Political battles overshadow Arab Spring gains

The suicide by immolation of unemployed Tunisian graduate and vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi sparked protests that led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 28 days later Reuters

The Arab Spring represents a tectonic shift in the region’s political landscape. Yet two years on, divisions between secularists and Islamists risk stalling the revolutions. Simmering angers over poverty remain and women’s rights progress is sketchy.

This content was published on December 13, 2012 - 11:00
Islah Bakhat,

“Every time society feels its hard-won gains are in danger, civil society groups go out on the streets to protest alongside political parties to make their voices heard, and defend freedoms and the rule of law,” said Rachid Khechana, head of the North Africa section at the satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera.

In Tunisia, a compromise deal was signed on December 12 between Tunisia’s Islamist-led cabinet and the UGTT, the country’s largest and most powerful labour union. UGTT had called for a general strike on Thursday to protest attacks against its members in Tunis by supporters of the government.

In a statement released before the deal was announced, the union, which says it has around 500,000 members, blamed the government for the violence that affected civil society.

Observers had feared that a strike - the latest escalation in the clash between the union and the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party - would plunge the economically struggling country back into chaos, threatening its government and its transition to democracy.

However, Tunisians' discontent with their post-revolution government has yet to reach the levels in Egypt, where hundreds of thousands are protesting President Mohammed Morsi's recent decision to expand his powers.

Egypt’s political crisis may deepen: a referendum on a new constitution is planned for December 15. But the proposed charter has divided Egypt, with Morsi and his Islamist backers, including ultraconservative Salafis, in one camp, and secularists and leftists, including minority Christians and women, in the other.

“The lack of agreement between the different national political forces about a common strategy has allowed the Constituent Assembly, dominated by the Islamists, to control the constitution, disregarding notions of equality, human rights or minorities,” said Elham Manea, a political science associate professor at Zurich University.

On December 8 Morsi offered to rescind the decrees he issued on November 22 that gave him near absolute powers, but he insisted the referendum go ahead as scheduled. Mass rallies by both sides took place on Tuesday.

Give them a chance

Despite the divisions, Cairo-based political analyst Hammam Sarhane is convinced that Egyptians who suffered under the previous regime are ready to give the Islamists “a real chance” as their hands have not been “soiled by the blood of martyrs or corrupted by money stolen from the people”.

Adapting to the new transitional situation after a “long period of suffocation” will obviously take civil society a great deal of time, said Saad Mahiou, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

And on top of the schism between secularists and Islamists, there are also divisions among Islamists themselves, who are all asking the question: ‘What kind of political Islam do we really want?’, he commented.

Religious liberals, secularists and leftists must agree on a long-term strategy to ensure the civil nature of the Arab revolutions and successful democratic transition similar to those in Indonesia, Chile or Portugal, added Mahiou.

Women’s voices

During the Arab Spring, women from very different backgrounds fought side by side with men for regime change and a democratic new beginning, often for the very first time.

“Grandmothers were the ones encouraging their children to take to the streets, which was not very common in a country like Libya,” said Khaled Saleh director of the Geneva-based Libyan NGO Solidarity for Human Rights.

Two years on progress for women remains sketchy, however.

In Yemen women’s and human rights groups had managed to put women’s rights and marriages of young girls on the agenda of the national dialogue conference, which is part of the political transition process, Manea pointed out.

But at a recent conference on women's rights in London, organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune, campaigners said the Arab Spring had failed to deliver greater political power to women in the region or to offer them better protection from sexual harassment.

These things take time

In Egypt, a quota for female representation in parliament has been abolished, while in Tunisia, quotas mean that 30 per cent of assembly members are female. However, local rights groups lament that women ended up with very few posts in a transitional cabinet of over 40 ministers.

In Tunisia there is an ongoing debate about whether the new constitution, which could pass next year, should consider men and women to be "complementary”. There are concerns that full equality, legally secured in Tunisia since the 1950s, may be under threat under the ruling Ennahda party.

“All revolutions, as sudden as they sound, rarely produce results immediately. Momentum builds over time. It can take years or generations," Jordan's Queen Noor, widow of King Hussein, told the conference.

The rise of Islamist governments was not the main preoccupation because Islam was not the source of misogyny and female oppression, she said.

"The primary danger to women's advancement is not religious but economic and social,” she said, referring to traditional customs and societal viewpoints.

Key Arab Spring developments

December 17, 2010: The trigger for the Jasmine Revolution was the suicide by immolation of an unemployed 26-year-old university graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi.  His act was embraced by students, professionals and young people who were angry at a shortage of jobs and restrictions on public freedoms. 

14 January, 2011: President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile in Saudi Arabia on January 14, having been in power for 23 years.

3 February, 2011: Mass protests begin in Yemen.

February 11, 2011: President Hosni Moubarak resigns after 18 days of protests against his rule.

February 14, 2011: Large protests begin in Bahrain. These last for weeks but a government crackdown and intervention by Saudi troops suppress the demonstrations.

February 15, 2011: In Libya protests begin in the eastern city of Benghazi.

March 17, 2011: Libya bombed

March 16, 2011: Protests escalate in Syria, swiftly followed by a government crackdown.

April 2011: Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh resigns.

August 21, 2011: Libyan rebels enter the capital, Tripoli.

October 20, 2011: Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is killed.

October 23, 2011: Tunisia holds elections.

November 18, 2011: Egyptians begin voting in parliamentary elections.

February 27, 2012: Yemini president formally steps down.

June 24, 2012: Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, wins Egypt's first free presidential election.

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