The Arab Spring In Review

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. Read more

Trying to Find a Rhyme: The Middle East’s New Age

A woman waves an Egyptian flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square, February 3, 2011
A woman waves an Egyptian flag in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, February 3, 2011 (Al Jazeera English)

It’s tempting to compare developments in the Middle East to historical ones. The current geopolitical struggle has been likened to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War when deadly religious and political conflicts raged before the establishment of the modern “Westphalian” nation states. The Syrian Civil War can be compared to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s which was heavily swayed by foreign intervention. Regional tensions are eerily reminiscent of the Cold War’s chilling peace, assured by the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation, especially as Iran develops nuclear arms. Receding American power reminds some of the midcentury decline of the British Empire, the erstwhile “global policeman.”

However, as Mark Twain (apocryphally) said, history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. Many analysts extrapolate the Middle East’s future based on historical parallels. When taken together, however, these disparate rhymes don’t quite make a neat harmony. The cacophony of comparisons reflects the difficulty to grasp and forecast the the Middle East’s future. It reveals social and political shifts unprecedented in the region’s modern history, as strained governments repress a growing desire for more freedoms.

The recent economic recession, coupled with events that the West has a hard time understanding and reacting to, has led to significant indecisiveness and inaction. Western nations don’t quite know what to make of General Abdul Fatah Sisi’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example. His brutal crackdown against the Islamist group has put his role as impartial steward in question. In the case of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons or the support of Syrian rebels against Bashar al-Assad, the West has refused to use force and halfhearted diplomatic efforts have frustrated its allies.

Accordingly, regional powers, in particular Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are taking matters into their own hands.

The Saudis displayed their displeasure with the United States with surprising force by refusing a seat on the United Nations Security Council last month. They have entered the fray in the Syrian Civil War, plotting an independent course in their support of the rebellion. They have also granted a huge sum of money to Egypt’s Sisi, after the United States cut their aid. Iran, meanwhile, backs Assad and seeks to develop a nuclear bomb as a means to defend its own independence of action.

These two countries are doing their best to shape the outcome of what has been dubbed the Arab Spring. That wave of protests, which had different proximate causes and results in every country it affected, had the same underlying pressures: economic difficulties and political exclusion. Rising food and fuel prices, inefficient economies, lack of jobs, a dearth of political freedoms and decades of repression brought about unparalleled frustration which burst onto the scene in early 2011. Only Israel and Turkey had built societies that could adequately handle these issues. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen were rocked by revolutions and proved unable to effectively govern their peoples and manage their economies. Some of these countries, in particular Iraq and perhaps Egypt, are reverting to autocratic tendencies. Although democracy brought great change, it did not fix enough fast enough.

The outcome of these events is hard to forecast precisely because they are so radically different from what has come before in the Middle East. The desire for freedom and progress among Middle Eastern peoples, and its messy struggle against the too familiar autocratic reflex among their rulers, will shape their future. Even in Iran, where sanctions are taking their toll, and in Saudi Arabia, whose king is hard pressed to keep his subjects happy with handouts, governments are finding it difficult to contain the pressures that overwhelmed their neighbors.

Coming full circle, one further historical analogy can cast some light on the outcome of this momentous transitional period.

In 1848, revolutions shook Europe to its core. Similarly to today’s Middle East, the demand for more accountable and participative democracies, along with serious labor disputes, caused explosive public unrest. However, after this “Spring of Nations” — the Arab Spring’s namesake — was quelled, Europe looked rather similar to the way it did before. The social grievances that were aired were nonetheless glaring and Europe would inexorably become more democratic. After catastrophic wars, centuries of autocracy and decades of communism, Europe is now mostly democratic and at peace.

Bearing this in mind, it may be that the economic and social issues brought to light during the Arab Spring won’t be resolved any time soon. Reactionary reflexes and impatience with democracy threaten their future. However, in these revolutionary times, now that the people of the Middle East know the power of their voice, autocrats are unlikely to have the same control they did before. Perhaps this is, like it was in Europe, the beginning of a transition to democracy, one that will be slow and turbulent.

This article was published as the winning entry in an internship competition at Wikistrat, the world’s first massively multiplayer online consultancy.

After Revolution, Tunisians Call for Dictator’s Return

Closeup of a portrait of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Saint Romain, Rhône-Alpes, France, February 14, 2011
Closeup of a portrait of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Saint Romain, Rhône-Alpes, France, February 14, 2011 (Abode of Chaos/Thierry Ehrmann)

Nearly two years after the start of the “Arab Spring,” Tunisians are openly calling for the return of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who resigned and fled the country in January of last year after a month of protests.

“Ben Ali put people in prison but he didn’t shoot at us,” a mother whose son was shot in the eye by police during a riot told a reporter for the Dutch Nieuwsuur program. “I regret the revolution and would give up freedom of speech for more jobs,” a student told the BBC in October.

Ben Ali was the first Arab dictator to fall in a wave of revolutions that swept the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011. He was also the most aggressively secular one. Although 98 percent of Tunisians is Muslim, Ben Ali’s government banned headscarfs, closed mosques and persecuted Islamists who were suspected of radicalism or ties with terrorist groups.

Since his regime’s downfall, attendance at prayer services is up and religious schools, where students are separated according to gender — something that would have been unthinkable while Ben Ali was president — are growing in number.

Politically, the main beneficiary of the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia has been the Islamist Ennahda movement which won a plurality of the seats in the Constituent Assembly elections in October of last year. The body is tasked with rewriting the Constitution. While the party rejects religious fanaticism, opposition members criticize it for tolerating Salafist groups that have been accused of intimidating women and attacking secular leaders.

The main source of discontent is high unemployment and rising food and fuel prices. While the latter are likely more a reflection of global trends, the jobless rate has certainly suffered from the political turmoil. Where it stood at 13 percent in 2010 — high enough to fuel the revolution in the first place — it rose to almost 19 percent the next year and is now estimated at over 17 percent. Strikes, which were forbidden under Ben Ali’s rule, regularly disrupt production and public services.

Ben Ali pursued a liberal economic policy, characterized by strong investment relations with countries in the European Union and a heavy reliance on tourism. During his administration, Tunisia’s per capita gross domestic product more than tripled from $1,201 in 1986 to $3,786 in 2008.

Tourism has come to a near standstill and is unlikely to pick up while the country remains in disarray.

Elections are scheduled for June of next year. Ennahda had hoped to install a parliamentary democracy but under pressure from other parties, which feared Islamist majoritarianism, agreed to a mixed system with a powerful presidency to balance the legislature.

Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s interim president, warned last month, “If this experiment fails, another cycle of violence will undoubtedly take place. But,” he added, “if it succeeds, it can become an example for the rest of the Arab and Muslim countries.”

Mediterranean Engenders Tyranny of the Majority

As predicted, the fate of the “Arab Spring” democracies is leaving much to be desired. Liberal societies can simply not arise from illiberalism and the alternative is, and has always been, to either have secular, authoritarian, pro-Western elites or Islamist, populist, unreliable governments. Between liberal dictatorship and Islamist democracy, the choice is a dilemma.

What makes the choice more difficult is that it is also one between civil rights and political freedoms. In all of last year’s Arab revolutions, the observed constant was ethnic or ideological majorities politicizing the Mediterranean spillover of the Western financial crisis in order to unseat minority regimes. In Tunisia, the Islamists removed the secularists. The same happened in Egypt. In Bahrain, the Shia majority tried to overthrow a Sunni regime; vice versa in Syria, and in Libya there was no majority to be had. Read more

Turkey Has One Big Problem in Neighbor Syria

Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey's foreign minister, answers questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 18, 2011
Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, answers questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 18, 2011 (NATO)

The popular uprisings that toppled decade-old dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya last year forced the Turks to reconsider their famed “zero problems with neighbors” policy and take sides. They welcomed the winds of change and proved quite willing to cut their ties with Middle Eastern despots after years of engagement in order to promote their own model of Islamist democracy and maintain an influence.

Regime change in Egypt and Libya was brokered by Western powers, alleviating Turkey of the burden of balancing their rhetorical support for anti-government protests with a realist imperative to compromise with (military) caretakers.

In Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is refusing to listen to the rest of the world and continues to crush the revolt against his regime, the Turks have finally to come to terms with the situation and decide how serious they are about supporting the Arab cause.

For now, Ankara doesn’t appear willing to do more than let the Syrian opposition organize on its soil and refugees pour in from the south despite demands from Damascus that it seal the border. Turkish diplomacy appears to have little effect. Writes Leon Hadar in The National Interest, “Turks certainly seem to have made very little impression on the Machiavellian rulers in Damascus, who rejected Erdoğan’s pleadings to play nice.” The Turkish leader urged his Syrian counterpart as early as March of last year to “respond positively” to the demands of his people. Instead, Assad sent tanks into rebel cities. “So much for Turkish soft power,” concludes Hadar.

The Arab Spring, he believes, has taught Turkey that reshaping the Middle East in its image “involves more than just sending trade missions to the Arab world, producing captivating television soap operas or pledging a commitment to promote the Palestinian cause.”

Indeed, while Americans may be from Mars and Europeans from Venus, the Middle East is now experiencing an explosive big bang, and Turkey is finding that being pulled into the developments in the region is like being drawn into a political black hole — and that getting out of it requires more than just soft power.

Hoping that the next generation of Arab leaders copying the Turkish model will put an end to the unrest is naive, he adds.

After all, the evolution of Turkey into a more or less functioning democracy was a century long drama involving larger than life players like Atatürk, social instability, political crises, ethnic warfare, military coups, the emancipation of women and the rise of a new middle class and business elite.

Even today, there is a very real tension between Turkey’s secularists and conservative Muslim majority represented by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party. Similar tension is apparent in the new Egypt where the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood secured nearly a majority of seats in the nation’s freely elected parliament this year. In Egypt as well as Tunisia, religious minorities and secular Muslims fear an Islamist revival that could crush their freedoms and those of women.

In Syria, it seems that minority Alawites, Christians and Druze as well as the inhabitants of cities in the coastal areas are far less in favor of regime change than people in the Sunni dominated south and southwest of the country where the uprising is strongest. They are afraid that the revolt, if successful, will make life harder for them in the short term.

Hadar nevertheless recommends that the Turks work with the Arab League to negotiate Assad’s exile even if the aim of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, is probably to see the Sunnis take power and move Syria away from its alliances with Hezbollah and Iran. Arab and Turkish peacekeepers should then move in to restore order.

It may not bring about the sort of multiethnic democracy that Western observers are hoping for overnight. But it would be a chance for the Turks to prove that they are prepared to assume the responsibility that comes with being a regional power.

Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, told France 24 that he was “ready to do everything for [the] Syrian people” last month but stopped short of endorsing calls for military intervention at the time. The Turks hesitate to go it alone and for good reason but the United States will probably not make the choice for them this time.

Western Nations Silent as Libya Tumbles

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council, meets President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris, September 1, 2011
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of Libya’s National Transitional Council, meets President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris, September 1, 2011 (Greek Prime Minister’s Office)

Dozens of angry protesters surrounded the building of Libya’s National Transitional Council in Benghazi during the last week of January, the first to willingly come under the control of the post-Gaddafi interim authority. The members of the NTC, who have stepped into the governing vacuum left by the dismantling of the colonel’s regime, are increasingly under hot water with a growing segment of Libya’s population.

Some of the very rebels who volunteered to fight under the NTC’s banner during the country’s eight month civil war are now turning against the body’s leadership which is often described as inept, corrupt and at times incompetent. The days when Mustafa Abdel Jalil and his colleagues on the council were hailed as revolutionary heroes and the guardians of Libya have gone. Or, as The Washington Post rightly put it, the “honeymoon is over.”

The restoration of public security has been a significant concern for Libyans of all backgrounds and tribal affiliations since Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was officially declared dead last August. Five months later, most of the country’s security work is left to the armed brigades that swept up loyalists and drove them out of the capital of Tripoli.

Libyans are just starting to assemble a professional army and police force for the first time in four decades. While recruitment has trickled in with some 25,000 Libyan men training for their new duties, militias in the cities of Tripoli, Misrata and Zintan are stuck in a civil war outlook. The chief of staff of the new Libyan army, General Youssef Mangoush, has acknowledged that integrating the dozens of militias into a coherent national military will be one of the most difficult and time consuming challenges the NTC leadership faces.

National security, however, is only one of the problems slowing down Libya’s transition from an autocracy to a responsible member of the international community.

Complaints by citizens over the body’s undemocratic practices and lack of transparency are bursting into the open with Benghazi residents especially upset over the state of their city. A draft election law that was produced and released by NTC officials has been lambasted not only for its content but for the way the document was created in the first place — without direct public participation or input from independent election experts.

There is outrage over the fact that Libyans who hold dual citizenship will not be permitted to run in the elections for the Constituent Assembly, banishing dozens of experienced and qualified Libyans who were forced into exile under Gaddafi’s rein. While women are guaranteed to sit in the legislature, they are only allowed a 10 percent share, which could limit the number of female candidates who run.

Allegations of torture are the most embarrassing for Libya’s interim government. After Gaddafi’s death last October, the beatings, lashings, electrocution and sodomy were supposed to stop or at least that was what most Libyans had hoped. Sadly, each practice continues to be used by both militias and the NTC’s young security service to break down those who were caught on the wrong side of the conflict. 

Amnesty International’s latest statement on Libya details the deaths of tortured detainees under the care of fighters connected to the new Libyan government. But it was the action of Medecins Sans Frontieres, the group famous for its medical work in conflict zones around the world, which placed the brightest spotlight on the torture question.

Sick of the inhumane treatment being offered to Libya’s prisoners, MSF staff quit their operations in Misrata’s prison system. The aid organization has seen some awful things during its history, making its decision to throw in the towel even more damning for Libya’s national council.

Tet, despite all of these cracks underneath the Libyan surface, the NATO coalition that intervened to save the lives of tens of thousands of Libyans from Gaddafi’s crackdown are surprisingly silent at a time when the country needs the most help.

The Obama Administration has only reiterated the American position that it stands with the new Libya but we seldom hear of what type of assistance Washington is giving to Libyans on the ground.

Britain, France and the United States face a similar conundrum and that is whether waiting for the Libyan government to ask for specific advice — which has been the Obama Administration’s policy so far — is a truly appropriate response when the most senior policymaker in the country openly frets about further instability on the horizon.

This may be overly pessimistic assessment at this point in time but it could become dangerously close to a self-fulfilling prophecy if more Libyan citizens, exhausted with dictatorship, nepotism and violence, remain unsatisfied with the way their appointed leaders do business.

At a minimum, the United States and its European partners can try, to the best of their ability, to ensure that the process of democracy itself — not just casting a ballot but creating a fresh culture of accountability and results for the people — is protected. Libyans themselves must be able to see that all of the resources and aggravation that has been spent thus far will pay off in the end.  Otherwise, the only objective that Libya’s citizen soldiers and NATO achieved in the eight month bombing campaign was the collapse of a dictator — a success that is hardly sustainable when the political landscape resembles a gaping wound.

Brain Drain, Soft Power and Orientalist Revolutions

There is a narrative at work. Man has evolved from a savage uncivilized species to a level of sophistication which is today best exemplified by the Western world. This view of history is linear, it allows only for Hegelian progress and it is also ethnocentric since it makes Europe and America the leaders of human progress. Huntington’s “Western civilization” concept reflects this view.

When large political upheavals take place, most of the commentariat resorts in a Pavlovian fashion to this narrative to explain them. Thus is the case with all the series of revolutions since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Velvet Revolution, the color revolutions and now the Arab Spring are all framed as being just one more step in the world’s adaptation to the Western concept of society and civilization. But are they?

If that were the case would they all happen to happen in Europe’s periphery? We have not seen dominos fall in sub-Saharan Africa, in South Asia or in the Far East.

The truth as British historian Timothy Garton Ash puts it is that:

One might suggest that the best chances are to be found in semiauthoritarian states that depend to a significant degree, politically, economically and, so to speak, psychologically, on more democratic ones — and most especially when the foreign states with the most passive influence or active leverage on them are Western democracies.

NATO states gave their best efforts to influence the elites of the Central and Eastern European states during the Cold War. Propaganda and subversion activities aside, even if very few of these intellectuals actually visited the West, Western books and culture were predominant in the world and therefore also, to a degree, behind the Iron Curtain. It is no surprise that Western influence continued to be felt in spite of Soviet censure since that had always been the case prior to the Cold War. Russian, Polish or Serb elites had always drifted westward in search of inspiration and that did not change with the old continent’s division in ideological blocs.

The same holds true for the color revolutions in Russia’s “Near Abroad.”

What to make of the Arab Spring? Unfortunately the same. It is not just a matter of European neighbors being demographically bigger and economically stronger; it is also the fact that the international narrative is dominated by European encultured states and societies: Europeans have colonized most of the world and the cultural standard is today a socially liberal, free-market economy-oriented, democratically-ruled nation state.

Phenomena such as brain drain and soft power only further emphasize this tendency. Where do the wealthiest and brightest Arabs study and obtain their entertainment if not in Europe and America? Sayyid Qutb sensed this very phenomenon and called it Jahiliyyah — referring to the prevalent “ignorance” prior to Islamic rule to categorize a contemporary prevalent corruption from within which hinders Islamic values.

What is important to understand is not that Western values are wrong but that they aren’t absolute. They may make sense to Westerners but not necessarily to other cultures and it is wrong to frame every political struggle as a conflict aiming at emulating the West. This has been done before by the Orientalists who analyzed Eastern cultures only by holding them to a Western standard.

The consequence of this narrative is a growing décalage between the perception of reality and reality itself. Al Jazeera is a perfect example of a corporate culture which is embedded with graduates of European and American universities and which covered the Arab Spring — and the terminology here is telling — as a struggle for democracy and liberalism, as if the values of the nonsecular protesters who prayed in Tahrir Square were reason for shame.

The mishaps of this décalage are evident in all of these cycles of revolution with socially conservative and illiberal parties and politicians “surprisingly” emerging in Central and Eastern Europe and the Arab world. Who knew that the same people who toppled dictators were prejudiced against homosexuals and Jews? Antisemitism, Euroskepticism, homophobia or misogeny are just some of the most depressing gifts that media such as Al Azhar magazine or the Polish Radio Maria bring us from these revolutions.

The most direct effect is counterrevolution and reactionary movements which view Western intervention and influence as intrusion in domestic affairs and turn to Moscow or Beijing for investment, trade and strategic relations.

Liberal elites are frequently the vanguard of revolutions in the West’s periphery but the people these intellectuals claim to speak for and liberate don’t often identify themselves with their Washington Consensus agendas. The Arab revolts cannot be Twitter or Facebook revolutions when most Arabs don’t use the Internet, much less in English, and they should never have been portrayed as liberal democratic revolutions when those values are indigenous only to Europe and European colonized territories.