Loved Egyptian Night: The aftermath of the Arab Spring unveiled

Loved Egyptian Night: The aftermath of the Arab Spring unveiled
Book Club: Hugh Roberts explores the Arab Spring aftermath, dissecting Tunisia's democracy, Egypt's military rule, and Libya's chaos in 'Loved Egyptian Night.'
5 min read
29 May, 2024

Earlier this month, Tunisian authorities detained Saadia Mosbah, a human rights campaigner and the head of an NGO defending migrant rights in Tunisia.

This incident marks the latest example of Tunisian President Kais Saied's autocratic behavior since his power grab in July 2021. The main Tunisian opposition parties have recently announced their intention to boycott the presidential elections expected to take place around October this year.

In his book Loved Egyptian Night: The Meaning of the Arab Spring, Tufts University Professor Hugh Roberts argues that Tunisia was the only country to undergo a revolution following the Arab Spring.

While Tunisia's dictator Ben Ali fell from power in January 2011, so did Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi later that same year.

What sets the Tunisian experience apart from the others, notes Roberts, is that Tunisia "went on to establish a new form of government with real political representation and the rule of law."

Roberts sees the Tunisian revolution as a shockwave that spread to many other Arab countries.

In the book, he focuses on the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but the Tunisian revolution had reverberations further afield, as evidenced by the Bahraini uprising repressed by Saudi troops. The Tunisian revolution was the common shockwave, but it reached very different shores, which helps explain the divergent outcomes.

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In Tunisia, Ben Ali's locus of power was the ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally. Once it collapsed under the weight of popular protests, revolutionary change could take place thanks to a strong civil society and the country's constitutional tradition.

In contrast, Mubarak's dictatorship did not have the ruling National Democratic Party at its core but the army. Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood won the first democratic elections in Egypt in June 2012, but the shadow of the armed forces continued to loom large over the country.

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Meanwhile, in Libya, the National Transitional Council that emerged in the fight against Gaddafi was an incohesive group that could only be momentarily held together by the external support it received from both Western and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

NATO's intervention in Libya tipped the scales against Gaddafi. Roberts is deeply critical of this intervention, discarding the idea that NATO suffered from mission creep and instead writing that "the mission was one of violent regime change from the very outset."

Gaddafi was a brutal ruler with no qualms about shedding blood to stay in power. Still, Roberts explains, this does not invalidate some of the assessments already in circulation at the time of the intervention. These assessments pointed out that Gaddafi's promise to show "no mercy" when marching on rebel-held Benghazi referred to armed rebels, not the civilian population, and that his offensive was essentially military.

The idea of an impending massacre of civilians in Benghazi was the main argument behind NATO's intervention. It is telling that Barack Obama's biggest regret when assessing his eight years as president was his administration's policy towards Libya. In 2016, Obama continued to defend the Libya intervention but noted that the US failed to plan for the day after Gaddafi. He also remarked that Libya had become "a mess."

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Loved Egyptian Night is particularly strong in its discussion of the Arab Spring in Egypt, where Roberts lived from 2001 to 2012 leading the North Africa division of the International Crisis Group, a leading think tank headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.

The author explains that, once in power, Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi had to contend with two very significant challenges. On the one hand, the Egyptian army continued to oversee national politics, and Morsi could not introduce reforms that challenged their interests. On the other hand, Saudi and Emirati money had flowed to Salafist political forces in Egypt, posing an electoral challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Afraid of losing supporters to the Salafist camp, the Brotherhood decided to prioritize its own cohesion rather than building bridges with non-Islamist political forces, explains Roberts. This had negative consequences once the Brotherhood was under threat.

With the Tamarod movement protesting against Morsi in the streets and the army deciding to move against the president, Morsi was removed in a coup in July 2013. Muslim Brotherhood supporters demonstrating against the coup in Cairo's Rab'a Square were subsequently massacred by the Egyptian security forces, with over 1,000 people killed.

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Roberts argues that one of the key elements to understanding why the Arab Spring did not materialize in substantial change beyond the case of Tunisia is the substitution of a secondary objective for the primary objective. He notes that the primary concern of protesters was the emergence of a form of government that guaranteed dignity and real citizenship to the population.

This would have required that the governments being challenged by their populations allowed "effective political representation."

Such a change was often only possible with the fall of the head of state. But the removal of long-time political leaders should not have been an end in itself. According to Roberts, this is something that many Western leaders and also some protesters failed to understand.

The case of Egypt is emblematic of this problem. Mubarak was removed, but the army retained a great deal of influence. Morsi's Minister of Defence, Colonel General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, became president in June 2014, less than one year after the coup against his former boss.

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Looking back at the Arab Spring, it is difficult to be optimistic, especially when considering the democratic setback in Tunisia in 2021 and the ongoing civil wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria.

However, it is precisely because the hopes of those who took to the streets to protest in 2010-11 did not materialize that Loved Egyptian Night, a critical re-examination of the Arab Spring, is a necessary contribution.

Marc Martorell Junyent is a graduate of International Relations and holds an MA in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society from the University of Tübingen (Germany). He has been published in the London School of Economics Middle East BlogMiddle East MonitorInside ArabiaResponsible Statecraft and Global Policy.

Follow him on Twitter: @MarcMartorell3