"The people want the fall of the regime." -Protestors in Egypt's Tahrir Square
Last Monday, December 22nd, Tunisia held its first presidential election by popular vote. Though the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests which rocked the Middle East continues to play out in a few counties in the region, the fervor and optimism of 2011 and 2012 has yielded to the harsh realities of 2013 and 2014. The election signals an end to a long transitional period for Tunisia. Looking back at some of the countries most affected by these revolutions and uprisings, I am compelled to ask: Did it make any difference?
Tunisia: President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011 and a transitional elected government put in his place. Tunisia has remained relatively stable since then and has successfully elected its new president. However, the newly elected Beji Caid Essebsi had strong ties to the previous authoritarian regime.
Libya: Eccentric dictator (and evil Carlos Santana according to my wife) Muammar Gaddafi was killed in August 2011 after a brief civil war. In its place, a barely functioning transitional government consisting of an elected parliament rules parts of country. Much of the rest of the country, including Tripoli, is governed by a rival Islamist government. Both sides are in the midst of a simmering civil war.
Egypt: Former President Hosni Mubarak abdicated in February following weeks of protest. After being elected President due in part to his large support from the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Morsi was overthrown in a military coup by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013. El-Sisi was then elected president a year later. Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood has been declared illegal (again) and open dissent is slowing become less tolerated.
Syria: Despite unrest and open revolt since 2011, Bashar al-Assad remains president of most of Syria's major cities and populated regions, and things are almost certain to stay that way. Hundreds of thousands are dead, millions displaced, ISIS has grown from this conflict, and relations between USA and Syria at an all time low. Unless the heavily divided factions fighting against Assad can all unite under one leadership, it looks very unlikely Syria's uprising will end happily soon.
So has anything really changed? Many of the leaders currently in power resemble the previous leaders. Still, some basic reforms have been made and some countries have more democratic processes in place. Long lasting and fundamental change takes years to accomplish. Though we should not look at American-style democracy as the answer to the problems of every nation, leaders who are more sensitive to the desires of their people and open, tolerant societies are ideal.
Personally, I support the way the United States interacted with these protests at first. By supporting the protesters and later armed rebels (at least in nations that didn't have massive oil reserves), but not toppling leaders outright, it helped these revolutionaries bring about their own change. However, the mistake in policy came when the United States ignored the long process of political transition in places like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt which followed after the initial leadership change. Economic and diplomatic support could have helped the democratic process take root more efficiently in this region. But above all, these transitions take both time and the political will for change.