Three Years After Uprisings, Arab States Take Different Paths

January 18, 2014

Here’s a snapshot of the Arab world on the third anniversary of its uprisings: Tunisians celebrated in the streets this month. Egyptians voted on a constitution that highlighted their bitter divisions. Beleaguered Syrians prayed that peace talks will bring an end to their nightmarish civil war.

The revolutionary fervor that gripped Arab nations in early 2011 has long since dissipated. All those that experienced uprisings have struggled to remake themselves and the prevailing mood across much of the region has been disappointment or worse.

Amid this messy process, several Arab Spring countries are working through significant events that will define the way ahead.

Here’s a look at Tunisia, the most hopeful Arab Spring nation; Egypt, the most populous Arab state; and Syria, the most convulsed.


Tunisian politicians are poised to approve a new constitution hammered out during protracted negotiations between Islamist and secular parties.

This alone sets Tunisia apart from other Arab states where the battle between Islamists and secularists is still playing out, often with deadly results.

A broad cross-section of cheering Tunisians spilled into the streets on Tuesday to mark the third anniversary of the ouster of Zine el-Abidene Ben Ali, the autocratic president who ruled for nearly a quarter-century before fleeing to Saudi Arabia.

It’s been a bumpy road for Tunisia. Protests have turned violent and high-profile assassinations threatened to tear the country apart. The negotiations on a constitution stalled and appeared near collapse at times. The economy is still weak.

But the parties have worked out compromises on tough issues. The constitution acknowledges that Islam is the religion of Tunisia but does not make reference to Islamic law. A section on women’s rights has been praised.

Elections are planned for later this year and will test whether all Tunisians have bought into the constitutional compromises.

“The debate over the proper role of religion in Tunisian society is central, and reveals, like few other issues do, just how polarized Tunisian society remains,” journalist Asma Ghribi wrote this week in Foreign Policy.


Egyptians have voted often since the former president, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted in February 2011, but their differences only seem to get deeper.

In balloting this past week, Egypt overwhelmingly approved a new constitution, according to preliminary results. But it was seen as a highly controlled exercise by the military-backed government, and not a product of national consensus-building.

“Although formally the constitutional referendum is the first step toward the restoration of a fully democratic process in Egypt, there should be no illusion that Egypt will move in the direction of democracy,” wrote Marina Ottaway of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

Egypt plans to hold elections later this year, but the Muslim Brotherhood, which swept the 2012 vote, has been declared a terrorist organization. Its leaders, including the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, have been jailed.

One key question now is whether the head of the army, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will run for president. He is hugely popular among those who supported the military’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood last July, and would be certain to win if the Muslim Brotherhood was not able to field a candidate, according to analysts.

“Even if the general resigns his army position, his victory would openly restore the military to the central position in Egyptian politics it acquired with the 1952 coup d’état,” Ottaway writes.

The U.S., a close Egyptian ally and a leading aid donor for decades, has found itself with little influence. Over the past six months, Egypt’s military has consistently cracked down on opponents and rejected calls by Washington and others in the international community to move toward a genuine democracy.


The international community is making a major push to find a solution to Syria’s civil war with peace talks in Geneva scheduled to start next Wednesday.

But not all the warring factions will be taking part. President Bashar Assad’s regime will be represented. However, the opposition remains badly fractured. Extremist militias linked to al-Qaida definitely won’t be there, and more moderate opposition groups were still trying to establish a unified front.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the aim to to create a transitional government in Syria that would not include Assad, who has ruled for 14 years, preceded by three decade of rule by his father, Hafez Assad.

“It will become clear that there is no political solution whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a transition and if he thinks he is going to be a part of that future,” Kerry said Friday. “It is not going to happen.”

But Assad doesn’t see it that way. He has insisted that he’s not willing to step aside.

Meanwhile, the battlefield has become increasingly fragmented as the al-Qaida-linked militias gain ground and frequently clash with the other opposition groups.

The United Nations announced that it will no longer publish death tolls, saying it has become too dangerous and difficult to produce reliable figures. The Syrian war is considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with roughly a quarter of Syria’s 25 million people displaced by the fighting.

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