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Three years on, has the Arab revolution really sprung?

Three years ago, Tunisia sparked a challenge to authoritarian government that reverberates still. But has the revolution it sparked across the Middle East delivered the democracy so many wanted?

Arab Spring

Three years ago today, Tunisia’s then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned and fled to Saudi Arabia, following a month of protests that steadily took on the shape of a popular revolution. It was the first domino in what became known as the Arab Spring. Repercussions were felt across most of the Middle East.

Three years on, the hopes of that period have certainly not all been met. But although the record is mixed, real progress was made. The Arab world will never be the same again, and mostly in a good way.

The first revolution has held up the best: Tunisia staged a peaceful transition to democracy, and an elected government took power in December 2011, headed by the moderate Islamist party Ennahada. The assassination of an opposition leader last February led to a breakdown in relations between Ennahada and more secular groups, but the government acted with more caution and restraint than its fellow Islamists in Egypt.

Last week, the Tunisian government handed over to a caretaker administration in preparation for fresh elections following the adoption of a new constitution. It will not all be plain sailing, but prospects are reasonably good. As analyst Silvia Colombo wrote:

Despite its current political impasse, Tunisia still represents the best chance for a successful home-grown democracy in the Arab world.”

Egypt, which followed Tunisia in overthrowing its dictator, has not fared so well. A flawed election brought Islamist Mohammed Morsi to the presidency, but he alienated public support to the point where the army was able to step in and seize power. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned and the military rulers have drafted a new constitution, to be approved at a referendum this week. As the BBC reports:

It now seems certain that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who led the coup, will run for president — putting a military strongman back in charge in Egypt.”

That’s a big disappointment, since Egypt is easily the leading Arab power: a democratic Egypt would be a difficult example to ignore. But its people have shown that they are a force to be reckoned with, and any future ruler will have to tread carefully. Egyptian democracy should not be written off just yet.

The last three years have shown beyond any doubt that the masses of the Arab world are keen for democracy and, given half a chance, are ready to fight for it.”

Subsequent moves in the Arab Spring led to the downfall of the rulers of Libya and Yemen, although the authorities were able to crush a similar rebellion in Bahrain. Concessions to democracy were also made in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait and even (very slightly) in Saudi Arabia.

As against the successes (some achieved at a substantial cost), it’s noteworthy that popular discontent failed to take hold in Saudi Arabia (by far the biggest prize after Egypt) or most of the Gulf states (Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates). No doubt the vast oil wealth of their regimes provided them with a valuable cushion.

The big failure, however, which has overshadowed pretty much everything else in the region for the last two years, was Syria, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad held firm against popular protests and allowed the country to descend into a bloody and increasingly sectarian civil war — in which Assad now seems to be gaining the upper hand.

The international community is still valiantly trying to bring some sort of resolution to Syria, but both great power politics and religious conflict on the ground are working against it. More than 100,000 people are said to have been killed so far, and things may well get worse before they get better.

Above all, two things have stalled progress in the Arab Spring. One is the successful military resistance of the Syrian government, aided by Russian logistical and diplomatic support; the other is the emergence of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide as a critical determinant of reactions to developments.

The bloody stalemate in Syria has given revolution something of a bad name, and certainly led to greater caution in the West about showing support for insurgents. The religious divide has led increasingly to a sense that Western policy is hostile only to Shi’ite governments (Iran and Syria, plus Hezbollah in Lebanon), while lining up behind counter-revolution in Egypt and other Sunni countries.

The two things are obviously related, but the causal link between them is unclear. My feeling is that Syria was critical in putting an end — at least for the present — to the idea of the Arab Spring as a broad-based movement that transcended sectarian and other regional differences. But now that the Sunni/Shia genie is out of the bottle, it will be hard to put it back.

Compared to that other recent year of revolutions, 1989, 2011 is not looking so great. Compared to, say, 1848, it looks a lot better: the counter-attack of the old regimes has been much less successful. Middle East autocracy will not get the same long lease of life that the Prussian and Austrian empires had.

Most of all, the last three years have shown beyond any doubt that the masses of the Arab world are keen for democracy and, given half a chance, are ready to fight for it. Despite the bloodshed, that remains a hopeful message.

6
  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 14 January 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Sprung a leak”?

  • 2
    AR
    Posted Tuesday, 14 January 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Dear Dr Pangloss - when the Arab turmoils began, i asked you why you thought thatit would result in democracy & magic ponies for everyone. You replied that the magic ponies were a way of but democracy was sweeping in. (see your astonishing claim above that it has come “(even slightly) to Saudi Arabia” yet then go on to talk about Syria with no acknowledgement that it is Saudi & Qatar fudnig & arming the fundi insurgents for the simple reason of keeping them occupied elsewhere than on home turf.
    Get a grip, lad.

  • 3
    Posted Tuesday, 14 January 2014 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    So Libya was a “success”?! The place is in chaos, the islamist fruitloops have run amok. And Syria is a “failure”, because the islamist fruitloops haven’t completely taken the place over?

  • 4
    Posted Tuesday, 14 January 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Fortunately Arab bloggers in MENA have note given up. They are holding their fourth meeting, the 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting #AB14, sponsored jointly by Global Voices and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, on 20 -23 January 2014.

    The first 3 days are closed-sessions with a public forum on the 23 Jan. It’s being held in Amman, Jordan - relatively peaceful, neutral ground. It wouldn’t be the first time if a blogger is arrested by their security forces on their way to such an event. You’ll be able to follow it here or on the hashtag.

  • 5
    j.oneill
    Posted Tuesday, 14 January 2014 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    It is extraordinary that such an asinine article as this gets space on Crikey. What is happening in the Middle East is not by chance, nor is it the messy consequences of the so-called Arab Spring.

    Seymour Hersh set out in the New Yorker several years ago what the US policy in the region was going to be. That involved, inter alia, promoting sectarian divisions, supporting despotic regimes, and deposing secular leaders that didn’t slavishly follow the US line.

    The invasion of Iraq was only a small part of that plan, and we can see on a daily basis how well that turned out.

    As AR points out above, the article completely ignores the role of not only the GCC states, but also France, the UK and the US in funding, arming and supporting different fundamentalist factions.

    To write an article about Middle Eastern politics and not even mention Israel requires a feat of startling wilful blindness. The role of Israel in the current situation in Lebanon, Syria and Iran is worthy of an article in its own right. Just don’t exact to read it here.

  • 6
    Keith Thomas
    Posted Tuesday, 14 January 2014 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    the last three years have shown beyond any doubt that the masses of the Arab world are keen for democracy”

    I am no expert in this area, but I am forming a picture of a number of educated/urban elites who want more freedom - but they don’t all want the same sort of freedom and will fight each other for their own ideal. Meanwhile, the rural “masses” are more conservative and just want a quiet life, and survival, preferably with a rising standard of living; we don’t hear much of their calls for democracy - at least for “democracy” as apparently implied by Charles.

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