1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Six months of unrest

July 19, 2011

The Arab Spring could turn into a Summer of Discontent as those countries which saw major upheavals and uprisings over the last six months remain as resistant to change as they were before the wave of revolution began.

A Yemeni anti-regime protester
Arab calls for freedom and reforms are falling on deaf earsImage: picture alliance / dpa

Some countries such as Libya and Syria are still in chaos as opposing sides continue to battle for control while those who have overthrown their dictators, like Tunisia and Egypt, have seen a return to protest over the lack of concrete progress toward reform. Elsewhere, months of simmering discontent still threaten to boil over as autocratic governments struggle to keep a lid on unrest.


The North African nation was the first to rise up with protests breaking out in Tunis in December of 2010 over unemployment and the lack of political freedoms. The demonstrations soon spread to the rest of the country and in January of this year, mass protests - often violent - rocked the nation. Finally President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country and went into exile in Saudi Arabia, leaving Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to announce an interim national unity government to rule in Ben Ali's place.

A man throws a missile during clashes
Violent clashes have returned to the streets of TunisiaImage: picture alliance/dpa

However, this move only partially satisfied protesters. Despite moves to prosecute Ben Ali in absentia for embezzlement and misusing public funds, the growing belief that the caretaker administration has done little to implement revolutionaries' demands has gradually led to a return to protests.

A sit-in by protestors in March which led to the disbanding of the first interim government and the resignation of Ghannouchi prompted the creation of a second caretaker government which took control with promises to elect a constitutional council on July 24.

But the unrest has continued as unemployment continues to rise. Only last week the Tunisian capital was plunged back into turmoil under the heavy smog of teargas as hundreds of protestors engaged in pitched battles with riot police.

"Tunisia needs a mechanism to manage the diversity and the vacuum created by regime collapse," Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East Expert at Chatham House told Deutsche Welle. "Political society has been suppressed for decades and needs to be rehabilitated. There are important issues of transitional justice, what to do with the old regime, how to promote reconciliation and help heal the wounds and allow society to move on."


A similar situation is unfolding in Egypt, the second country to experience an Arab Spring. Former President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule ended on February 11 after 18 days of bloody demonstrations which led to Vice President Omar Suleiman transferring authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The SCAF then promised to make way for a democratically-elected civilian government toward the end of the year which seemed to appease the protestors.

Egyptian protesters
Despite Mubarak's downfall, Egypt is still in turmoilImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But that journey now appears to have been derailed after the SCAF announced a delay of up to two months for the parliamentary elections, leading to thousands of demonstrators descending on public squares around the country just as they did at the start of the year in protest against Mubarak's rule.

The protestors accuse the SCAF of reneging on promises and ignoring revolutionary demands while shielding elements of the old regime. Tensions are also high over continuing low wages and unemployment.

"In both Tunisia and Egypt the initial successes of the uprisings in sweeping away the dictatorial leaderships have since foundered on the networks of crony capitalists and embedded interests that are proving almost impossible to dislodge," Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, told Deutsche Welle.


Syria also saw fledgling protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad begin in January but the uprising there fully got underway in March with unprecedented protests across the country. Demonstrators calling for greater political freedoms, civil liberties and democracy were soon met with the full force of the Syrian security apparatus. Despite many deaths and the violent crackdown, protests have continued, specifically in the capital Damascus where last Friday's demonstration was among the largest since the uprising began.

A Syrian protestor beats a photo of President Bashar al-Assad with his shoe
Anti-regime anger is growing in Syria despite the crackdownImage: AP

The al-Assad regime has been widely criticized for its crackdown by the international community - which has so far been loath to intervene - but remains in a position of power within its own borders due to its heavy-handed response. Opposition groups say that more than 2,000 civilians have been killed since the unrest began.

"The national dialogue between the government and opposition leaders has failed and opposition figures are losing credibility in the eyes of the diaspora opposition," Middle East analyst and commentator Dr. Elizabeth Iskander told Deutsche Welle. "As far as we can understand, the momentum of the Syrian street is no longer under the control of these opposition figures."


Libya's uprising soon escalated into a civil war and an international conflict. Starting with a series of peaceful protests in the city of Benghazi and the capital Tripoli on February 15, the situation quickly escalated when the regime of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi launched a militarized crackdown. While calm in Tripoli was restored by force, Benghazi soon slipped out of government control to become the base for an anti-government rebellion.

The rebels, which set up an alternative government body - the National Transitional Council - then began engaging Gadhafi's forces with the objective to overthrow his government and hold democratic elections.

Libyan rebels
Libyan rebels have made gains but the war is far from overImage: dapd

Recently the US and other nations officially recognized the National Transitional Council as the legitimate political authority in Libya.

After six weeks of stalemate, with little movement on the battlefield, rebel fighters announced at the weekend that they were closing in on the key government-held oil town of Brega while rebels in the western Nafusa Mountains say they have made significant gains toward Tripoli. However, NATO support and weapons remain vital to the rebels' cause.

Meanwhile, the prospects for peace look grim. Gadhafi refuses to entertain any proposal which requires him to stand down and has rebuffed initiatives from the African Union and Russia which included the rebels' main condition for peace - Gadhafi's removal. Reports last week suggested that an increasingly desperate Gadhafi had a plan to blow up Tripoli if the capital looked to be falling into the hands of the rebels.

"The international community made a rush to judgement in condemning the Gadhafi regime and embracing the rebels and this may be coming back to haunt them as the regime proves far more resilient than expected," Ulrichsen said.

"The rebels display signs that they are unable to speak for large parts of Libyan society and it is by no means clear that they represent a clear alternative to the existing Gadhafi regime. This bodes ill for the future of Libya as a united polity."

Read more about the current state of the Arab Spring


Protests in Yemen began at the same time as those in Tunisia and were initially rallying against unemployment, economic conditions and corruption. At the end of January, the protests escalated across the country with angry condemnation of the government's proposals to modify Yemen's constitution which then turned into calls for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign.

An Anti-government protester hold sa yemeni flag
Protestors have yet to oust President Saleh from powerImage: picture alliance/dpa

However, when Saleh refused to stand down the protests turned violent, with clashes between protestors, security forces and Saleh's supporters resulting in many deaths. In one attack in the capital Sanaa, Saleh was injured and was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia for treatment. He has yet to return but still remains in power in Yemen despite Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi agreeing to a ceasefire with Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar's rebels in Saleh's absence.

"Yemen's protests have effectively been hijacked by elite powers who sensed the way the wind was blowing and seized the opportunity to jump onto the bandwagon of protest to steer them in their favor," Ulrichsen said.

"This is very far from the outcome wanted by the vast majority of the Yemeni demonstrators and holds out the prospect of future unrest as any post-Saleh leader will likely suffer from the same problems of illegitimacy and popular rejection as did Saleh himself."


Jordan has seen the often violent protests of early 2011 shrink to quiet weekly demonstrations of late although sporadic clashes between pro-reform demonstrators and government supporters are still being reported in some areas of the country.

Jordan's unrest began in January with youth groups, civil society organizations and Islamists joining together to call for an end to corruption and changes to the structure of the Hashemite monarchy of King Abdullah II.

A Jordanian boy holds a national flag
Protests in Jordan are now quieter and less frequentImage: AP

Jordan's situation is slightly different to others in the Arab Spring as the protestors do not want to overthrow the King but instead seek reforms within the existing structure which will provide greater democracy and transparency.

But, as with many countries experiencing an Arab Spring, Jordanians also want a better standard of living, more jobs, and a sound economy - one which is currently propped up by grants from the United States and Saudi Arabia.

King Abdullah has pledged to pursue reforms that would allow the formation of future governments based on an elected parliamentary majority but has given his opponents no clear date as to when - or indeed if - this will actually happen.

Saudi Arabia

The House of Saud has been very efficient in suppressing its own Arab Spring - as well as that of its close neighbor and ally Bahrain. With sporadic protests erupting in Saudi Arabia's Shia enclave in the Eastern Province in March, just a stone's throw away from where Shiite unrest threatened the Bahraini monarchy, the Saudis moved fast to put an end to the fledgling revolution.

Saudi Shiite protesters wearing masks
Shia protests in the Eastern Province were quickly stoppedImage: AP

Under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council and with support from the United Arab Emirates, the Saudis not only put down their own uprising but entered Bahrain with columns of tanks to assist their neighbors in suppressing theirs too.

Saudi Arabia also moved to stop other areas of the vast Gulf state from becoming agitated by pumping tens of millions of dollars into the economy to boost salaries, fund educational programs and support businesses. To date, both the velvet glove and iron fist approaches seem to be keeping the Saudi revolution at bay.

"The problem with the enormous new $130-billion- (91-billion-euro) welfare packages is that these measures solve short-term problems in Saudi Arabia yet do not address the issues in the medium- to longer-term which are similar to those which led to revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt," Ulrichsen said.

"The Saudi leadership has emerged as the leading counter-revolutionary bulwark in the Middle East yet in the longer-term it faces an explosion of unrest that its ruling class have shown little capacity to even acknowledge, let alone tackle."


The Bahraini protests began on February 14 with the initial goal of achieving greater political freedom and equality for the majority Shia population. However when the crowds which had gathered on the main Pearl Roundabout in Manama were attacked on February 17 by security forces, the protests mutated into calls for the end of King Hamad's monarchy. A month of bloody confrontations followed until the GCC's intervention and a state of emergency effectively ended the uprising.

Protesters celebrating after reaching the monument on the central Lulu (Pearl) Square in Manama
The Pearl Roundabout protests were put down violentlyImage: picture alliance/dpa

The uneasy peace achieved with the help of Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners may not be a permanent one. There are fears that the violence that threatened the Bahraini royal family earlier this year could erupt again after Wefaq, the largest Shiite opposition group in Bahrain, pulled out of a national dialogue with the government on Sunday.

"This has serious consequences as the political and popular opposition will never again trust the government in its promises of political reform, and the image of a ruling family being propped up by Saudi power is one that will take years to get over, if at all," said Ulrichsen.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge