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Exporting terror to North Africa
01:37 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia with the ouster of its longtime leader

Other uprisings -- some successful, some not -- came in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria

Since then, many nations have experienced political turmoil and homegrown violence

CNN  — 

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.

The Arab Spring was supposed to bring peace, democracy and stability to not only the nations where it took root, but also others around it in the Middle East and North Africa. It was supposed to usher in an end of violence and heavy-handed government tactics, just like it ushered out entrenched leaders. In short, it was supposed to mean a brighter future.

Not more instability, not more violence, not fewer freedoms.

But that’s what happened, even if the level of unrest hasn’t been even or universal. Some countries, such as Jordan, instituted reforms without really roiling their societies. Others, such as Iraq, never saw a popular uprising, but have seen burgeoning violence. And now, Yemen is on the brink of civil war as it battles a rebel group that has overthrown the government and seized parts of key cities.

Here’s a look at some countries that were part of the Arab Spring, and what’s happened since.


How it began:

Yemen has been turbulent for years, with widespread poverty and swaths of the Arab nation out of the central government’s control or, worse yet, in the hands of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Still, for 33 years, it had stability at the top, in the form of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Then came protests against his rule in early 2011. Security forces responded with violent crackdowns that left a number of people dead and dozens more wounded. As in other places, this emboldened, rather than scared off, demonstrators.

In November – after months of discussionSaleh signed a power transfer deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

What’s happened since:

Despite sporadic violence in the run-up, Yemen held an election in February 2012 to officially choose a president. There was only one candidate – then-Vice President Abdurabu Mansur Hadi – but going to the ballot box gave some reason for hope.

“This is a people’s election,” said Mohammed al-Rowdy, a voter who worked with Yemen’s Interior Ministry. “That’s why we are optimistic things will get better.”

Unfortunately, they have not.

Instead, Yemen has been beset by even more turmoil that has steamrolled into an active and, in many ways, successful rebellion. The Houthis – a Shiite Muslim minority group that long has felt marginalized in the predominantly Sunni country – have led the charge, first taking over the capital of Sanaa and then other areas.

They pushed out Hadi – first out of power, though he still claims to be Yemen’s legitimate president, and more recently out of the country.

In the last few days, an international military coalition has come in to support the deposed president. The Saudis and their allies (all of them mostly Sunni nations) have pounded Houthi targets around the country by air, while threatening to send in ground troops as well.

Where does this leave terror groups like AQAP, arguably the most powerful and far-reaching branch of al Qaeda? It can only help, according to experts, with the chaos serving its recruiting aims and making conditions safer given that security forces are otherwise occupied. (The fact the U.S. military is out of the country helps on that front, too.)

And all of a sudden, al Qaeda has “real competition” from ISIS, according to a Yemeni official.

Terror groups take advantage of power vacuums to thrive at home


How it began:

Tunisia is where the Arab Spring was born.

Specifically, it happened on a street in Sidi Bouzid, in central Tunisia. That’s where, in December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi – a college graduate who hadn’t been able to find a steady job – had set up as a street vendor, trying to sell vegetables to support his family.

Then a police officer stopped Bouazizi, claiming he didn’t have a proper permit. What exactly happened next isn’t clear, beyond that the 26-year-old set himself on fire in front of a government building. He died 18 days later.

By then, the Jasmine Revolution was in full swing. Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s President for nearly 24 years, fled to Saudi Arabia. And a new government took over.

What’s happened since:

It’s been more than four years since Bouazizi set himself ablaze and, in so doing, set off a revolution.

That time has been marked by democratic elections and institutional reforms, and no more uprisings. These facts have led many to consider Tunisia a success story, perhaps the lone one in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Still, the North African nation hasn’t been without its challenges. While widespread violence remains relatively rare there, more than 3,000 Tunisians are thought to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight as jihadists, more than any other country, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in London.

This speaks to major economic challenges such as uneven income distribution and high youth unemployment, including for educated women and men like Bouazizi. These would-be militants – not to mention those who’ve fought a little closer to home, like in neighboring Libya – felt Tunisia didn’t offer the right opportunity and hope, as some envisioned would come out of the Arab Spring.

Some of those fighters have come home. And earlier this month, at least two men attacked the landmark Bardo Museum in Tunis and killed 23 people – the majority of whom were tourists who’d just come off two cruise ships – before being killed by security forces.

The suspects got weapons training at camps in Libya and were activated from sleeper cells in Tunisia, Security Minister Rafik Chelly said. He did not say which group activated them, or with whom they trained. ISIS did claim responsibility for the attack, though it wasn’t clear if the terror group had a direct or indirect involvement, if that.


How it began:

Egyptian activists got their inspiration from Tunisia. Tunisians had shown them what to do if you think your government is corrupt, its economic policies have failed, and you think the status quo must change. You hit the streets to protest, as Egyptians did en masse in late January 2011.

Some Egyptian security forces hit back. But that only invigorated the movement challenging the government of President Hosni Mubarak – the man who had led Egypt for nearly 30 years – even more.

The emotions were raw and the action fast and furious, with ever growing demonstrations met by security forces. Dozens died, but their revolutionary spirit did not. On February 1, after eight days of protests, Mubarak said he wouldn’t run for re-election but vowed to stay on through the rest of his term.

He didn’t last. After 18 stormy days, the powerful President resigned.

The move was met with raucous celebration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the hub of the protest movement.

“God is great!” some chanted. For others, the mantra was, “Egypt is free!”

What’s happened since:

But this freedom – at least many protesters’ idealistic vision of it – didn’t last.

Yes, there was hope. That was especially true when Egyptians headed to the polls in spring 2012 to participate in an election in which, for the first time, people didn’t know the outcome beforehand.

“I am here to vote for the first time in my life,” Nadia Fahmy, a 70-year-old grandmother, said then. “I want to see a new generation for my country. I want everything to change.”

Mohamed Morsy, a top figure in the once banned Muslim Brotherhood, beat former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq with 51.7% of the vote to become president. A brand new constitution, approved by voters in a referendum, became law in December 2012.

Yet these seeming steps forward were overshadowed by simmering divisions within Egypt. These came to a boil in July 2013, when the North African nation’s military toppled Morsy and put him under house arrest. Morsy’s supporters called it a “coup;” his opponents called it a “correction.”

Morsy “did not achieve the goals of the people” and failed to meet the generals’ demands that he share power with his opposition, Egypt’s top military officer, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This was followed by a broader crackdown on Morsy’s backers and the military – long a powerful force in Egypt – taking more and more control.

There would be another presidential election in Egypt, in spring 2014. By then, el-Sisi had gone from military general to presidential candidate.

This time, there was no close race, as when Morsy won. The results were more reminiscent of Mubarak’s days, with el-Sisi garnering more than 96% of the vote.


How it began:

Three days after Mubarak fell, calls went out on Facebook to protest against another long-entrenched leader in the region, Moammar Gadhafi. And two days after that, about 200 people answered the call in the coastal city of Benghazi – protesting the arrest of activist and lawyer Fathi Terbil, an action that led to more arrests and clashes with police, witnesses said.

Outwardly, Gadhafi’s government didn’t seem too worried.

“There is nothing serious here,” a highly placed source close to the Libyan government told CNN. “These are just young people fighting each other.”

The source was wrong. More protests followed, and with them came more violence. Within days, world powers got involved in the fray. The United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Libya, including an arms embargo and travel bans, and U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order freezing Gadhafi’s assets.

For months, Gadhafi and his loyalists fought off an advancing insurgency backed by NATO aircraft. His fight ended in October 2011, when he was captured by rebel troops, then killed by crossfire.

What’s happened since:

Gadhafi’s death meant, for the first time in 42 years, Libya would have a new leader.

Yet since then, the North African nation has been largely rudderless. Gadhafi’s Libya didn’t have institutions to build off of, meaning everything had to be built from scratch. Also, rebels united in their fight to get rid of Gadhafi didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye about what to do next. On top of all this, a power struggle ensued as multiple groups – from tribes to terrorist organizations – wrestled for the upper hand.

Tripoli is home to the internationally recognized government, and the site of multiple bombings and many shuttered embassies.

Still, the capital is relatively peaceful compared to much of the rest of the country.

That includes Benghazi, where the uprising began and where four Americans – including Ambassador Christopher Stevens – were killed on September 11, 2012. Three or four members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula participated in that incident, according to several sources who have spoken to CNN.

That group isn’t the only one responsible for violence and instability in Libya. Some of it comes from tribal militias trying to hold their ground and protect their people and interests.

Then there are groups like al Qaeda and, more recently, ISIS. CNN reported in November that fighters loyal to the group had complete control of Derna, a city of about 100,000 near the Egyptian border. In February, the group put its brutal stamp on the country with video showing the beheadings of kidnapped Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach.


How it began:

It started with children writing on a wall.

Specifically, it was anti-government graffiti sprayed on the walls of a Daraa school in March 2011. At least 15 children in that southern Syrian city were arrested.

Things spiraled from there. President Bashar al-Assad made some moves aimed at appeasing the restive populace, including lifting his country’s 48-year-old state of emergency and issuing a decree “regulating the right to peaceful protest.”

But it didn’t stop the demonstrations or, by many accounts, the government’s crackdown on dissenters.

What’s happened since:

Civil war is one way to describe the last four years. But it’s hard to really sum up the scale of what’s happened in just two words.

Numbers help paint a picture of the devastation. More than 220,000 Syrians have been killed and over 800,000 have been injured, according to the United Nations. More than 4 million have become refugees in countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, while 7.6 million more are displaced within Syria. And some 75% of those still in the country are living in poverty.

“Every day brings more death, displacement and destruction, raising the fearsome prospect of the total collapse of this country and even more serious consequences in the region,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said earlier this month. “While global attention is rightfully focused on the threat to regional and international peace and security, which terrorist groups such as (ISIS) pose, our focus must continue to be with the Syrian people.”

Nothing about this war has been clean, including who’s fighting it.

The one constant is al-Assad and his forces, who the United Nations and others accused of using chemical weapons. They are still fighting, seemingly not very close to either relinquishing control of Damascus or retaking control of wide swaths of the country they don’t have.