The outcomes of the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring consists of a wave of protests that started in December 2010 in Tunisia followed by other Arab countries. It was positively acclaimed as a social movement demanding an end to human rights violations, government corruption and poverty. However, as Agha and Malley predicted in the New York Book Review, the outcome of these revolutions was contrary to what the original protesters intended:

The Arab world’s immediate future will very likely unfold in a complex tussle between the army, remnants of old regimes, and the Islamists, all of them with roots, resources, as well as the ability and willpower to shape events. There are many possible outcomes—from restoration of the old order to military takeover, from unruly fragmentation and civil war to creeping Islamization.

Among other things, the Arab Spring led to the downfall of strongmen in the region. Those strongmen had not built strong state institutions, and their failure led to the state failure and lawlessness. Even in Egypt, one of the oldest states in the world, the state system collapsed following the fall of Hosni Mubarak. And as Christians are the minority in all Arab countries, they became an easy prey for radical Muslims and criminal gangs. Destructions of churches, displacement, kidnapping and assassination of Christians have come at the order of the day.

Indeed, the Arab Spring led to the deterioration of the position of Christians whose rights were to a certain extent safeguarded under authoritarian rule. The ousting of despots like Kaddafi (Libya) or Mubarak (Egypt) left a power vacuum that benefited Islamic fundamentalists and criminal gangs. Anti-Christian sentiments increased, and violence against both historical Christian minorities and Muslim Background Believers has increased. Moreover, the empowerment of Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria and Salafism has had negative effects on the position of Christians. This was compounded in 2012 by a cycle of protests in different countries under the pretext of opposing an anti-Islam film as a result of which some churches were destroyed.

The outcomes of the Arab Spring have been far from a uniform good for Christians across the Middle East, and differ from country to country. The following four categories of outcomes can be distinguished:

  1. The Arab Spring brought about a regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In all these countries, Islamist parties got elected into political office. In the case of Tunisia, the Islamists lost majority control after their first term in office, and in the case of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was evicted by a military intervention. This does not mean that the threat of Islamism has been averted any of these countries. In Tunisia, Islamists remain highly visible. Moreover, it’s important to bear in mind that Tunisia’s political developments are not as positive as mainstream media make it seem. In Egypt, Islamists continue to perpetrate frequent attacks, including at Christian targets, and there are no guarantees that the rights of Christians will be respected. Meanwhile, Libya has slipped into a situation of absolute lawlessness, in which Christians, particularly Sub-Saharan migrants are among the most vulnerable groups. Libya has become a safe haven and base for all kinds of terrorists.
  2. In Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain, the impact of the Arab Spring remains limited, but could become stronger in the future. Reforms were introduced to restore social peace. In the near future, however, major turmoil in these countries cannot be discarded. In Algeria, for example, when President Bouteflika’s succession will have to be addressed, this is likely to generate massive social unrest. If Islamists capitalize upon the societal discontent as they did in Tunisia and Egypt, the Church may be far worse off. Jordan is currently the stage of a battle against homegrown and foreign jihadists.
  3. In Saudi Arabia and Oman, the impact of the Arab Spring was short-lived. Demonstrations were violently suppressed, with the country’s ruling powers still firmly in place.
  4. The Arab Spring escalated into unprecedented violence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and to a lesser extent Bahrain. For more than four years, Syria has been the stage of a bloody conflict with Islamist rebels desperately trying to get rid of the al-Assad regime, with extremely dire consequences for the country’s Christian population. The violence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has dominated international news headlines. In Syria, Christians’ relative pre-civil war amount of freedom has virtually disappeared with the coming of violent Islamic jihadist groups, reaching an all-time low with the Islamic State caliphate. Since Islamic State proclaimed a caliphate in parts of Iraq, a stream of Christians as well as Yazidis, Shia Muslims and Shabaq have been forced to flee their homes. Many Christians have become internally displaced and have fled to the Kurdish region.

A number of cross-cutting themes can also be considered the consequences of the Arab Spring:

  • A large number of historical churches have been destroyed in the Middle-East, as reported in the annual publication of the World Watch List.
  • Islamic State is responsible for ethnic cleansing and genocide of Christians: The atrocities committed by Islamic State include mass killings. The facts speak for themselves. What the world is witnessing in Syria and Iraq is a clear genocide, as “crimes [are] committed with intent to annihilate a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” (Cf. article by Yonas Dembele).
  • Displacement and internal displacement of Christians from the Middle-East: Because of the chaotic and threatening situation in the region, many Christians are leaving their countries in large numbers. A precise accounting is impossible, but their forced displacement represents a blow the last remnants of a vivid Christian community in the heartland of Christianity. A further decline in numbers is highly likely. (Cf. article by Markus Tozman).
  • Of the 1.8 million pre-war Christian population in Syria, only 1.1 million has remained. This means that since the civil war began in 2011, 700,000 Christians have fled the country, of which 200,000 left in the past year. Since Islamic State proclaimed a caliphate in parts of Iraq, a stream of Christians as well as Yazidis, Shia Muslims and Shabaq have been forced to flee their homes. Many Christians have become internally displaced and have fled to the Kurdish region. Nevertheless, the fear is growing that the Kurdish region will be next in line. Especially in regions controlled by Islamic State, virtually the whole Christian community has disappeared, such as. It is reported that 140,000 Christians have fled from Mosul and the Nineveh plain, either to the Kurdish region or abroad.
  • Christian women and girls have become victims of human trafficking, forced marriage and sexual slavery: Specifically, Christian women and girls are at increased risk of human trafficking. Although Christian men also suffer enormously when persecution increases, for Christian women and girls the situation is often worse because they are culturally the weaker part and their persecutors are like predators, very often preying on their bodies for sexual abuse, or marrying them off to Muslim fighters (or other Muslim men). For example, Muslim men from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have asked their embassies to help them find Syrian girls living in makeshift refugee camps in Jordan and Iraq. “Syrian female refugees aged 14 and 15 who have fled their country to Jordan and Iraq are being forced into “pleasure marriages” [Nikah al-Mut’ah] – a pre-Islamic custom allowing men to marry for a limited period. Apart from being a cover for legalized prostitution (the marriage can last for as little as 30 minutes), Nikah al-Mut’ah deprives the wife of many rights. No divorce is necessary in “pleasure marriages,” for instance, and the husband may void the marriage earlier than agreed,” Gatestone reports. The institute concludes, “Many of these girls, according to reports in a number of Arab media outlets, are being returned to their families after hours or days of the temporary marriage”.
  • Christians at risk in refugee camps: Based on in-country sources, World Watch Research has established that Christians do not always feel safe in UN refugee camps in and outside Syria. Christians prefer not to stay in refugee camps administrated by the UN because other refugees in those camps, some of whom are militant Muslims themselves, cause them to suffer great hostilities. This situation is particularly poignant, as Christians who fled the violence in Syria also have to flee from UN refugee camps.
  • Risk of horizontal and vertical expansion of Islamic State: Under the influence of Islamic State, radical sentiments have increased in the Middle East region, posing threats to the Church worldwide. Indeed, outside the Arab world, the Arab Spring has also inspired the growth of radical violent Islamism in West and East Africa, and poses threats to the West, Asia and the Gulf. The potential for horizontal expansion of Islamic State by inspiring other radical groups is considerable. Besides this horizontal expansion, the potential for vertical expansion of Islamic State seems realistic too and could be greater than many expect.
  • Increasing ties between Islamic extremism and Organized corruption: There are increasing ties between Islamist organizations and organized crime, particularly in the Maghreb, as a recent terrorist attack in Tunisia clearly reveals.
Dennis P. Petri
Dennis P. Petri is Director of Plataforma C, Platform for Christian Politics. A political scientist by training, he specializes in comparative politics with a specific interest in Latin America. He is currently working on a dissertation about religious freedom at VU University Amsterdam.

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