Was it real?
It’s all been erased so completely, so much blood has been shed and destruction wreaked over the past decade. The idea that there was a moment when millions across the Middle East wanted freedom and change so much that they took to the streets seems like romantic nostalgia.
“It was very brief, man. It was so brief,” said Badr Elbendary, an Egyptian activist.
Elbendary was blinded on the third day of his country’s revolt in 2011, when security forces shot him in the face during clashes with protesters. Today, he’s in the United States. He can’t return home. Many of his comrades from the protests languish in prisons in Egypt.
In December 2010, the uprising began in Tunisia and quickly spread from country to country in revolts against longtime authoritarian rulers. It became known as the Arab Spring, but for those who took to the streets, the call was “revolution.”
The uprisings were about more than just removing autocrats. At their heart, they were a mass demand by the public for better governance and economies, rule of law, greater rights and, most of all, a voice in how their countries are run.
For a time after 2011, the surge toward those dreams seemed irreversible. Now they are further than ever. Those who keep the faith are convinced that yearning was real and remains — or is even growing as people across the Arab world struggle with worsening economies and heavier repression Eventually, they say, it will emerge again.
“We have lowered our dreams,” said Amani Ballour, a Syrian doctor who ran an underground clinic treating casualties in the opposition enclave of Ghouta outside Damascus until it collapsed under a brutal siege by Syrian government forces in 2018. She has since left the country.
“The spirit of the demonstrations may be over for now ... But all those who suffered from the war, from the regime’s repression, they won’t put up with it,” she said from Germany. “Even in the areas controlled by the regime, there is great frustration and anger building up among the people.”
“Eventually” could be years.
The region is traumatized by its most destructive decade of the modern era, perhaps the most destructive in centuries.
Across Syria, Yemen and Iraq, millions have lost their homes in war. Armed factions have proliferated in those countries and Libya. Poverty rates have risen around the region, especially with the coronavirus pandemic.
Activists and analysts have had a decade to pore over why it went wrong.
Secular liberals failed to present a cohesive front. Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood overplayed their hand. Labor organizations, neutered by autocratic rule, couldn’t step up as a powerful mobilizer.
The United States and Europe were muddled in their responses, torn between their rhetoric about backing democracy and their interest in stability and worries about Islamists. In the end, they largely listened to the latter.
Gulf monarchies used oil wealth to smother any revolutionary tide and back reactionary powers. Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates waded into the region’s wars with military forces and arms for allies.
Ultimately, few expected just how wide some leaders were willing to throw open the gates of Hell to keep power.
Syria’s Bashar Assad proved the most ruthless. Faced with armed rebellion, he and his Russian and Iranian allies decimated cities, and he used chemical weapons on his own people, clawing back Syria’s heartland.
After he was ousted in 2011, Yemen’s strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to regain power by allying with the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels. Together, they captured the capital and Yemen’s north. The resulting civil war has been catastrophic, killing tens of thousands and pushing the population toward starvation in the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian disaster.
In Libya, the U.S. and European countries retreated from involvement after their bombardment helped bring down Moammar Gadhafi. The oil-rich Mediterranean nation promptly collapsed into a constantly shape-shifting civil war. Over the years, it has involved the many local militias, units of the old national army, al-Qaida, the Islamic State group, Russian mercenaries and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters, with at least two — at one point three — rival claimant governments.
Syria’s civil war gave the Islamic State group a theater in which to build strength. From there it burst out to overrun a swath of Syria and Iraq, opening up yet another war that wreaked destruction in Iraq.
In Egypt, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi often points to the wreckage around the region to bolster one of his key claims to legitimacy — “without me, chaos.” He often says stability is needed while he reshapes the economy, an argument that resonates among many Egyptians.
After crushing the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists, his government has arrested secular activists and others, often bringing them before terrorism court.
Still, uprisings erupt in the region, pointing to how the ambitions of the 2011 revolts still echo.
Massive protests demanding the ouster of ruling elites spread around Lebanon and Iraq in late 2019 and early 2020. In Sudan, protesters forced out autocrat Omar al-Bashir, then tried to dislodge the military from power as well, with only partial success.
“Change is not overnight. I don’t want to be all wonky and say the French Revolution took decades, but it did. It doesn’t happen over a year or two,” said Ramy Yaacoub, who was involved in Egypt’s protests and post-revolution politics during the heady days after Hosni Mubarak’s fall. He founded and now heads the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Studies in Washington.
Some activists have turned to improving themselves, studying and building skills, keeping away despair.
Elbendary, who has regained partial sight in one eye, has been doing consulting work on community organizing, policy research, independent media development and conflict resolution around the region.
It’s a generational conflict, he said, and the hope lies with a generation gaining knowledge that can one day benefit their homelands.
Several years at the most optimistic, he said — not for real change, “for a slight opening, a slight margin where we can breathe.”