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.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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