Editorial: Three years on, the heady promises of the Arab Spring have delivered only chaos, crackdown and civil war

There was a naivety and political immaturity on the part of the revolutionaries

Share

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.

Reality check

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own