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Arab Spring to Winter: 5 Years Later

The Arab Spring sparked hopes for democracy. Instead, the region saw renewed authoritarianism, the rise of ISIS, and a historic humanitarian crisis.

Protesters carry the Egyptian flag. | Maged Helal/Flickr
Protesters carry the Egyptian flag. | Maged Helal/Flickr

Five years ago, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, refused to pay a bribe demanded by a corrupt inspector and had his cart confiscated by police. In a suicidal act of protest, Bouazizi poured gasoline over his head and lit himself on fire.

Bouazizi's desperation struck a chord with groups in Tunisia long resentful of the climate of political corruption and economic injustice created by the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. When these Tunisians -- a demographically diverse bunch that included students, activists, trade unionists, white-collar workers and others -- coalesced, they launched the Tunisian Revolution. These protests inspired other citizens across Arab nations to rally against their own authoritarian regimes, a revolutionary wave that would later be called the Arab Spring.

Five years after the event that sparked an international movement, the optimism that characterized the Arab Spring is all but extinguished, replaced with the grim reality of the Arab Winter, distinguished by a return to authoritarian governance, the rise of religious extremism and one of the greatest humanitarian crises in human history.

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Tunisians celebrate their revolution anniversary. | Magharebia/Flickr

The Tunisian Revolution in 2011, also known as the Jasmine Revolution, represents a rare success story over the course of the Arab Spring, relative to the path taken by other nations. The country reached the status of "free," as ranked by the nonprofit political advocacy organization Freedom House, the first Arab country to receive the designation in decades. Despite the democratic advances in Tunisia, violent religious extremism and economic concerns, such as high employment, continue to weigh on the North African nation.

Tunisian revolutionaries, whose tactics included online political activism and non-violent demonstrations, provided the model for demonstrators elsewhere. Although unrest led to the deaths of hundreds as a result of a violent crackdown by the government, protests successfully ousted President Ben Ali within a month of Bouazizi's self-immolation. This achievement in inducing the dissolution of a long-standing regime in such a short amount of time invigorated revolutionary movements in other countries.

Later that year, the country's first parliamentary elections ended with the moderate Islamist Ennahda party garnering a plurality of the vote. Although the party is religious in nature, it has sought coalitions with secular groups.

Partly due to instability triggered by the Arab Spring in its North African neighbors, Tunisia has struggled to contain jihadist groups operating within its borders. Earlier this year, a terrorist wielding an AK-47 took the lives of 38 tourists and wounded 39 others.

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Ahmad Hammoud/Flickr

Egypt is a country that has seen it all in the past five years.

An initial uprising in February 2011 attracted millions of protesters across Egyptian society, with the center of the action being in Tahrir Square. The protests led to a brutal crackdown by Hosni Mubarak's regime, which left at least 847 people dead and thousands more injured. Eighteen days after the protests began, Mubarak resigned.

Mubarak's resignation paved the way for democratic elections, but in the interim, a military junta would run Egypt and issue laws criminalizing protests and strikes, which only triggered further popular resistance.

In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group long suppressed by the Mubarak government, swept into power, culminating in the election of President Mohamed Morsi. Morsi's attempt at a power grab as president and efforts to rewrite the constitution led to his overthrow in a coup by defense minister, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who would later be elected president.

The return to authoritarianism, even under the guise of democracy, has left many Egyptians apathetic toward their own politics, a sharp reversal of the massive popular investment in the nation's affairs first seen in 2011. In elections last month, a mere 13-21 percent of voters bothered to show up to the polls.

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Courtney Radsch/Flickr

Before 2011, Libya was a country in the grip of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Known for his flamboyant style and his rambling tirades in speeches before the United Nations, Gaddafi had predicted that without him, Libya and other regions in North Africa would descend into chaos.

The Arab Spring reached Libya in February 2011, when anti-government protests erupted in cities across the nation. Gaddafi responded with force, sending troops into Benghazi, Tripoli and other areas to crush dissent. After thousands died at the hands of government forces, senior regime officials, military commanders and ordinary rank-and-file soldiers began to resign and defect, leaving Gaddafi isolated, which in turn led him to become more desperate. Gaddafi enlisted mercenaries from other nations and led a bombing campaign against his own people. What had started as revolt turned into an all-out civil war.

Gaddafi's forces made little distinction between rebels and civilian bystanders, which triggered an international effort to prevent civilian casualties. NATO forces as well as several Arab states provided military assistance to the rebels, which sped their victory. In August, Gaddafi was captured and killed.

Libya was liberated from the tyranny of Gaddafi, but that didn't bring an end to the violence. If anything, Libyans might be worse off now with a country divided by militias with pro-democracy forces and Islamists on the other, returning Libya to a state of civil war.

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Syrians survey bombed out buildings. | USA.gov/Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

In Syria, when pro-democracy groups began to challenge the regime in March 2011, security forces were immediately called in to arrest, torture and even kill demonstrators in an effort block the revolutionary wave that had washed over other countries. The violent response only emboldened further protests, and so began what is undoubtedly the most violent chapter in the history of the Arab Spring.

As hundreds of thousands more joined the anti-government movement, once peaceful protesters took up arms, and the nation descended into civil war. More than a quarter million Syrians have died in the conflict, which is still unresolved, and millions more have been displaced, leading to a refugee crisis that has gripped the Middle East and Europe. The country is divided among regions controlled by the regime, rebel groups, Islamists and Kurdish forces.

Western nations have gradually been tugged further into the Syrian crisis with each passing year. Initially, western countries issued sanctions against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. By the summer of 2011, President Barack Obama called for Assad to step down.

In 2012, the same year reports surfaced of war crimes and the use of chemical weapons to carry out attacks against rebels by the Assad regime, the West was arming rebel groups, who were splintered into different factions.

In 2013, as Syrian military forces and rebels were caught in a stalemate, the United States demanded that Assad give up his chemical weapons, with Obama considering a military strike against Syria. The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), which carried out terrorist attacks in western nations over the past year -- notably the mass murder of 130 people in Paris -- has led to airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition.

Despite the chaos of the last five years, Assad, who now has the backing of Russia, in addition to support from Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

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Protesters demonstrate against militancy and violence in Sanaa, Yemen. | Khaled Abdullah/Reuters/Corbis

Like Libya, Yemen is a nation that traded authoritarianism for chaos in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

In 2012, protests brought an end to the 33-year reign of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was injured in the violence that ensued in the uprisings. His vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, succeeded him and formed a unity government with opposition groups.

After Hadi's takeover, Houthi rebels from the north, many of whom served in the military under the old regime and were allied with Saleh, began a violent campaign to assume control of the country. Because of Yemen's strategic importance on the Gulf of Aden, both sides have received aid from outside groups in their war. The civil conflict is seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which backs the Sunni-led government, and Iran, which supports the Shia Houthi militias.

Complicating the situation further are attacks by Islamist extremists under the banner of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which controls areas in south Yemen. AQAP opposes both the Hadi government and the Houthi militants.

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Hundreds of protesters stage a sit-in in Almogsha in 2014. | bahrain14feb bilad/Demotix/Corbis

Bahrain is an island nation the Middle East that drew little attention during uprisings against against the ruling Al Khalifa family in 2011. In making demands for a legislature and a constitution, the nation's majority Shia population sought a more equitable stake in the country from the Sunni government.

When Bahrainis rose up in protest, like other Arab countries, they were met with violence and arrest by government security forces. With the backing of Saudi troops, the regime declared a state of emergency and imposed martial law. Dozens were killed, and many more were injured. Of those arrested, nearly two-thirds of detainees, almost 1,900 people, reported being tortured while in custody.

Although Bahrainis still at times turn out to protest government or police -- events that can draw thousands of supporters -- and there are occasional violent skirmishes between demonstrators and security services, the pro-democracy movement is less active than it used to be during the height of the Arab Spring.

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King Abdullah II | U.S. Department of Defense

Not every nation affected by the Arab Spring saw sweeping protests followed by revolt, martial law and/or civil war. In some cases, smaller-scale demonstrations led to incremental reforms.

Jordan, Oman and Kuwait are three countries that each saw protests that led to small-scale skirmishes with government forces, resulting in a handful of casualties. In each country, the government made concessions to protesters' demands.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II, pictured here, dismissed several prime ministers and cabinet members over calls for changes and concerns about the pace of implementation of reforms. In Oman, Sultan Qaboos has made economic concessions and granted more powers to the country's legislature. And in Kuwait, which didn't see a single casualty resulting from Arab Spring protests (although there were conflicts between demonstrators and police), the government resigned, resulting in new elections.

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