figure until the next elections. With continued crackdowns, the opposition movement has made it clear that it will continue with its protests well into next year.



Morgan Roach

Morgan Roach is a Research Associate in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. She currently works on transatlantic relations, Middle Eastern and African affairs. She received her MSc. in European Studies from the London School of Economics and her B.A. in Government from Sweet Briar College.