Arab Spring’s blood drenched legacy

Hundreds of thousands have died in the fighting sparked by an uprising in Tunisia – the Arab Spring – but so little has changed.
Alan Howe
The Australian
Monday October 25, 2021

The Arab world has long been a combustible fusion of fear and faith. Both have been manipulated by sometimes unhinged tyrants who long ago understood the juggling act needed to maintain power. Corruption, cruelty and murder go a long way to keeping the peace. As does eliminating noisy dissidents in foreign capitals. And while economic growth alone will never be the opium of such people, it helps. But the simmering resentment of those who fear their leaders and the lackeys with guns who serve them often rests unnoticed for decades until something makes it gurgle to the surface. From there it can accelerate with volcanic force.

That’s what happened on December 17, 2010 when Tunisian council worker Faida Hamdy reportedly slapped and humiliated impoverished, persecuted kerbside vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who could not afford the $6 bribes police demanded to turn a blind eye to his street trading. It was also reported that she tipped over the modest cart of vegetables purchased on credit the previous evening.

Bouazizi walked to the local council offices to complain, but the staff wouldn’t let him enter. In any case, they regularly harassed powerless street sellers, including Bouazizi, 26, who then bought some petrol, went to the nearby police station and set himself alight. Before he died on January 4, 2011, first the capital, Tunis, then the rest of the country was consumed by rioting.

This, in turn, set the region ablaze in what was quickly dubbed the Arab Spring. Powerless people everywhere turned on their corrupt governments emboldened by events in Tunisia.

It all peaked 10 years ago today when Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was secretly buried after a hometown convoy in which he felt safe was bombed and then overwhelmed by rebels who stabbed him and shot him and put the bodies of the tyrant and his son on display.

The protests in Tunisia spread quickly to other nations, unsettled a dozen more, sparked off ongoing civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, saw the rise of ISIS, a coup in Egypt and street riots in other countries, even in oppressive Saudi Arabia.

Ten years on from Gaddafi’s death how are these countries at the centre of the Arab Spring faring? After all, they paid in blood for the freedoms they were seeking.

Tunisia: (Gross domestic product per person in 2010 – $3983. GDP last year – $3139.)

Bouazizi didn’t die immediately, but his actions nonetheless inspired unrest in a nation then led by the President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose family were demonstrating with clarity how to run a country for your own benefit. Ben Ali, close relatives and allies owned about 200 companies in Tunisia which the World Bank in 2014 estimated controlled 21 per cent of private sector profits. Ben Ali had structured his country’s economy to benefit them – for instance quadrupling the allowed import of luxury cars so that his son-in-law’s dealership could flourish. Members of the family started schools and “took over” a popular FM radio licence and entered the mobile phone sector. They then manipulated the market by shutting down competitors, often regulating them out of business.

Weary of this corruption, angry at food prices and with more than 13 per cent unemployed, Tunisians took to the streets in growing numbers. The security forces cracked down on rioters killing dozens and inflaming the situation. Ben Ali paid a well-publicised visit to the unconscious Bouazizi in hospital on January 2, 2011, hoping, no doubt, the young man would recover. He died two days later. As the situation deteriorated Ben Ali, who had been president 23 years, could see no end while he remained leader and on January 14 boarded a plane with his family and plans to fly to Paris where his wife Leila regularly shopped. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy would not give permission for the flight to land. The family flew instead to the Red Sea city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis welcomed them “Out of concern for the exceptional circumstances facing the brotherly Tunisian people and in support of the security and stability of their country … ”.

Ben Ali died in Jeddah, aged 83, in 2019.

After the revolution in his homeland, elections were held (involving about 100 parties) and a National Constituent Assembly formed to draft a new constitution. This assembly was run by a coalition orchestrated by the Ennahda Movement whose Islamist line grated with many Tunisians and after two secular opposition leaders were assassinated, followed by a return to street demonstrations, and with the economy in disarray, the government agreed to step down. In October 2014 Tunisians voted again. The secularist Nidaa Tounes party formed government. The party had been founded by Beji Caid Essebsi, who, aged 88, became president and embarked on liberal changes, including equal rights for women and for Muslims to be allowed to marry non-Muslims. He died towards the end of his term and at the 2019 elections the hard line Kais Saied, a former professor of constitutional law, supported by Ennahda, became president. He believes foreigners want to “spread homosexuality” in Tunisia, that negotiating with Israel is treasonable, and wishes to reinstitute the death penalty. On July 25 this year, Saied made a dramatic grab for power, sacking the prime minister and suspending parliament. Later he said he would change the constitution and rule by decree. The future of the only democracy to be born of the Arab Spring looks grim. Meanwhile, ISIS and al-Qaeda are active in the country which is regularly traumatised by terror attacks.

Arab Spring death toll: 338.


Egypt: (GDP in 2010 – $3058. Last year – $3547.)

There are more than 100 million Egyptians and what happens there resonates across the North Africa and the Middle East. Hosni Mubarak had been president 30 years when the Arab Spring unfolded, and it quickly claimed him. In late January, 2011, protesters started gathering nightly in Cairo’s Tahrir, turning into massive demonstrations against Mubarak, his astonishing wealth and the violent suppression of some Egyptians whose only crime was wishing to take part in the political process. He announced that he would not stand at the next election and pledged to reform the country’s constitution. That was February 1. It wasn’t enough. The unrest in Tahrir Square intensified and five protesters were killed with hundreds injured the next night. Mubarak shut down the internet and was defiant about his timeline on February 10, but the next day he was persuaded to go. He was barred from leaving the country, Swiss banks agreed to freeze the family’s assets, which were estimated to be as much as $70 billion, and he spent the next years in and out of custody – along with his sons – on charges ranging from corruption to murder. He beat most on appeals and technicalities, but the three of them spent years in jail during which Mubarak’s health was failing. He died last year aged 91.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011. Picture: AFP

Once Mubarak stepped down the Egyptian Army assumed power until elections in November 2011 that delivered power to the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, a former engineer associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. When Morsi began ruling by decree the courts went on strike. Cairo streets were soon a deadly battlefield of Morsi supporters and opponents and by late 2012, Tahrir Square filled again, this time with Egyptians protesting against the new president.

On July 3, 2013 the military, led by Field Marshall Abdel Fatta el-Sisi, resumed control. Subsequent rioting saw hundreds of civilians killed along with dozens of police. The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed and hundreds of its member sentenced to death.

Morsi was tried on charges including espionage, terrorism and incitement to murder. He too was sentenced to death, later overturned, and collapsed and died during yet another trial in 2019.

Stepping down from the military, el-Sisi ran for president in 2014 and won convincingly. He won again in 2018 and extended presidential terms from four years to six. A series of economic reforms has the economy slowly improving. According to the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website there is “a high risk of terror attack” in parts of the still divided nation.

Arab Spring death toll: 846.


Syria: (GDP in 2010 – $2032. Last year – $870.)

Relatively peaceful anti-government protests inspired by events in neighbouring countries were put down on March 15, 2011 with deadly violence by the Syrian Army. These took place in the cities of Hama and Homs and the seaport of Baniyas. President Bashar al-Assad’s fiery-tempered younger brother Maher runs the Republican Guard and the army’s Fourth Division, and even the UN’s traditionally biased Human Rights Council found his troops’ response to this dissent “a gross violation”, with Maher reportedly filmed shooting unarmed civilians in the suburbs of Damascus.
Despite civil war Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is still in charge. Picture: AFP

Al Jazeera carried a report quoting a Syrian Army sniper who defected as saying: “We were ordered to aim for the head or heart from the beginning. We were not given specific numbers but told to kill as many as possible as long as there were protests.” The locals wanted Bashar al-Assad removed, but a decade on he’s still there – even employing chemical weapons against “his” people – and, with Russia’s invaluable help, slowly winning the civil war that has shattered the economy, destroyed the country, and created more than 3 million refugees and displaced 10 million internally.

Arab Spring death toll including civil war: up to 606,000.


Yemen: (GDP in 2010 – $1334. Last year – $620.)

As in Syria, the Yemen government cracked down with force when its people agitated for greater freedoms, economic improvements and an end to corruption. Its attitude had been hardened by a Shia insurgency dating back to 2004. The countries of North and South Yemen had unified in 1990 with Ali Abdullah Saleh as its president. Saleh was a natural born fighter joining the North Yemen Army aged just 11. Saleh rose through army ranks, became a local governor and replaced Ahmad al-Ghashmi as president in 1978 when the latter was assassinated (al-Ghashmi had been anointed president after the assassination of his predecessor the year before).
Ex-Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed in 2017. Picture: AP

Two-faced doesn’t come near to describing Saleh who was often accused of running his country like a Mafia gang with spoils divided among those who enjoyed his patronage and kept him in power. One report estimated his wealth at $60 billion. He was closely involved with al-Qaida whose operatives would suspiciously escape Yemeni jails despite Saleh’s commitment to the War on Terror. He once referred to his life as “dancing on the heads of snakes”. After an assassination attempt in June 2011 that killed four bodyguards and severely burned Saleh, he still believed he could tough out the revolutionary forces surrounding him, including gunbattles in the streets of Sana’a, the country’s biggest city. He promised to step down, but didn’t. Then, while receiving treatment in New York in February 2012, he was forced aside to make way for his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Two years later Hadi was in the midst of a complex civil war as Shia Houthi rebels took over the capital Sana’a, and later the nation. By then, Saleh was siding with the Houthis whom he later betrayed – this time stepping on the wrong snake – so they killed him on December 4, 2017. By this time Saudi Arabia, in coalition with other Arab states, was bombing the rebels and reclaiming much of the country whose official government is still led by Hadi in exile in the Saudi capital Riyadh. The economy is ruined, cholera and other diseases are rampant while terror attacks, kidnappings and assassinations are common.

Arab Spring death toll: More than 2000, and 233,000 in the civil war so far.


Libya: (GDP in 2010 – $12,064. Last year – $3699.)

When Muammar Gaddafi became Libya’s “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution” after a 1969 coup, he acted swiftly to expel all the country’s Italians and Jews, stealing all their property on the way through and commemorating the events as the annual Vengeance Day. It was an insight for Libyans about how life would be from then on. In 2011, Gaddafi was more than ready should his countrymen have thoughts of revolt. They did, and they worked swiftly to announce a transitional alternative government and take control over some parts of the country, including suburbs of the capital Triploi. Gaddafi had his air force bomb the rebels along with rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire. Many of Gaddafi’s troops shot citizens freely, but others defected with their weapons to join the rebels. The UN expelled Libya from its Human Rights Council, a first, while on March 17, it sanctioned a no-fly zone over the country to try to protect its trapped citizens. This worked and, with B52 Stealth bomber sorties and constant attacks from US and NATO aircraft working from warships offshore, the revolution was certain of victory by August, finally ending with success in the Battle for Sirte, where Gaddafi was hiding among loyalists and hoping for home ground advantage. His convoy took off at high speed on the morning of October 20, 2011, but he wouldn’t live to see nightfall.
After 40 years at the helm Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was killed in 2011 by a street mob looking for justice. Picture: AFP

A second civil war broke out as prime ministers came and went, failing to unite the country which was being pulled apart by sectarian and tribal conflicts and endless attacks by Islamists seeking to cancel the nation’s heritage. This year, in UN-bartered talks, most the warring parties agreed to a truce and ceasefire. Elections are planned for January. But the future for the country with its well-armed militias is on a knife edge.

The year before the mob killed Gaddafi, he was interviewed by George Negus, perhaps the last Western journalist to talk to him. Speaking slowly in Arabic, but barely opening his mouth, Gaddafi comes across as intelligent and strategic, sometimes even amusing. At the end, Negus asks what Gaddafi he would like written on his headstone. The uneasy young Libyan interpreter avoids that by asking his boss what he would like written about him “in hundreds of years”. But Gaddafi’s English was good. “No, I heard a different question,” he tells the interpreter. “He (Negus) used other words.”

Ignoring the bootlicking assistant, who responds with “Sir, I don’t want to say them”, Gaddafi turns to Negus and laughs: “What’s to be said about me? That I worked for others.”

There would be no headstone. Four days after he and son Mutassim were killed they were buried beside each other, anonymously in the dull, scrappy sands at the back of Misrata for the desert to consume them.

Arab Spring death toll: Up to 20,000, with more than 10,000 killed in the second civil war.

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