Three years ago, a street vendor in Tunisia named Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself in protest against police harassment that prevented him earning his living and feeding his family. By the time he died of his burns several weeks later, the Tunisian police state was beginning to crumble under the impact of vast but peaceful demonstrations.
Soon the protests spread to Egypt, where President Mubarak had for so long presided over a dysfunctional government and where he was trying to hand over power to his son. Shortly afterwards almost all the states in the Arab world, whether they had been established as radical republics or hereditary monarchies, were under threat or feeling vulnerable.
Surge of optimism
As rulers from Bahrain to Benghazi quaked at this unexpected outburst of fury from the people whom they had misruled for so long, Western commentators spoke of the inevitability of radical change. Military regimes established in the late 1960s and early 1970s – or earlier, in the case of Egypt – had all turned into police states monopolising power and influence.
But the status quo had supposedly been outflanked by the development of satellite television, notably of Al Jazeera, so the authorities could no longer control the supply of information. The internet and even the humble mobile phone had created a means for communication and dissent that could not be controlled by the state.
Pessimism about the prospects for radical change was abruptly replaced by an exaggerated optimism that the Middle East, like Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, had reached a point where some sort of democracy was the only possible outcome.
It has not happened. With the possible exception of Tunisia itself, countries such as Egypt and Libya, where governments were overthrown in 2011, are now in some ways in a worse state than before the Arab Spring. Democratically elected President Morsi is on trial in Egypt, while the military and their supporters absurdly claim that they did not seize power in a coup in July. Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters who peacefully protested against the power-grab were massacred with an indiscriminate brutality exceeding anything seen under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat or Hosni Mubarak.
In Libya, demonstrators who had bravely marched on the camps of the militias in Benghazi and Tripoli were slaughtered by heavy machine-gunfire with a savagery that even Colonel Gaddafi had never shown. As for Syria, the democratic uprising of 2011 has transmuted into a nightmare of sectarian violence in which a quarter of the country’s population have fled their homes.
Even those who were pessimistic about the chances of peaceful democratic change in 2011 have been shocked by the degree to which the Arab Spring has failed to improve people’s lives. Instead of the Middle East coming to resemble Eastern Europe in the 1990s it looks more like Europe in the 1930s, when power within states was fought over with ever increasing violence. What went wrong? And is it really as bad as it looks?
Coalition of the angry
As to what went wrong for the revolutionaries: the old order of Mubarak, Gaddafi and the like were overthrown by a fortuitous alliance between very different elements that ranged from conservative Islamists to secular democrats. Economic liberalisation had increased inequality and, while some streets in Damascus boasted elegant coffee shops and art galleries, there were others less visible on the outskirts of Syrian cities where ruined farmers squatted in shanty towns.
Everywhere there were angry and often well-educated young men without jobs or prospects of getting one. This was an explosive mix, but few revolutions have taken place with so few ideas about how things might be changed for the better. There was only a general presumption that whatever was wrong was the fault of the old regime and once that was gone things would automatically come right.
Forces of conservatism
There were other factors that weakened the uprisings of 2011. The counter-revolution began almost at the same moment as the revolutions. The al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain, backed by Saudi troops, moved rapidly to crush the protests that had briefly seemed to threaten their power. There was a dangerous absurdity – which the Western media failed to identify at the time – in absolute monarchies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia funding rebellions and protests in support of democracy in countries like Egypt, Libya and Syria.
There was also a naivety and political immaturity on the part of the revolutionaries. Their triumph had been too easy and they had demonised the old regimes too long to compromise with its old supporters and reconcile them to a new order. In Egypt, secular and moderate parties could not come together to agree on a candidate for the presidency, and the Muslim Brotherhood exaggerated its own strength and had little idea of how many enemies it was making.
An uncertain future
Interventions by the US, Britain, France and the West Europeans have also made things worse. In Libya there was pretence that the militias had overthrown Gaddafi, but in reality it was Nato air support. And when Gaddafi did fall, he left a vacuum which the Libyan opposition has been unable to fill. Similarly, in Syria there was an exaggerated idea of the level of support for the rebels and their ability to take Assad’s place as rulers of the country.
What will be the outcome? In much of the Arab world the turmoil of the 1950s led to authoritarian states being established in the 1960s. There is far to go before we can be certain that will not happen again.