In December of 2010, the rule of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali became the target of mass protests. Within a month, Ben Ali was forced from power and fled to Saudi Arabia. His fall from power marked the beginning of a populist movement which swept North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. Three more national governments were to crumble before this movement; including that of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted little more than a month after the exile of the Tunisian President. In August of the same year, the regime of Libyan strongman Muammar Gadafi was defeated, following a short and bloody civil war that drew UN intervention and US airstrikes against the Libyan government. The story of the upheaval that forced Mubarak’s resignation and Gadafi’s ouster, however, continues to develop and both Egypt and Libya may see it’s ‘Arab Spring’ turn to Arab winter, before the current year is out.
There is no single factor that lead to the revolts across the Arab world; poverty and dissatisfaction with dictatorial rule could be cited among the major causes. Whatever the reasons, these popular uprisings were swiftly co-opted by Islamist movements and the people of Egypt soon found themselves with a Muslim Brotherhood government that has quickly begun to steer the country towards an authoritarian, Islamist state with Sharia law at its center. Although it would be false to deny the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, their plans for the country are, clearly, not what many Egyptians had bargained for. Unwilling to give up the secularist nature of Egyptian society which existed under Mubarak’s regime, a section of society is, once again, rebelling against a government that – in their eyes – is not acting in their best interests.
In Libya, the situation is even less clear; following the toppling of Gadafi – who was discovered in hiding and beaten to death by a mob, shortly after – the country has been in turmoil; with a weak, coalition government seemingly unable to curb the power of Islamist militias and other criminal bands. Further unrest is, almost certainly, on the horizon for Libya. Gadafi – like Mubarak – was a secularist, who understood the threat posed by radical Islam; something that western leaders have yet to come to terms with. The current leadership in Libya, known as the General National Congress (GNC), is struggling with interim government and the drawing up of a new Constitution. This governing body is made up of several parties and a host of independents. The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood is represented, but did not do well in elections and holds only a relatively small number of seats.
Outside of the Capital, Tripoli, the power of the GNC is limited; despite their attempts to reign in the militias that have refused to disband after the civil war, the government has made little progress in asserting its authority. Many ordinary Libyans face constant intimidation by the mainly Islamist militias, which include al-Qaeda affiliated groups. Violence and lawlessness is widespread and it seems inevitable that – sooner, rather than later – a day of reckoning will come, for the GNC. Whether their power will be challenged by the militias, or by a populace frustrated with their impotence, is not yet clear. Having rid itself of a dictator who, effectively, made Libya a pariah on the international stage, Libya – like Egypt – may yet see its Arab Spring turn to winter.
Egypt faces an almost exactly inverse situation; the ruling Muslim Brotherhood quickly gathered – and granted themselves – an amount of power and authority easily rivaling that of former leader Mubarak. Many Egyptians have become uneasy about this. Adding to Egypt’s growing problems is the general perception that new leader Mohammed Morsi has failed to provide effective leadership or address the problems of increasing crime, fuel shortages, inflation and rising unemployment.
With planned, mass protests against President Morsi looming, his most loyal supporters are amping up the rhetoric against the protesters, vowing to “smash” them and referring to them as infidels, who deserve to be killed.
The eventual outcome of further unrest may lie, ultimately, at the feet of the powerful Egyptian military. Egypt has, effectively, been under the control of the military since the toppling of the Egyptian monarchy, in 1952. After Mubarak’s resignation, the military took control and – in reality – Morsi is President by the grace of the generals who handed over power to him. Despite the fact that Morsi moved quickly to remove the top two Generals, the Egyptian army has been less than pleased with the way they have been treated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi has not yet had time to purge the army and instill his loyalists to positions of control. Should widespread violence erupt across the country, it is not at all clear that the army will act to restore order, on behalf of Morsi’s government.
General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, current army Chief, indicated Sunday that the Egyptian military stood ready to intervene, in order to prevent the country entering what he called a “dark tunnel of conflict, internal violence.” Most significantly, he had strong words of warning for the Morsi government. Addressing the President’s hard-line supporters, El-Sissi said “It is not honorable that we remain silent in the face of the terrorizing and scaring of our Egyptian compatriots. There is more honor in death than watching a single Egyptian harmed while his army is standing idly by.”
While the eyes of the world are on the bitter Syrian revolt – which has claimed almost 100,000 lives – the Muslim nations of North Africa have yet to complete their transitions away from the years of authoritarian rule. Many people in these nations have no desire to replace one oppressive regime with another. The so-called Arab Spring, which overtook Egypt and Libya, may yet turn to Arab winter.
Written by Graham J Noble