By Andrew England
Activists and revolutionaries reflect on their struggles for reform in the countries they fought to free.
A DEVASTATED YEMEN
Yemen was already one of the most fragile Arab nations before uprisings erupted against its veteran president Ali Abdullah Saleh in the last days of January 2011.
Tribalistic, impoverished and blighted by a corrupt, weak state, it was awash with arms and a base for one of al-Qaeda’s most active branches.
After months of protests, Saleh, a despot who once compared ruling Yemen to “dancing on the heads of snakes”, agreed to a transition that would end his 33-year reign.
Another ageing veteran of the regime, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, took over, but all the old problems continued. “You had all these hopeful messages on the political side, while people saw a deterioration in every basic service,” Rafat al-Akhali tells me. “Corruption and patronage was even expanding as new powers came into the transition.”
Akhali saw it happen from close up. He left Yemen’s capital Sana’a as a 19-year-old after winning a scholarship to Canada in 2002 but continued to work with youth at home. He returned when the revolution was in its infancy, convinced the “tide had changed”.
After the transition, he took a post with a government bureau that oversaw reforms, believing the moment was ripe to push for change from within. It was not to be.
As the government floundered, the Houthi movement of battle-hardened Islamists from the country’s north saw an opening to move on Sana’a, vowing to sweep the corrupt from office. Young militiamen took over ministries, stopping and searching cabinet members.
Akhali, who was briefly youth and sports minister, recalls how teenage fighters, AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades slung over their shoulders, demanded to see government documents, even though many were illiterate: “They’d hold the paper upside down and say, ‘What is this? You are not allowed to bring this in.’”
Akhali realised the state in Yemen was a “mirage”: “You suddenly find there’s no military, no security — there’s nothing.” In January 2015, the Houthis attacked the presidential palace, forcing Hadi’s government into exile.
The region’s next proxy war was about to explode. Days after this assault, King Salman ascended the throne in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and appointed his favourite son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as defence minister.
The 29-year-old MBS was on a fast-track to becoming crown prince. By March, he was spearheading a Saudi-led offensive — blessed by Washington — against the Houthis, who are viewed by Riyadh as an Iranian proxy stoking conflict in their backyard.
In Sana’a, Akhali, his wife and two young sons fled to their basement as fighter jets pummelled the neighbourhood. After two weeks of bombardment, they jostled through crowds and boarded an evacuation flight to Jordan.
“It was the worst thing to be woken up by an explosion, so we thought we needed to get out for a few weeks until this stuff is done and [the warring parties] reach an agreement,” he says.
It would be four years before Akhali returned, fleetingly, to a devastated nation stalked by disease, with 14 million people — about half the population — at risk of famine.
The UN describes Yemen as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis. According to a 2019 report, about 60 per cent of the more than 233,000 Yemenis who have died, either in fighting or through lack of food or access to services, were children aged under five.
Thousands of boys have been recruited as child soldiers; young girls have been forced into marriages by desperate families. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is bogged down in a conflict it cannot win while the Houthis retain their hold on Sana’a and the north.
Akhali relocated to the UK and is a fellow at Oxford university’s Blavatnik School of Government. “It seems if you want to have any change, you need foreign backing and you need weapons,” he reflects. “Can we effect change at this time? That’s the question I struggle with.”
LESSONS FROM LIBYA
In Libya, Ahmed’s nagging doubts about the country’s trajectory grew as neophyte politicians failed to knit together a functioning state and as armed factions, born out of the revolt, battled over the oil-rich nation’s resources.
He recalls predicting to his mother in 2014 that there was going to be a war that year. “She was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I told her, ‘The polarisation, it’s just escalating.’”
But even he underestimated how bad it would get, as Libyan warlords, such as the septuagenarian former military officer General Khalifa Haftar, carved the country into fiefdoms. “Everything we had struggled for, [Haftar’s forces] were like just, bang, undo it,” Ahmed says.
“Life just stopped . . . it was the whole thing, street-to-street fighting, jets bombing, tanks in the street.”
He views Haftar as a wannabe dictator in the mould of Gaddafi. But the general’s self-proclaimed assault against Islamists resonated with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Militias in the west of Libya, some Islamists, drew backing from Qatar and Turkey.
On April 4 2019, Haftar launched an offensive against a weak UN-backed government in Tripoli, triggering a proxy war on the Mediterranean’s southern shores. When I visited Tripoli last February, the capital had been under siege for months.
As fighters hunkered down in abandoned, bullet-scarred homes, civilians in surrounding areas lived in fear of the next rocket or drone attack.
Turkish intervention turned the tide against Haftar and today there is an uneasy peace, but many believe foreign powers will determine their country’s future.
“There were definitely a lot of wrong decisions made by Libyans, the fighting, watching the attacks against each other. So we definitely need to take responsibility,” Ahmed says. But “70 per cent of it is an international conflict, Libya is just the battleground”.
Ahmed, who is now studying for a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies in Turkey, believes one lesson of the past decade is that if the guns do fall silent, local actors should not be pressured to rush transition periods.
Ahmed and Akhali argue that internationally backed initiatives often put too much emphasis on elections, instead of supporting fragile states to build effective institutions and lay the foundations needed to ensure voters have buy-in and outcomes are respected.
Akhali says “electoral democracy” should be an end result, not a starting point. “It’s not up to international powers to say, ‘No, you have to get there in two or three years.’ No state was formed, or evolved, in two years.”
REBUILDING FROM ZERO
Even the most successful Arab spring experiment underscores how hard it is for countries to emerge from dictatorship. Tunisia has many elements of stability that have eluded others. The military is not powerful enough to meddle in politics.
The main Islamist movement, aware of the regional dynamics, was quick to rebrand as a Muslim democratic party and cooperate with secular parties. There is also a vibrant civil society and greater social freedoms.
Yet unemployment has remained at about 15 per cent and there are still gaping regional inequalities. Many Tunisians are angry at politicians they see as self-interested and unable to work for the public good.
“We are rebuilding from zero,” says the Tunisian civil society activist Lamloum. “We lived under dictatorial regimes for decades . . . The absence of alternatives and the difficulty of constructing alternatives goes back to that.”
According to the International Monetary Fund, Tunisia needs about five years of 5 per cent growth even to reduce unemployment to 11 per cent. Yet the economy expanded by an average of 1.7 per cent from 2010-17, far below the decade before spring 2011.
Still, Lamloum says there is no sense of “crushing defeat”. “There are still youths who have not been defeated and are still able to fight some battles — and win them,” she says.
“The revolution did not succeed, but in my opinion the revolution lost a battle, it did not lose the war, the bracket has not been closed.” All those interviewed agreed the uprisings had been inevitable, whether in 2011 or at another point, due to the conditions people were living under.
Ahmed says: “There was so much good, but so much bad as well.” Citing historical precedents, such as the 1968 Prague spring, he says “these springs take time”. “I just regret there are still governments and groups of interests who don’t want these societies to have freedom,” he adds. “They are still trying to insist on providing two options, either dictatorship or chaos.”
In Yemen, Akhali believes warring factions will ultimately thrash out a power-sharing agreement, but then comes the daunting task of rebuilding a devastated society. “Is it fixable? We have to cling to that hope,” he says.
In Berlin, Mazen Darwish keeps his revolutionary flame flickering as president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. He documents abuses in Syria and helped German prosecutors charge a notorious former intelligence officer, Anwar Raslan, with war crimes.
It is, he says, his way of keeping “justice on the table” and preventing “the politicians, the princes of war . . . the regional governments” from agreeing political settlements that fail to secure a genuine peace based on accountability.
When he reflects on the events of a decade ago, Darwish says Syrians were pushed to revolution by “years of despotism, of backwardness and bad economic and social conditions . . . but it isn’t possible to have real structural change without a heavy price.
Personally, I was prepared to pay the price, although I never wished for the price to be this. Never.” In Cairo, Mona Seif planned to begin a PhD, but has put her studies on hold to focus on the plight of her brother and sister.
The re-arrest of Alaa — a blogger who was detained in September 2019, six months after completing a five-year jail term — “made me realise I can no longer try to sustain a normal life”, she says.
Seif, who documented abuses by the security services, can barely hide her anger as she struggles to comprehend the popular support for the 2013 coup that brought an end to Egypt’s brief democratic chapter.
She never understood those people, some of whom had packed into Tahrir Square to call for Mubarak’s resignation, “selling the idea of a pragmatic choice” of siding with the military because they loathed the Muslim Brotherhood government.
“There was this notion . . . [among] a lot of Sisi supporters . . . that, ‘Yes, the army was going to commit massive violations, but it’s never going to touch us, it’s going to be against Islamists.’”
It was a period, she says, that “changed our worlds, our social circles and friendships”. Egyptians, like many other Arabs, argued over the question of stability versus democratic freedoms. “I never felt so alienated.”
When I returned to Cairo for the 2018 presidential election, virtually all forms of critical debate had been silenced. The president secured 97 per cent of the votes. Those businessmen willing to talk on the record lauded Sisi for returning stability and reviving a bankrupt economy after the Brotherhood’s divisive and turbulent rule.
But an improving macroeconomic picture often masks the reality for most — in Egypt, poverty has continued to rise. Even before the 2011 uprising, the country was attracting record levels of foreign investment and enjoying a spurt of healthy growth.
HA Hellyer, an Arab-English Middle East analyst, describes a “tinderbox” in the region, where the structural problems, from economic inequalities to demographic pressures, are worse than before 2011.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated these. He believes leaders could push through reforms and provide better services to ease people’s frustrations, but “instead, I think they’ve decided, ‘We tried this whole opening up thing a decade and a half ago and that resulted in inadvertently empowering civil society that eventually led to the events of 2011.
So they are going to clamp down and make sure it never happens again.’” Things can’t go on like this indefinitely, he says. “It doesn’t mean things are going to blow up tomorrow, but . . . at some point it will crack.”
In the past two years, such cracks appeared with protests in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon forcing political resignations. Once more, however, they revealed the challenges of securing substantive change from the street — in the latter three, ruling elites remain entrenched, while in Sudan the military shares power with civilians in a transitional government.
In Cairo, Seif describes a “brewing anger beneath the surface”. “This is very similar, but in a more intense way, to 2010, where many of the younger generation were feeling that there was no space for them, for work or having families or any kind of future,” she says. “The current situation cannot be sustained for ever, but I don’t know if that will lead to another 2011 — I didn’t expect a 2011.”
Like other activists, she sounds worn down, the glorious moments of revolution not forgotten, but overwhelmed by what followed. She keeps the memories of 10 years ago hidden deep inside, “protected from all the darkness”, and says she will only truly begin to reflect when she’s sure of the safety of her family and friends.
But like others interviewed here, she has no regrets about standing up to power. “It’s weird because I’m not saying it as a statement.
Andrew England is the Middle East editor. He was previously MIddle East and Africa news editor. Prior to that, he spent 17 years based in the Middle East and Africa as a foreign correspondent.
His posts included Southern Africa bureau chief, Abu Dhabi bureau chief and Middle East and North Africa correspondent.
He joined the Financial Times in 2004 as East Africa correspondent. Before joining the FT, he was East Africa correspondent for the Associated Press.