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Feb / Mar 2012
For Whom the Bell Tolls

Writer: Dr. Marwan Iskandar / Photographer: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

A year after revolution broke out across the Arab world, Bespoke takes a look at the different factors leading to the uprisings: the countries’ economic conditions, people’s discontent and a historical overview of the overthrown regimes. 



The popular uprising in Tunisia against President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali shook the Arab world to its roots. In power since 1987, Ben Ali had been head of the police and aide to Tunisia’s first post-independence president, Habib El-Bourgiba before deposing him in a coup and taking control.

Ben Ali was 49 years old when he became president. At first, he seemed a dashing figure, who would continue to modernise Tunisia as Bourgiba had done and who soon enough, would introduce democratic procedures. But Ben Ali allowed only a show of democracy. Despite regular parliamentary elections, he ruled with an iron fist and increasingly used his intelligence apparatus to curb dissent and muzzle the press. The idea that anyone else could become president never crossed his mind.

Nevertheless, from the early 1990s until around 2005, Tunisia’s economy performed well, attracting foreign investments. Industrial conditions were competitive; there was cheap labour and gas for energy. Their relative prosperity and economic growth distracted Tunisians from the fundamental questions of freedom, democracy and corruption. Two things changed that.

First was Ben Ali’s new wife, Leila, who was known for her voracious appetite for worldly goods. Second, as the president’s wife plundered the country, Tunisia’s economic growth began to slow down and this was compounded by the fact that corruption broadened and deepened. Rumblings of discontent surfaced and many journalists were imprisoned for expressing criticism.

As the first signs of the international financial crisis became evident in 2007, Tunisia – a country heavily dependent on exports to Europe, foreign investment, European aid, tourism and Arab money – began to suffer significantly. All sources of revenue appeared to wither at once. Over two years, the Tunisian economy shrank and unemployment soared to more than 15 per cent.

For a relatively educated and Western-oriented population, the combination of economic hardship, high unemployment, entrenched corruption, police repression and thwarted freedom of expression triggered a volcanic eruption of resentment. Twenty-eight days later, Ben Ali and his entourage decamped for Saudi Arabia where it was reported he fell into a coma. True to form, Leila’s final act was to load their private jet with tons of bullion, all secured from the Central Bank by presidential decree.


Next to fall was Egypt, a country of 82 million. Overwhelmingly young and poor - 60 per cent of Egyptians are under 25 and 30 per cent suffer from severe poverty - the country had been controlled by military men since its monarchy was deposed in 1952.

Hosni Mubarak, the fourth such leader since 1952, had taken over in 1981, following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. A former vice president, Mubarak chose never to appoint one himself. He continued to maintain the peace treaty with Israel, which allowed him to cultivate American relations (not to mention American aid, particularly to the Egyptian army) and eventually endorsed Egypt’s economic liberalisation.

By the mid-1990s, Egypt’s budget deficit had narrowed to a tolerable level, gradual foreign exchange liberalisation was possible, tourism was thriving and the privatisation of major industries had proceeded relatively well. Banking and insurance activities, previously the preserve of the public sector, were gradually opened up to the private sector.

This growth spurred the rise of a small but powerful clique around Mubarak’s son, Gamal, which fostered monopolies. Using political influence, huge sums of money were secured for speculative investments making many senior politicians in the president’s ruling party billionaires.

Mubarak’s sphinx-like reactions to popular demands strengthened resentment and his refusal to nominate a vice president or eliminate the Emergency Law, under which the country had been ruled since 1967, infuriated the young. Even worse, Mubarak seemed intent on seeking an additional term as president, despite ill health.

Mass resentment eventually reached a boiling point. And in January 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians of all denominations flooded into central Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Attempts by internal security forces to put the lid on demonstrations failed, so Mubarak sought to enlist the army’s support in quelling the revolt. The army refused and instead, tried to ensure the demonstrators’ security, particularly after dozens were killed in confrontations with security forces.

A month later, Mubarak resigned and flew to his villa in Sharm El-Sheikh. On April 12, 2011, he was taken into hospital after suffering a presumed heart attack. Two days later, his sons were imprisoned. Mubarak himself was detained and transferred to a military hospital. Family assets were frozen. Liquid deposits abroad were also frozen, including 400 million USD in Mubarak’s name in Switzerland.


The bloodiest of the uprisings so far was the fight to remove Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, ruler of Libya since his coup d’état in 1969 against the former king, Idriss El-Sanoussi. 

Like Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Qaddafi ruled Libya alone and did so in an increasingly erratic fashion. In theory, the country was wealthy. Rapidly increasing oil prices, especially since 1973, escalated Libya’s revenues exponentially. But Qaddafi paid little attention to actually developing his country. Grandiose development plans, like the Great River Project, which was supposed to channel water from aquifers under the Libyan desert to agricultural lands, often came to naught.

His attention was instead focused on establishing an image in Africa as a great leader and acquiring status in the West. To achieve the latter, he took to supporting several insurgent and liberation movements and finally, terrorism. A Libyan bombing in Berlin, in 1986 led to the bombardment of Qaddafi’s residence in Tripoli during which his adopted daughter and a number of assistants died. 

Two years later, Libyan agents were implicated in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded en route over Scotland killing 243 passengers and all 16 crew members. The following year, UTA flight 722 exploded over Chad killing 156 passengers and 15 crewmembers. Libyan agents had planted the bomb on an unsuspecting passenger. Subsequently, sanctions were slapped on the country and it became a pariah state.

In 2002, after long negotiations with French and American authorities, Qaddafi agreed to pay compensation to return his country to the fold. According to reports, compensation was in the order of 250 million USD for the UTA bombing and over 1.2 billion USD for the Pan Am catastrophe.

Gradually, Qaddafi’s antics during state visits when he’d bring his own tents and female guards made him an object of ridicule, both abroad and at home. But he ruled on, certain that money could solve any international problem and equally certain that at home, Libyans – frightened, factionalised and brutalised by Qaddafi’s infamous security services – would never resist.

So the demonstrations that began in February 2011 took him by surprise. Like Mubarak, who was a far less powerful and vicious dictator, Qaddafi was sure this was a temporary phenomenon. He did not realise how tired of him many Western and Arab leaders had become and how they would aid in his downfall.

After a summer of bloody conflict, Qaddafi and one of his sons were captured and executed. Later, his son Seif was captured alive and now faces charges of mass murder. Unlike Tunisia, the situation in Libya is still unstable and the political picture unclear. 

With hundreds of millions of dollars frozen in foreign banks, properties and millions of dollars worth of other assets being discovered, the full extent of the Qaddafi family’s plundering of Libya’s coffers is still unknown but it is likely to run into tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars.


The uprising in Syria continues to dominate the news and is second only to Libya in terms of its bloodiness. After first waiting too long before addressing his people, President Assad’s rare public declarations have done little to appease the demonstrations against him.  And while Syria's government has passed a bill lifting the country's emergency law, in place since the Baath Party seized power in a military coup in 1963, suppression by the police and internal security personnel has become more brutal and many now worry the country is on the verge of open civil war.

The continuity of Assad as president seems to depend on American tolerance, Saudi assistance and Israeli neutrality. For this reason Assad chose to support the movement of Saudi and Emirates troops into Bahrain to quell the uprising there by a Shi’ite majority encouraged by Iran. So far casualty figures in Syria, although not accurate, indicate the death of over 7,000 Syrians, mostly civilians and with significant numbers of women and children.

Gradually, the country has lost many of its foreign supporters. Most dramatically, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, formerly a close friend and ally has shifted his position from mild criticism to blatantly encouraging Assad to step down, a position also endorsed by Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul.

Without Turkish support, Assad finds himself cornered in his efforts to remain in power. Qatar, formerly a strong ally, has become a serious critic of his regime and the Doha-based satellite channel, Al-Jazeera, has also been extremely critical of the situation in Syria. In a typically Syrian reaction, Al-Jazeera, the BBC and Al-Arabiya have all been ordered out of Syria.

Assuming Assad survives the upheaval, he will end up a weaker president of a weaker country. He can survive as a leader for few years, provided he introduces real improvements to representation, governance, the preservation of liberties and the elimination of the Baathist monopoly on power.

On November 27th, the Arab League took an unprecedented decision to impose economic sanctions. It voted to stop trading with the Syrian state in all but essential goods, to ban Arab investment, to freeze assets held by senior members of the regime abroad, end dealings with Syria’s Central Bank and to send observers to Syria to report facts on the ground to the Arab League. Three days later, Turkey one of Syria’s biggest trading partners, said it would follow suit.

After refusal and procrastination from the Syrian regime, Arab observers finally began arriving in Syria in late December, the first round of which came to an end in mid-January. The Opposition, formally established in late summer 2011 and mainly represented by the National Council, described the work of observers as dubious and ineffective. The credibility of their work remained in question as reports surfaced that team members were being chaperoned by government minders and were being denied access to many parts of the country. Despite this fact, reports that have surfaced suggest that few of the observers feel that President Assad can continue governing for any length of time.

Protests are ongoing despite the continuous and rising number of civilian casualties resulting from indiscriminate shooting by security personnel, an indication that a fundamental change has already come about. The long period of fighting and uncertainty has also damaged the interests of middle-class Syrians who, historically, have supported the regime because it protected their financial interests. This influential sector still has not joined the Opposition, at least en masse, but has adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude, both in Syria and abroad.

In addition to Arab and Turkish measures, American and European sanctions are starting to bite. A ban on oil imports is costing Syria 400 million USD a month and the shrinking of the country’s foreign reserves is making trade increasingly tricky. The Syrian Pound has fallen to its lowest level ever on the black market. Tourism, which accounted for over 10 per cent of GDP in 2010, has virtually disappeared. Last September, the government sought to shore up foreign reserves by banning imports, causing skyrocketing prices for many goods immediately. Local analysts think sanctions may diminish growth in 2012 to single digits. Inflation is steadily rising and insurance companies are loathe to cover businesses.

Assad now recognises two fundamental conclusions; one-party rule is a practice that has died forever in the Arab world whether in Tunisia, Egypt or Syria and succession to political power by inheritance is no longer viable. If he stays in power, which seems unlikely, he cannot hope for any further presidential terms. The old Cold War slogan, made famous by his father - Our Leader Forever - has been erased. What remains to be seen is if the president will keep fighting or finally step down and if so, under what conditions. If it happens, will it be like Mubarak? Or like Qaddafi? As to the issue of the reported hundreds of billions of dollars the Assads and their entourage have amassed over the decades, the question of what would happen in Syria in the event of regime change, probably weighs more heavily on people’s minds. At least for now.


The region’s other ongoing revolt, that of the Shi’ite majority in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, has been relatively quiet of late but as the revolt’s anniversary approaches, there are indications the protests might re-emerge.

At the start, protests were limited to calling for the resignation of the country’s prime minister, who is reputed to have a hand in many enterprises and has been in power for 42 years. Had King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa released the prime minister of his role, it’s possible they would have died down. That this did not happen and, consequently, the protests increased, leading to violent crackdowns, must have many wondering if it will now be possible to find a solution that alleviates everyone.

Despite its small size, Bahrain lies at the nexus of a web of global interests.  The choice of its ruling family has been to develop the island as a regional and international financial centre, as well as a country that preserves different modes of living. Geopolitically sensitive, Bahrain lies off Saudi Arabia’s eastern oil-producing region, to which it is connected by a bridge conceived and built over 25 years ago. Additionally, the capital, Manama, hosts an American naval base where the fleet controlling the Gulf and the Indian Ocean secures supplies, repairs and offshore leave for tired sailors.

Saudi nervousness about developments in Bahrain compelled the Kingdom to step in by sending elite troops to quell the popular uprisings. Other Arab Gulf states feeling nervous about potential developments also agreed to send supplementary forces, in line with the mutual defence pacts between Gulf countries. The situation in Bahrain could not be allowed to escalate, as the possibility of confrontation with Iran, which is influential in local Shi’ite affairs, presented a dangerous development. A conflict in Bahrain could lead to oil supplies and prices changing in a manner that could reverse the economic gains recently achieved in the US and Europe not to mention, severely threaten the suppliers themselves.

Iran protested against the Saudi incursion, as well as the support it got from the UAE. In contrast, Syria supported the Saudi-UAE move, despite its close ties to Iran. The situation has seemed to settle down, although repressed resentments could well surface again. 


This January, President Saleh became the latest Arab head of state to fall, leaving the country he ruled for 33 years behind in to seek medical treatment in the US.  Convulsed by massive protests throughout 2011, Yemen’s revolution pitted the people, a number of tribal leaders, ministers and diplomats and several senior army officers against the president and his coterie, comprising family members largely. As elsewhere, demands were for greater democracy, changes to the constitution, liberty and the curbing of corruption. Though nowhere near as bloody as Libya, the crackdown on protesters has been brutal, the unrest prolonged by Saleh’s unwillingness to relinquish power, even after an assassination attempt and the repeated diplomatic efforts by Yemen’s neighbours to find a solution. As for Saleh’s wealth, reported by Canadian Business magazine to be in the region of 35 billion USD, the amnesty under which he finally relinquished power may interfere with efforts to get that back. 

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