The Arab Spring In Review

For better or worse, the uprisings made clear Arabs do in fact rule themselves. Are they up to the task?

A protester waves an Egyptian flag in Cairo, February 4, 2012
A protester waves an Egyptian flag in Cairo, February 4, 2012 (Alisdare Hickson)

Five years later, the dismal record of the Arab Spring is all too apparent. Syria burns, Egypt’s new pharaoh goes from strength to strength while the Gulf monarchs, having launched war in Yemen, have rarely seemed so lethal. Democracy, it is clear, did not sweep in with the revolutions of the 2011-12.

But that’s no reason to dismiss the spring entirely. All such wide-scale events have resonance. For better or worse, the Arab world is certainly different and in some slim ways even improved since 2011.

Here now is the geopolitical review of the Arab Spring.

It hasn’t been all doom and gloom

Even in very dark war clouds, silver linings appear. The Arab Spring shook up a region that had remained politically stagnant for decades with well-worn cliques governing much of the population.

Many of the most affected Arab states were built on Stalinist lines: megalomaniacs on top whose cult of personalities held together brutal social contracts. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were the worst offenders, but Tunisia, Egypt and Syria all, to varying degrees, took plays from Stalin’s book.

Such a model empowers ruinous corruption and stifles development: that Stalinism died with Stalin in the USSR is no accident. Only small states with unconditional outside support can maintain such systems for long. Since the end of the Cold War, no Arab state had enjoyed that kind of friendship: America’s alliances come with strings attached and neither Russia nor China is in the mood to truly compete with the United States.

Even Egypt, whose geopolitical situation favors strong, centralized states, strongmen Abdul Fatah al-Sisi is treading carefully, building an authoritarian regime modeled more on Russia’s kleptocratic president, Vladimir Putin, than on Joseph Stalin. Hardly ideal, but not quite a full backslide. After all, Putin’s Russia has produced considerable economic and political growth compared to the Soviet Union.

Moreover, Arabs learned that they do in fact rule themselves

The Arab Spring helped put nails in the coffins of many lurking Middle Eastern conspiracies. The Arab Street, the regional equivalent of America’s talking heads class, long believed that Arabs remained without democracy due to imperialist conspiracy. Few Arab elites were willing to take responsibility for much; they were happy to shift popular anger onto foreign powers as they failed to bring their countries into the twenty-first century.

Arab citizens, meanwhile, developed a “what can we do” learned helplessness that stagnated development: when you think the system will always be broken, you don’t attempt to fix it. But the spring proved without a doubt that Arabs, when fully mobilized, could overcome even the toughest of dictators and that the West, so often blamed for the region’s ills, might even help out such rebellions.

Arab elites, as a result, have become more responsive and less conspiratorial: that Israel played no role at all in the spring is no doubt a tough pill to swallow for the committed anti-Zoinists used to seeing Tel Aviv behind every political development. Even in the stagnant Gulf, the conversation has shifted: Gulf monarchs understand better than ever that they will decide their own fate.

Which has forced regimes just about everywhere to eek out whatever efficiencies they can

A hallmark of the pre-spring region was deeply embedded corruption: rulers on the top allowed followers to plunder state and society at will. But Arab rulers now understand that corruption, whether it’s a lazy state worker never showing up to work or a police officer taking bribes to investigate a crime, has consequences. Corrupt bargains with seedy elements of society no longer have the attraction they once did.

This has applied to the old bargains with Islamists: the rise and fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the emergence of the Islamic State have demonstrated to most Arab elites that political Islam is beyond the pale. The United Arab Emirates have led the way with a full crackdown on the Islamists; Tunisia, meanwhile, has empowered democratic Islamists who have had to repeatedly assure the population they will be guided by religion, not governed by it. Even Saudi Arabia, the fountain of Sunni supremacism, is moving, in its groping, immature way, toward confronting demons of its own making.

But the bad news: it proved Arabs rule themselves

Only Tunisia had developed enough politically to advance from dictatorship to democracy. Every other state had spent varying degrees of energy dividing society and preventing politics. Some places, like Libya and Syria, had built shaky contracts with tribes, giving tribal autonomy in exchange for loyalty. Such contracts came crashing down once tribal members became victims of civil war, forcing elders to avenge them and plunging once compliant and quiet tribes into battle.

Celebrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square as Mohamed Morsi is declared the winner in Egypt's presidential election, June 24, 2012
Celebrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as Mohamed Morsi is declared the winner in Egypt’s presidential election, June 24, 2012 (Jonathan Rashad)

Other places with less tribalism, like Egypt, had no real organized opposition ready to replace the dictatorship with anything but another dictatorship. That’s precisely what the Muslim Brotherhood did; having won the elections, the Brotherhood looked to replace the Mubarak regime with an Islamist one.

Meanwhile, for those who did seek something approaching a democracy, immature infighting and big egos split the opposition into thin fragments. Arabs had never been given the chance to learn the art of political compromise; that lack of experience came out in spades as revolutions gave way to civil wars in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. In Egypt, it allowed the still-organized regime remnants to launch a successful counterrevolution, co-opting the very forces that had forced them out to begin with.

And in such chaos, long-suppressed monsters drew breath

Political Islam’s darkest side, Sunni supremacism, was finally given enough space to build a fledging nation state. The Islamic State’s stunning conquests in the summer of 2014 were possible only because they faced such a divided Arab world: had central governments in Damascus and Baghdad managed themselves better, they’d have had the power to wipe out IS in its earliest stages.

But Al Qaeda too has enjoyed a renaissance, holding territory in Yemen as well as Syria. The worse the civil wars get, the more radicalism rises: in times of anarchy, people seek brutal, simple solutions to their security problems.

Perhaps worst of all, the system of imperial and neo-imperial management, in place since 1500, is very nearly ended

After the rise of the Ottoman and Persian Empires around 1500, the Arab world ceased to govern itself, becoming a borderland and series of provinces. This stunted political development but also brought a semblance of order. The Ottomans and Persians gave way to the French and British, who in turn gave way to the Americans and the Soviets. After 1991, only the Americans were left with the power to manage regional conflicts and instill a sense of order.

Now that time has come to an end. For the first time in half a millennia, Arabs are truly on their own. None of the Arab Spring revolts occurred because the United States wanted them; in fact, America’s most implacable enemy, Iran, emerged nearly unscathed. The collapse of half the Iraqi state, and the whole Libyan one, happened despite America; Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen began because Saudi interests were at stake, not American ones.

American president George W. Bush speaks with Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, August 27, 2002
American president George W. Bush speaks with Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, August 27, 2002 (White House)

In other words, the superpower has been forced to the role of reactor and an inept one at that: it can react to events but no longer shape them, let alone dictate their outcomes. Compare that with the heady 1980s and 90s when the United States had the power to restore Kuwait, contain both Iran and Iraq, corral Israel, chastise Libya and manage Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council with finesse.

Since independence after World War I, Arab states have had some outside power to rely on to prop up their regimes; that time is fast closing with the last remaining superpower losing interest in micromanaging the region. Russia has the will but not the power to replace it; China hasn’t the will (and, arguably, the power as well).

While it may seem like a great thing that foreigners have finally been tossed from the Middle East, the reality is instead war. The strategic balance of the Arab world has long been kept by outside guarantees: the end of those guarantees invites conflict to establish a new, more indigenous balance. Such conflict will invariably be bloody.

Which leads us to the future: de facto partitions, a second wave of revolts and expanded spheres of influence for the Turks and the Iranians, compounded by resource crunches, climate change and water wars

The international community hasn’t the interest to redraw the Middle East’s map as France and Britain did in the 1920s. Instead, de facto partition will be the watchword: much as Lebanon is a hodgepodge of fiefdoms, so too will likely be Syria, Iraq and Libya. That uneasy balance will buy peace but not power.

The future won’t be traditional empire but spheres of influence: no border redraws necessary. Meanwhile, the precedent of 2011 will not soon be forgotten. Shellshocked as they are, few Arabs today have an appetite for a second wave of revolution. Gulf Arabs especially look to the killing fields of Syria as the inevitable conclusion of protest. But while this generation is generally convinced that it’s better to just get on with it, future generations — especially the Internet-connected kids of Riyadh, Manama, Kuwait City and elsewhere — are likely to fall prey to the cycle of history and demand change. They will know it is possible: Tahrir proved it. Politically always a step behind the rest of Arab world, the Persian Gulf states are now raising the very children who are quite likely to take a stab at a second Spring.

As Arab states collapse, weak or split up, someone must fill the power vacuum. Outside powers will no longer pay the bill: someone from the neighborhood must emerge. Only Turkey and Iran fit the profile. Naturally geopolitically strong, their influence will encompass much of the power gap left as the United States recalibrate and withdraw. A wise American president will lean on both to do the dirty work, drawing them close, but wisdom is not the primary qualification to be elected president. It is to them that the job of destroying Sunni supremacism will fall.

Meanwhile, resource crunches and environmental degradation will stalk development throughout the twenty-first century

Already projections state that Persian Gulf cities like Dubai and Doha will suffer from 140-degree summers by 2100: only bubble cities will make sense in those days. Such cities will be expensive to maintain and it’s doubtful many will consider that an idyllic lifestyle.

Water, too, will become a premium as climate change takes hold. The Jordan River is a trickle; Yemen is drying out; the vast Arabian peninsula is sucking dry its aquifers and while technology for desalination will likely get better, it will also be a bill that weak states cannot afford.

Meanwhile, oil as a cash cow seems on its way out: green tech combined with fracking means the black stuff won’t prop up petro-states any longer. This will mean the environmental bill will only be harder to pay. For weak states like Yemen, civil wars may well turn to genocides or mass migration. For stronger states, development will be slowed trying to mitigate the chaos.

The hinge point now is whether or not Arab states are both able and willing to make the necessary changes

Every Arab state faces a stark choice: to return to old, bad habits of blame, conspiracy and stagnation or to learn from the past and build new, better political models capable of handling the change that must come. The track record isn’t great, but that doesn’t mean the past must repeat itself.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, January 27, 2016.