Hope can only get you so far, as participants in the Arab Spring are beginning to realise.
In an op-ed piece a fortnight ago in the Los Angeles Times, Robert Zaretsky paraphrases the great French-Algerian writer Albert Camus: “Although there is no reason to hope, that is no reason for despair.” It’s meant as a comment on the Algerian presidential election, but it could stand as a verdict on the Arab Spring as a whole.
Three years ago, the Arab world was a place of high hopes. Dictators had been overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt, with Libya and Yemen soon to follow. There was serious insurrection in Bahrain and Syria, and anti-government protests threatened a number of other regimes. The Arab masses finally seemed to be standing up for freedom and democracy, much as Europe had in 1848 and 1989.
Algeria is just one sign of how those hopes have been disappointed. The election a week and a half ago saw incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika officially returned with 81.5% of the vote, despite the fact that he is aged 77 and almost never seen in public since suffering a stroke last year.
Bouteflika’s announcement that he would seek re-election had provoked some protests, but the opposition was hemmed in by repressive laws and chronically divided between secularists and Islamists. Calls for a boycott resulted in a low turnout of 51.7%, but there was never any sense that the regime was in real danger. Things would have been very different three years ago.
But the big prize, of course, is Egypt. The overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 was the defining event of the Arab Spring, and Egypt went on to choose its own leader, for the first time in its history, in the presidential election of May-June 2012. But the victor, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, lasted only a year before being overthrown in a military coup.
The new rulers profess loyalty to democracy, with a fresh presidential election to be held next month. But in reality the military has complete control, and its nominee, army chief and coup leader Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, will undoubtedly be elected. Last week, when nominations closed, it was revealed that he would face only one opponent: Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished in third place in 2012.
In substance, Egypt has returned to authoritarian rule, with the banning of the Brotherhood, imprisonment of its supporters and the violent suppression of dissent. Judicial process has descended almost into farce with the mass death sentence yesterday passed on 683 opponents of the regime, including the head of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie.
There seems little prospect that they will all actually be executed — of the last 529 condemned en masse, 492 have already had their sentences commuted — but decisions like this show that, in spite of their initial promises, the generals see no role for the Brotherhood in the new Egypt.
“Syria is merely the most extreme example of the way in which progress in the Arab world has been held hostage …”
Perhaps, with an allegedly democratic mandate under his belt, El-Sisi will feel able to attempt some gestures of reconciliation. If not, Egypt risks travelling down the same road as Algeria in the 1990s, when the attempt to lock out the Islamists led to civil war and mass desolation. (Hence Bouteflika’s lingering popularity as the man who put the country back together.)
And then there’s Syria, where the Arab Spring most obviously came to grief. Its ruler, Bashar al-Assad, showed that he had more backbone than Mubarak and more sense than Colonel Gaddafi, and has gradually gained the upper hand in a bloody civil war.
It’s a sign of Assad’s confidence that the presidential election scheduled for June 3 will apparently go ahead. Nominations close this week, but there is no doubt that Assad will run and will be overwhelmingly “re-elected” — since of course the polls will only be open in government-controlled territory, leaving most of the actual opposition with no say.
Part of Assad’s strategy has been to pose as a reformer, with the new election law as a prime example. It replaces a plebiscitary system, which saw him returned in 2007 with a 97.6% “yes” vote. But even the most fervent of Assad’s apologists must be having difficulties in explaining how any sort of democratic election can be held in present circumstances.
Syria is merely the most extreme example of the way in which progress in the Arab world has been held hostage by wider geopolitical considerations: in particular, the increased assertiveness of Putin’s Russia (a key Assad backer but also a friend to El-Sisi) and the Sunni verses Shi’ite divide that has now, for example, brought in Iraq’s Shi’ite government as a Syrian supporter.
Fear of Islamic fundamentalism (particularly but not exclusively Shi’ite) has also led the United States to cool its support for democracy and to support repression in the Gulf states, where the Arab Spring has mostly failed to gain traction.
It would be wrong to dismiss the Arab Spring as a failure. The masses have shown that they cannot be ignored forever, and they achieved real and beneficial change in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Morocco and elsewhere. Even Egypt’s prospects are not as dim as they looked in the later Mubarak era.
But the higher hopes of 2011 seem doomed to lie dormant for a few years yet.