When the Arab Spring began with street protests in Tunisia and Egypt in 2010, there was hope in the West that the movement would lead to the spread of liberal democracy throughout the Middle East. Those hopes have been dashed by years of civil war and renewed repression. But the history of the Arab Spring is likely to be rewritten many times over. Six years after the Boston Tea Party, American patriots were still four years away from expelling the British. And the Prague Spring came thirty years before the fall of the Soviet Union. Successful revolutions take time.
We look (from a predominantly western perspective) at three arguments that the Arab Spring has made things worse in the Middle East and three arguments that, though incomplete, it represented a step in the right direction.
The Arab Spring was a step forward
Tunisia provides a role model for Arab democracy
Tunisia is the clearest example of a success story coming from the Arab Spring. After the overthrow of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali following 23 years in power, the moderate Islamic Ennahda won the first free elections in the country’s history in 2011.
In the 2014 legislative elections, Ennahda finished second to the secularist Nidaa Tounes party (Ennahda had stepped down the previous September following a deal with the opposition). In the first direct presidential election, held in November 2014, Beji Caid Essebsi won power.
The post-revolutionary period in Tunisia has not been without its challenges, including the political crisis that forced Ennahda from power. But the country has seen multiple free elections and a peaceful transfer of power. The birth of democracy in Tunisia points to a way forward for its neighbors.
Dynastic dictatorial rule was rejected
With the exception of Bahrain, each of the 2011 Arab uprisings succeeded in toppling or seizing territory from a ruler or ruling family after decades in power. In Syria, for example, Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Hafez, who ruled from 1971 to 2000, while Mubarak, Saleh and Gaddafi were believed to be grooming their sons as successors. The term jumlukiya, a combination of the Arabic words for republic and monarchy, had even been coined to describe the state of Arab rule.
This concept was forcibly rejected by the Arab people. Not only have these rulers been tossed out, but the message has been sent of the power residing in the population. Whether something better replaces them remains to be seen.
They created a new, engaged citizenry
Though from the outside, Sisi’s Egypt may look a lot like Mubarak’s, the experience of the uprising was not washed away when Egyptian forces opened fire in Rabaa Square in August 2013. Throughout the region, young Arabs risked death or imprisonment demanding a political voice. Forbidden from basic civic engagement, they used new tools such as social media to confront and defeat leaders seemingly entrenched in power.
As Marc Lynch, a scholar on the Arab world, puts it, “Today’s authoritarians are more repressive because they are less stable, more frightened and ever more incapable of sustaining their domination.”
The Arab Spring made things worse
It has led to civil war
The results of the Arab uprisings have been most tragic in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. There, oppressive regimes have given way not to freedom or democracy but to civil war and lawlessness.
Syria’s civil war has been the greatest disaster to come out of the revolutions. Previously a stable country with a strong, though repressive, central government, Syria has become the defining humanitarian crisis of the 21st century. Close to 500,000 people have died already, and the war has no end in sight.
In Libya, the uprising launched in 2011 deposed strongman Muammar Gaddafi after more than 40 years in power. But what followed was the rise of armed militias and instability, with the country’s future cohesion still very much in doubt. And in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted in 2012, a civil war has pitted Iran-backed Houthi forces allied with Saleh supporters against the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
It did not end repression or bring democracy
Where they have not led to civil war, the Arab uprisings of 2010 and 2011 have, with the notable exception of Tunisia, simply entrenched repressive rule.
Egypt, which saw President Hosni Mubarak overthrown after 30 years in power, is a case in point. Elections in 2012 brought Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood candidate, to power. But the democratic experiment did not last long. In July 2013, Morsi was ousted in a military coup by current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. While some pointed to autocratic tendencies in Morsi himself, Sisi has overseen a level of oppression exceeding that of the Mubarak era. The country has witnessed a crackdown on journalists, activists, and opposition parties.
It has triggered the rise of Islamic radicalism
The weakened states caused by the Arab Spring have created fertile ground for groups like al Qaeda and ISIS to thrive. The Syrian civil war helped create ISIS, with fighters pouring into the country seeking to topple the Assad regime. Yemen and Libya have also seen the rise of Islamic militants, with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula carving out territory in the former and Ansar al-Sharia among the jihadist groups active in Libya. Even in Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s success story, ISIS has benefited.
Bottom Line So far, the 2011 uprisings have seemingly yielded more tragedy than success. Will the Arab Spring be looked back on as the precursor to a more enduring movement? Or will the existing chaos and tyranny become increasingly entrenched? And is trading stability for the chance of liberty a necessary, if painful, part of the democratization process?