Analysis: Regime change in North Africa: The seeds of the Arab Spring are fecund, but will democracy bloom?


In this article I offer a backgrounder on the uprisings, revolutions, and democratic developments ongoing throughout the Arab world. I undertake a critical analysis of the prospects for Arab and/or Muslim democracy as they differ across Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in particular, and finally, I suggest some ways that we may support the struggle for democracy and human rights in the region.

With protests ongoing across swaths of the Middle East and North Africa three countries in particular — first Tunisia, then Egypt, and now possibly Libya — exhibit perceptible positive political change on the ground. Western journalists and bloggers cannot help but compare the possibility for a reversal in progress in the Arab world to those of Europe in 1848; a time of great hope for freedom from despotism and despair.(2) Analysts thus question whether the Arab Spring will bloom, or whether, like the revolutions rife across Europe in 1848 there will be a return to the status quo ante.

Although the uprisings and revolutions across the region share a common impetus (the Tunisian revolution and the ouster of former Tunisian President Ben Ali) and a common goal (democracy, human rights, and a liberalisation of politics), it would be spurious to lump their progress, let alone their potential for political change, together. Instead, each case should be viewed through the micro lens and protean character deserving of the respective histories, contexts, needs and demands still unfolding. That said, (where) will devolution occur and (where) will popular calls for democracy prevail?

Backgrounder: The seeds of the Arab Spring

“I had no idea that Tunisia would alight this awakening,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stated at a town hall meeting in Tunis, Tunisia. “The revolution here has begun the democratic transformation and it is my great hope that Tunisia will be the model of democracy for the 21st century.”(3) On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in the city of Sidi Bouzid, set himself ablaze in response to an abject affront to his basic human dignity: after a Tunisian policewoman abruptly seized Mr. Bouazizi’s cart and products, leaving him without a means to support his extended family of eight once more, the policewoman slapped Bouazizi, spat in his face, and insulted his deceased father after he tried to pay the set fine for his misdemeanour. His solitary act of self-immolation led to a watershed of protests across the region that continues to provide hope for democracy, human rights, and political liberalisation in a part of the world hitherto ruled predominantly by authoritarians. Dubbed in the Western media as the “Arab Spring” or the “Jasmine Revolution” (in keeping with the global parlance of revolutions of coloration), the Tunisian milestone is known to the Arab world as the “Sidi Bouzid Revolt.”

The military-initiated 14 January 2011 ouster of former President Ben Ali followed creeping unrest across Tunisia in which peaceful protests were met by brutal violence that ultimately further fuelled the conflagration. “The end of the age of dictators in the Arab world?” Middle Eastern historian and analyst Robert Fisk asked in an article written just three days after Ali’s dismissal: “If it can happen in the holiday destination of Tunisia, it can happen anywhere, can’t it? It was feted by the West for its ‘stability’ when Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was in charge. The French and the Germans and the Brits, dare we mention this, always praised the dictator for being a “friend” of civilised Europe, keeping a firm hand on all those Islamists.”(4)

The same thing can also be said of the role of the U.S. in Egypt. That is, until the Obama administration was certain that Egyptian protestors were likely to succeed; the United States loyally supported Mubarak, their long time puppet and partner in Egyptian-Israeli peace. Egypt, the most populous and popular of Arab nations is significant in that the fall of Mubarak portends positive regime change for other peoples in the region, so long as protesters can remain steadfast in the face of Arab dictators’ draconian suppression.

The Egyptian protests fulminated on 25 January 2011 in response to a number of growing domestic discontents: police brutality, corruption, decades of enforced emergency laws, and plans for then President Hosni Mubarak’s son to replace the despot as new ruler of Egypt. Unlike the Tunisian case, wherein the military quickly abandoned support for Ben Ali, those nearest to Mubarak demonstrated an obdurate loyalty to his National Democratic Party (NDP) and regime. Furthermore, despite the fact that the parliament was dissolved and the constitution frozen, old mechanisms in place to maintain Mubarak’s rule within the military establishment proved difficult to dismantle. Indeed, the same centres of power remained since Nasser led the Free Officers Movement of 1952.(5) At the top of the protestor’s demands was the resignation of Hosni Mubarak himself. And despite his palliative measures intended to propitiate the protestors, the majority of Egyptians remained true to their primary objective, leading to the eventual 11 February 2011 resignation of their former dictator.

In Libya, the fighting is ongoing. The country is split geographically and ideologically. On one side, pro-Gaddafi forces comprised those in the army still loyal to him, alongside members of his tribe, the Qadhadhfa, struggle to retain power. On the other side, the majority of Libyans continue to fight in the name of democracy, freedom, and change despite the barrage of attacks they continue to incur for their dissidence. “Libyans as a whole… want a civilian democracy, not dictatorship, not tribalism and not one based on violence or terrorism,” Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, Vice Chairman of the opposition’s National Provisional Council, announced.(6) Since 15 February 2011, Libyan revolutionaries have resolved to free themselves from Gaddafi’s 41-year rule while calling for a return to the 1952 constitution. Like elsewhere throughout the region, corruption, abuses of human rights, and political repression is rife. And like elsewhere, Libyans have had enough.

The situation in Libya differs markedly from Egypt and Tunisia, however, primarily in that Libyans peacefully protesting under Gaddafi’s siege called for outside aid. As Juan Cole avers: “The humanitarian situation in Libya was fairly unique. You had a set of tank brigades willing to attack dissidents, and responsible for thousands of casualties and with the prospect of more thousands to come, where aerial intervention by the world community could make a quick and effective difference… The other Arab Spring demonstrations are not comparable to Libya, because in none of them has the scale loss of life been replicated, nor has the role of armoured brigades been as central, nor have the dissidents asked for intervention, nor has the Arab League. For the UN, out of the blue, to order the bombing of Deraa in Syria at the moment would accomplish nothing and would probably outrage all concerned. Bombing the tank brigades heading for Benghazi made all the difference.”(7) Indeed, at one time Gaddafi’s superior forces nearly took Benghazi, the revolutionary’s stronghold, before coalition forces stepped in. Sanctioned by the Arab League and the subsequent declaration of United Nations Resolution 1973, a no-fly zone protects the protestors and revolutionaries, albeit with greater intervention than 1973 calls for (including the bombing of pro-Gaddafi villages housing innocent men, women, and children). Anti-Gaddafi forces based in the Eastern portion of the country wage onward in attempts to regain territory lost to pro-Gaddafi militia in recent days.

A Libyan Government envoy headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi is touring European capitals in attempts to bring about a détente. Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim unconvincingly argues that Gaddafi has acted as “a safety valve for the country to remain together.” “The leader provides Libyan tribes and Libyan population of a unifying figure, as a unifying figure,” he continued. “Many Libyans, many Libyans want him to lead the process forward because they are scared if he is not there for any reason we will have what happened in Iraq, we will have what happened in Somalia, we will have what happened in Afghanistan,”(8) while Gaddafi iterates that those speaking out against him are members of al-Qaeda — an equally half-baked and desperate proclamation. A Gaddafi envoy told Greece’s Prime Minister on 3 April 2011 that the Libyan leader wanted to end the conflict. Yet while Gaddafi repeatedly calls for a cease-fire, he appears loath to initiate one of his own volition.

Also unlike Egypt’s uprising — a culmination of years of protests organised by various factions, unions, and student groups — Libya’s movement appears extemporaneous, lacking direction and an overarching plan. Libya’s revolution is a stentorian voice devoid of a figurehead, a movement bereft of a definitive mover. Analysts rightly ponder whether the next leader of Libya will vie for democracy, or whether happenstance or foreign intervention — the latter perhaps also motivated by “stability” for Libyan oil — will result in the installation of an imperious leader.(9)


Foreground: Will democracy bloom?

While analysts and commentators are not yet in a position perspicacious enough to venture a comfortable guess as to whether Libyan democracy, let alone a Libyan revolution, will prevail, Egyptian and Tunisian conditions appear favourable. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon remarked shortly after meeting with Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunis: “The United Nations is ready to provide all support to the Tunisian Government and people, particularly in the area of the electoral process and constitution drafting and helping the Tunisian Government to restore the rule of law and promote human rights, [as well as] promote gender equality.”(10) On the other hand, some Tunisians, growing impatient, believe that “[t]he Government is not really working toward real democracy” at all.(11) Notwithstanding, the interim Government’s (lack of) due diligence, 44 political parties registered to vote in the coming elections, with more expected to register still. Having said that, as one analyst suggests: “Few have laid out clear policies. All deride the old regime but few manifestos spell out what they would do instead. Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Nahda (Awakening), which was banned under Mr Ben Ali, and the liberal Democratic Progressive Party (known by its French initials, PDP), may, for the moment, lead the pack. With no proper opinion polls,” however, “no one knows who will win.”(12)

In Egypt, a former member of the Gamaat Islamiyya (13) speaks of the moderate Islam encouraged by political freedoms: “Over the years it became apparent that violence harmed us and the image of Islam. The state could always hit us back harder than we could hit them. It became practical to stop violence and look for a peaceful way. I discovered while studying Sharia law in prison that Islam didn’t entitle us to bloodshed. Today’s young grew up freer than we did. They did not develop the same rage that inspired us. Even the Islamic movement is seeing things differently. It’s trying to speak to our current times. Before, we thought you could remove the infidel ruler only through force. Today, we see we can do it through peaceful protest and the ballot box.”(14) For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood maintains that it will reinforce peace treaties with Israel. The Brotherhood says that it unequivocally supports democratic elections and greater political liberalisation in Egypt.(15) Indeed, to allay alarmists’ concerns that the Brotherhood will take the Presidency and “Islamise” the country,(16) the popular religious-cum-political party decided not to run as a candidate in the upcoming elections. Elsewhere in the region, too, the Brotherhood is leading popular calls for democratisation, liberalisation, and reform.(17)

A number of scenarios could ensue:

1. In the first scenario, the will of the people is victorious. Democracy is instituted, and freedom and equality, however, it is understood, is realised— whether influenced or motivated by Islam or not.(18) Egypt has a strong history of political liberalisation, making it a democratic top contender.(19) There, the Supreme Military Council (SMC) outlined the military’s role as an interim power, and despite recent bouts of violence, the country is set to hold legislative elections in December 2011. Presidential elections are to follow within two months of that, and a withdrawal of the emergency laws is supposed to precede both. Most importantly, the interim cabinet is considering proportional representation.(20) Democracy and democratic institution-building takes time. But the potential is certainly palpable.

2. In the second scenario, the veneer of democracy is ostensible, but strong-arm political policies and glass ceilings on political participation prevail. As Barbara Geddes notes, this scenario spells the worst for democratic transitions: dictatorships with democratic patinas (electoral authoritarianism) are the least likely forms of political models to transition to democracy.(21)

3. Lastly, the Arab Spring of 2011 resembles the Europe of 1848. Political factions argue incessantly, and democratic institutions, if they were instantiated at all, vanish into the ether. Democracy falls to the wayside, and full-fledged authoritarianism returns.

The uprisings and revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa are couched in a vernacular that bespeaks progressive hopes and dreams for the future of Arabs and Islam. By calling it a revolution, and not a Jihad, Muslim youth have consciously reasserted opposition to authoritarianism in a language that is decidedly not of the radical Islamist persuasion. And neither is it prototypically “Western:” “The reality is, right now, the revolution is speaking many languages, as it contains diverse aspirations. It is speaking the language of universalism, which is neither left nor neo-liberal, but at the very foundation of pluralistic Muslim societies.”(22)

A lot of the region’s successes fall on Western powers and Western hypocrisy. Consider the fact that the U.S., in particular, is highly selective about where it supports democratic transitions and revolutions and where it does not. Not in Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stowed (for now — there are indications that the Fifth is clandestinely evacuating),(23) but now in Egypt. Not in Saudi Arabia, with whom the U.S. shares a strong oil partnership/security alliance (in part due to Saudi Arabia’s oil, and, in part, due to its large Shiite population), but in Libya, where Gaddafi has become an unreliable bedfellow.

Take Libya, for another example. As Gilbert Anchar writes: “the way to… enable the uprising to win, in conformity with the Libyan people’s right to self-determination, is for the hypocritical Western governments – who have sold a lot of weapons to Gaddafi since the arms embargo on Libya was lifted in October 2004 and Gaddafi turned into a model – to deliver arms to the insurgency.” (The European Union granted licenses for $834.5 million of arms exports to Gaddafi through the end of 2009, without counting the expanding sales in 2010; the U.S. government under the Bush administration approved arms sales to Libya for $46 million in 2008; the Obama administration reduced this figure to $17 million in 2009 while considering an armoured car deal that would have increased it substantially.) Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the Libyan opposition, told reporters during the international meeting on Libya, convened in London on March 29 that, properly equipped, rebels “would finish Gaddafi in a few days.” Other members of the Libyan opposition made similar statements. And yet, under the pretext that United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1973 reiterated the imposition of an arms embargo on the Libyan territory, Western governments are refraining from delivering weapons to the uprising, while the U.S. administration is indecisive to the point that Obama carefully avoided the issue in his speech, only speaking of denying arms to the Libyan regime. When faced with media questions about it later on, he replied: “I’m not ruling it out, but I’m also not ruling it in.” “This should definitely be denounced,” Anchar concludes.(24)

Commenting on Tunisia and the wider Arab world, Fisk remarks: “they will do what we want. Ben Ali has fled. The search is now on for a more pliable dictator in Tunisia – a ‘benevolent strongman’ as the news agencies like to call these ghastly men. And the shooting will go on – as it did yesterday in Tunisia – until ‘stability’ has been restored.” For Fisk, U.S. hegemony and Western dominance seems hopelessly incontrovertible. Realpolitik speaks louder than words. “No, on balance, I don’t think the age of the Arab dictators is over, he opines, taking umbrage with a history of the relationship between “the West and the rest” that he knows all too well to favour the former. “We will see to that.”(25)

What can be done to prove Fisk wrong and maintain a strong impetus for democratic change? For one, we can support the uprisings, whether monetarily or otherwise, and see to it that they are not overshadowed by Western media, only to be suppressed and silenced by Arab regimes, their militias and mercenaries. The Libyan revolutionaries, for example, must be properly equipped with the arms necessary to overthrow Gaddafi. We can ask our politicians what they are doing to aid revolutionaries and democrats alike. We can keep an open mind and hopeful heart about the benefits of what Arab and/or Muslim democracy can do for regional and global peace and stability. Indeed, these revolutions are breaking stereotypes of the left, right, and centre,(26) forging instead democratic theories anew. Lastly, we can invest ourselves, whether through action or dialogue, in the efforts to bring about that which we so often take for granted: freedom and equality, rule of the people, democracy, human rights, and political liberalisation, however, it is understood between and across the different peoples and cultures of our shared world and shared horizons. If not for the Arab world, then for ourselves: Arab and Muslim democratic theory is likely to teach us a thing or two about what Western democracies are doing wrong, where we as democrats are going astray, and how we may strengthen our own praxis. Certainly, many of our democratic preconceptions have gone awry, as especially evinced by the selectivity with which we prioritise neo-liberal and neo-conservative “values” over and above “other” democratic ones.


This article is republished with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see

(1) Contact Matthew Gordner through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit ([email protected]).
(2) Kurt Anderson, Kurt, ‘1848 vs. 2011′, Time Online, 10 March 2011,
(3) Hillary Rodham Clinton, ‘Secretary Clinton’s Townhall Meet in Tunis, Tunisia’, Archive, 17 March 2011,
(4) Fisk, Robert, ‘The brutal truth about Tunisia’, The Independent Online, 17 January 2011,
(5) Excerpt from Gordner, Matthew J., ‘Whither Post-Revolutionary Egypt? The evolution of Egyptian revolution and prospects for Arab/Muslim democracy’, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, 2 March 2011,
(6) Ryan Lucas et. al., ‘Gadhafi envoy in Europe to seek end to crisis’, Associated Press, 4 April 2011,
(7) Juan Cole, ‘An open letter to the Left on Libya’, The Nation Online, 28 March 2011,
(8) ‘Libya: Government says Libya needs Gaddafi in power’, BBC News Online, 4 April 2011,
(9) Noam Chomsky et. al., ‘Noam Chomsky: On Libya and the Unfolding Crisis’, Znet Online, 31 March 2011,
(10) Ban Ki-moon, ‘Ban pledges full UN help for Tunisia’s transition to democracy’,” U.N. News Centre, 22 March 2011,
(11) Shashank Bengali, ‘After starting wave of revolution, Tunisia tries to preserve its own’, Miami Herald Online, 3 April 2011,
(12) Sidi Bouzid, ‘Tunisia: It could be normal’, The Economist Online, 31 March 2011,
(13) The Gamaa al-Islamiyya is a militant group responsible for a number of heinous and violent attacks, including the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat and a massacre at an ancient Luxor temple that killed 62 people in 1997 comprised mostly of tourists.
(14) Jeffrey Fleishman, “Islamists in Egypt seek change through politics’, LA Times Online, 3 April 2011,
(15) See Matthew J. Gordner, ‘Whither Post-Revolutionary Egypt? The evolution of Egyptian revolution and prospects for Arab/Muslim democracy’, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, 2 March 2011,
(16) For alarmist’s concerns, see for example Chris Heatherly, ‘If Egypt Falls: A Strategic Analysis’, Daily Review Atlas, 30 March 2011,
(17) ‘Syria Brothers Back Uprising, Urge Freedoms’, 6 April 2010,
(18) Matthew J. Gordner, ‘Islam and Democracy in Africa: Beyond the Compatibility Problem and Towards Islamist Participation’, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, 2 February 2010,
(19) For a history of Egypt’s democratic and liberal bents and experiments, see Matthew J. Gordner, ‘Egypt: Caught Between Democracy and Naught, Part II’, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, 16 February 2010,; Matthew J. Gordner, ‘Egypt: Walking a Regional Tight Rope Between Domestic Democracy and Naught’, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, 2 December 2009,
(20) Nashwa el-Hofi, ‘Cabinet mulls holding elections on proportional representation’, Al Masry Al Youm Online, 12 April 2011,
(21) Katie M Vinton, ‘Geddes Analyses Dictatorships’, The Crimson, 7 April 2011,
(22) Jacqueline O’Rourke, ‘Packaging the Revolution Post 9/11′, Z Magazine, 1 April 2011,
(23) ‘Sources: Fifth Fleet abandons base in Bahrain; Navy denies evacuation underway,’ 16 March 2011,
(24) Gilbert Anchar, ‘Barak Obama’s Libya speech and the tasks of anti-imperialists’, ZNet Online, 31 March 2011,
(25) Op. cit.
(26) Cam McGrath, ‘Arab uprisings breaking down media stereotypes,’ IPS Online, 7 April 2011,