12 February 2011

The Democracy Movement in the Arab World

By David Seddon

At last, after 18 days of mass protest by ordinary Egyptians across the country - notably in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the capital, Cairo - President Hosni Mubarak has resigned. After several attempts to cling onto power, he was forced by the overwhelming commitment of the Egyptian people to demands for real political change and the end of his regime, to go. Efforts by his Vice President and sections of the army high command to persuade the people to accept an increase in salaries and wages and largely cosmetic political reforms proved to be in vain. Now the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is in control and has supported the meeting of a Constitutional Council, including judges and other supposedly impartial figures to develop a framework for moves towards a new Constitution and political dispensation.

While the future of Egyptian politics remains unclear, there is good reason to believe that the democracy movement has achieved a significant objective – the overthrow of a 30-year old authoritarian regime inherited from President Sadat and the beginnings of a new, more open politics. The army has agreed to lift the state of emergency that has been in place for decades, as soon as the situation quietens down and there is every sign that they will respect whatever arrangements the Constitutional Council devises for an orderly transition to a more democratic system. The international community has, also at last, accepted the inevitable and broadly welcomed the prospect of a more democratic Egypt, although there are real concerns as to the medium term effect on Egypt’s policy towards Israel, with whom President Sadat made peace, much to the anger at the time of the Arab league and the Arab World as a whole. The Israeli authorities in the meanwhile remain anxious about the prospects of an Egypt that may become a slightly less acquiescent partner in US Middle Eastern policy – although it seems unlikely that there will be any radical change in Egyptian foreign policy in the immediate future.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, where events in Egypt have been closely followed through all of the media now available (radio, TV, blogs, twitter and social networks), there are indications of a similar desire on the part of ordinary people for greater freedom and democracy. In Tunisia, for example, where mass demonstrations earlier in January led to the overthrow of the long-standing authoritarian regime of strong-man President Zeine ben Ali (who fled to Saudi Arabia) , there is continuing support for major political reforms and greater freedoms. There too, the democracy movement is alive and well, and apparently making significant advances, for the moment at least.

In Jordan, King Abdullah moved swiftly in the face of popular protest in the streets of Amman to dismiss the prime minister and replace him and his government, and to promise ‘significant reforms’, largely as a measure to pre-empt pressure for more radical change. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad signaled, after the mass protests began in Tunisia and Egypt that ‘he understood the need for change’, but calls or demonstrations against the regime – a ‘day of rage’ - last weekend (5-6th February) – were insufficient to generate the large scale popular protest that was manifest elsewhere. It seems unlikely that there will be significant reforms in Syria in the near future, but the impact of the Arab democracy movement is hard to predict.

In Yemen, street protestors in the capital, Sana’a, and other cities were able to wring some important concessions from President Ali Abdullah Saleh – notably, that he would not stand again for the presidency after the end of his present term and that his son would not succeed him, as well as some economic reforms. So far, however, they have been unable to topple the 68-year old President, who is also supreme commander of the armed forces of Yemen, and on Friday he chaired an expanded meeting of the National Defence Council, political leaders and the Security Committee, to discuss the modernisation of the armed forces and security as well as improvements in the salaries and financial allowances of government staff and the armed and security forces. They also reviewed ways to reduce expenditures and raise incomes and revenues. This looks like an attempt to strengthen the forces of repression rather than to meet the demands of the demonstrators, but again, the future of the democracy movement here too is difficult to predict.

Finally, in Algeria, where demonstrations in the early part of January in response to increases in the price of basic goods resulted in government moves to moderate the price increases and make changes to certain aspects of economic policy, there were plans for large demonstrations this weekend (12-13th February) – following the success of such demonstrations in Egypt - in opposition to the continuing control of Algerian politics by the FLN and the army – but so far (as I write this column on Saturday morning) they have met with heavy repression and have been effective kept under strict control. It may not prove so easy, however, to contain the Algerian people after decades of repression and a 10-year long and brutal struggle against the Islamists in which thousands of Algerian civilians (and security personnel) lost their lives.


  1. Hopefully the uprisings will spread, even to Gaza and they will get rid of Hamas, have a dialogue with Israel and negotiate some lasting peace - something much more likely under a 'free' Gazan government.

    As for Egypt, Iran, Algeria and the like. We can only offer them moral support and cross our fingers.

  2. the uprisings ARE spreading - in Libya, despite horrendous retaliation by the Qaddaffi regime, the people continue to demand real change, while further afield there is still political movement from below in Bahrain and Yemen, and now even further afield in Djibouti, and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Beyond the region there is concern on the part of repressive regimes the world over, and hope on the part ordinary people - it can be done - history can be made, even under the most unpromising of circumstances!

  3. Now, several weeks after the column was written, it seems that political changes are being made, albeit slowly and probably not as far-reaching as the democracy movement activists would have wanted - in Tunisia and Egypt. In Syria - surprisingly to me - protests did develop to the point where they spread throughout the country, particularly in the south where there has always been more overt opposition to the Assad regimes, but it is not clear whether they will simply be suppressed - as is being attempted elsewhere in the region, or will lead to reforms and a degree of liberalisation.

    In the meanwhile, in Bahrain, Saudi and UAE troops intervened to support the regime of President Saleh, and he continues to repress his people with consaiderable brutality. Given that Bahrain is home to a major US air base, it is perhaps not surprising that there has been no attempt to impose a no-fly zone over Bahrain. Yemen may well be on the brink of chaos and collapse as a combination of sectarian and class and tribal divisions pull apart what was not so long ago two separate and very different states. In Libya, after some considerable delay, the UN Security Council appproved a couple of resolutions leading to active intervention by a coalition of forces, including Arab states (with the support of the Arab League) to protect civilians and, in effect, to oppose Qaddhafi's attempts to crush the uprising/rebellion. The outcome is unclear and many will be concerned about another Middle Eastern intervention by external forces - but I believe that such intervention was appropriate and hope that it leads rapidly to a ceasefire and negotiations with a view to replacing Qaddhafi with a more enlightened and liberal - and democratic - government

    david seddon