It has been six years since protesters took to the street across the Arab world, demanding human dignity and political and economic rights. Since then, only Tunisia has made a relatively successful transition into representative democracy. Abdel Fateh al-Sisi has returned Egypt to a system of autocratic and repressive rule. In Bahrain, protests were crushed by Saudi military intervention, though sporadic demonstrations continue to occur. Meanwhile, in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, civil wars continue to rage.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the impetus behind the Arab Spring has been buried by counter-revolutionary forces and the reemergence of Arab autocrats. Instead, as a recent report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reveals, the core issues that led to the uprisings remain unresolved.
That report, the Arab Human Development Report 2016 (AHDR), focuses on the sizeable youth population of the Arab world who, at 105 million people, are about a third of the region’s total population. The report demonstrates that, while recent developments have been discouraging and disheartening, the need for political and economic change remains.
AHDR 2016 is the sixth such report. The previous five, released between 2002 and 2009, “all but foretold” the coming of the Arab Spring, according to Rima Khalaf, executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. She writes that the AHDR reports predicted that, without serious political and economic reforms and peaceful channels through which to air their grievances, “some Arabs would eventually resort to violence, with dire consequences.” As the 2016 report states:
The events of 2011 and their ramifications are the outcome of public policies over many decades that gradually led to the exclusion of large sectors of the population from economic, political and social life, depriving many people of appropriate health care, good educations and suitable livelihoods.
In most countries touched in some way by the Arab Spring, this trend of exclusion from economic, political, and social life remains. Since the revolts, prospects for employment and political engagement for Arab youth, who are the most well educated and highly urbanized in the region’s history, remain limited. Job opportunities for the region’s massive youth population are only expected to worsen in the coming two years. The opportunities for political engagement are still largely informal and political power is concentrated in the hands of older generations.
As a result, the report concludes that Arab youth are “less satisfied with the prevailing situation in their countries than youth in other parts of the world.” They are also less able to influence their futures and are “fully aware that the choices available to them are limited and often futile, and they reject these false choices. They feel insufficiently empowered to shoulder the responsibility to develop these choices.”
It is quite obvious, as such, that the challenges that led to the Arab Spring in the first place are more severe than they were six years ago. The counter-revolutions by autocrats and political elites, the steady rollback of hard-earned liberties, and armed conflicts have exacerbated the lack of political, economic, and social freedoms and deprived the Arab people of their right to human dignity.
Writing in The Guardian a year after the start of the revolutions, Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti said “A revolution is not an event. Revolution is a process – a lengthy, laborious and demanding one. It has its ups and downs and its many surprises too.” We remain in the midst of that process, trapped in a repressive downturn. But repression cannot replace the human dignity and justice millions demanded six years ago. Indeed, just this week, protesters returned to the streets in Bahrain to demonstrate that the job is not finished.
As long as oppressive regimes and rulers fail to address these core issues, their hold on power will not go unchallenged.