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Ex: Europe, Middle East, Education

The Arab Spring a Decade Later: A Balance Sheet

ARTICLES - 17 December 2020

Ten years ago - on December 17, 2010 - a small-town Tunisian street vendor set himself ablaze in frustration at official neglect and indifference, sparking the biggest and most consequential uprisings in the Arab world in 75 years. Rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya were turned out of office; Bahrain and Syria’s regimes barely clung to power while other governments throughout the region anxiously responded to popular unrest with generous packages of economic, social, health and educational benefits and stepped-up domestic repression. 

In the subsequent years, turmoil has continued to roil the region. Civil wars have wracked Libya, Yemen and Syria and millions of people have been forced from their homes: the conflict in Syria alone displaced over half of the country’s population. Soon, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan - even war-wracked Yemen and Libya - were to house the world’s largest populations of displaced persons and forced migrants. Turkey was the largest host country in the world, with 3.7 million refugees, mainly Syrians. Two other countries with Syrian borders - Jordan and Lebanon - also featured among the top 10, together with Pakistan and Iran, as the principal hosts of migrants from Afghanistan, the second largest origin country of refugees. 

If the consequences of the Arab uprisings seem to have been calamitous within the region, they were hardly less appalling elsewhere. By the middle of the decade, Europe’s concern that such refugees would spill into the heart of the continent fed nativist populist movements from the UK to Hungary. Among the less savory outcomes of the uprisings has been the exposure of Europe’s deep ambivalence toward its ostensibly liberal values. Responses to the refugee crisis of 2015, when thousands of Syrians and others fleeing devastation across the Muslim world tried to make their way to Europe, revealed deep-seated and widespread mistrust of Muslims across Europe. In a Bertlesman Stiftung survey in 2017, half the respondents in Germany and Switzerland and 40% of the British said they viewed Islam as a threat; in France 60% of the population said they thought Islam incompatible with the West.

The hypocrisy revealed in European responses to the Middle East’s humanitarian crises was entirely consistent with the bankruptcy of American claims to high-minded attachment to liberty and freedom, that was dramatically exposed during the uprisings. For decades, the countries that counted themselves among the victors in the Cold War pursued "democracy promotion". The George W. Bush Administration’s rationales for its invasion of Iraq in 2003 were varied but always included a commitment to a vision in which, as Bush himself put it, "governments respond to the will of the people, and not the will of an elite. [In which] societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law… allow for healthy civic institutions - for political parties and labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media… [and] secure the rights of property… prohibit and punish official corruption, and invest in the health and education of their people… Liberty" he assured us, "is the design of nature, liberty is the direction of history". 

Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, echoed these sentiments. Speaking in Cairo in 2009, he proclaimed his "unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere". 

The hypocrisy revealed in European responses to the Middle East’s humanitarian crises was entirely consistent with the bankruptcy of American claims to high-minded attachment to liberty and freedom, that was dramatically exposed during the uprisings.

Confronted with the opportunity to actually put those sentiments into action during the uprisings, however, the US - and its European allies - were immobilized by interests - interests in stability, in security, in economic access - and perhaps bigotry as well. Virtually everywhere they failed to honor the values they had so strenuously advocated. 

Small wonder that the election of Donald Trump was welcomed across the region. A transactional deal-maker with no patience for moralizing, he seemed, perhaps oddly to his detractors in the US and Europe, to be straightforward and clear-eyed. The peoples of the Middle East and North Africa who had protested government corruption and incompetence could expect no succor from the United States or its allies. They were on their own, as they actually had been all along; now it was simply undisguised by empty pieties. 

Amazingly, people across the Middle East nonetheless took courageous and often dangerous stances against governments that still harbored delusions that they could get away with corrupt and negligent rule. Sudan and Algeria, which had been calm in the early years of the decade, saw popular protests that brought down rulers in 2020, and the Moroccan government also confronted serious political unrest, while Iraq and Lebanon witnessed cross-sectarian protests against corrupt and incompetent governing classes. And the story is yet to be written in Libya, Syria, Yemen and even Egypt. 

From a distance, it often looks as if the hopes of the Arab Spring have congealed in a cold and dark winter, but that does not tell the full story. The Trump administration has reshaped the American posture in the region in ways that will present new challenges - and perhaps opportunities - for the administration of President-elect Joe Biden, as much by acknowledging truths as by changing policies. Despite Trump’s promises, US troops are still entangled in quagmire-like conflicts, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria and Somalia. But his recent recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in the western Sahara ends the coy pretense of US even-handedness in this dispute. So too, his move of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem also made public what previous administrations had pretended to deny - that the US was Israel’s advocate, not an "even-handed" broker.

Trump’s orchestration of the normalization of Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain represented little more than confirmation of what was widely understood: the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was dead. This demise was made possible by the weakness of what used to be called the "steadfastness front" anchored in now-shattered Syria, and the new-found confidence of Gulf rulers who had managed to escape substantial domestic upheaval. But the strength of an arrangement based on tactical agreement over Iran as a common enemy and shared authoritarian disdain for popular sentiment is unlikely to satisfy populations still aspiring to the demands of the 2011 uprisings: "bread, freedom, and social justice".

The balance sheet of the uprisings in the Arab world a decade on is difficult to calculate. Obviously, the debit side is long: the loss of lives and of livelihoods across the region is painful to behold. In Lebanon alone, the economic tailspin threatens several of the best universities in the region; in Libya, a war economy has become so deeply rooted that it is hard to imagine its replacement with genuinely peaceful prosperity.

The struggle to remake the Middle East is not over, and more and more it is clearly a struggle waged not by outside powers but within the region itself.

In Egypt, Trump’s "favorite dictator" borrows from a playbook written in the Gulf, pursuing reform that obscures deep domestic repression and cronyism - features of politics that threaten to cripple the reforms themselves. And I have not even mentioned the humanitarian toll of conflict in Iraq, Syria or Yemen.

Yet perhaps there is something still to be calculated on the credit side of the ledger. The struggle to remake the Middle East is not over, and more and more it is clearly a struggle waged not by outside powers but within the region itself. This is not always good, productive or pretty. The mischievous role of regional powers in prolonging and exacerbating conflicts in Yemen, Libya and Syria is obvious: these so-called proxy wars are damaging to patrons and clients alike. But they are increasingly battles within the region; the inability of the world’s Great Powers to exercise the authority once associated with that designation is apparent for all to see. 

The incompetent and bumbling responses of the erstwhile industrial powers to the Covid-19 pandemic merely confirm what the Arab Spring laid bare: both the regimes that depend on the Great Powers and the people who are cowed by them are sorely mistaken. In the Middle East, the pandemic, as the recent United Nations Secretary-General report on the impact of Covid-19 in the Arab world puts it, has "magnified many decades-long challenges [including] violence and conflict; inequalities; unemployment; poverty; inadequate social safety nets; human rights concerns; insufficiently responsive institutions and governance systems; and an economic model that has not yet met the aspirations of all". But these problems were not made by the pandemic and they will not be solved when the pandemic subsides. What will be left is governments whose failures are manifest and peoples who are learning how to take things into their own hands. 

The UN report is subtitled An Opportunity to Build Back Better.In some ways, this sounds like delusional wishful thinking: the pandemic will be responsible for "an estimated 5% contraction in the economy; one quarter of the population falling into poverty; 17 million jobs lost when 14.3 million adults of working age were already unemployed; and heightened risks for the 55 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, including the 26 million refugees and internally displaced persons".

But why not credit the efforts of the young revolutionaries of a decade ago, those who rose up to call attention to negligent, corrupt, incompetent government? If there is a chance of "building back better" it will not be thanks to good will on the part of Western powers now revealed to be both disingenuous and inept, as Europe’s frantic inaction in Libya suggests, or even enlightened local governments, which seem to be in short supply. Instead, the legacy of the Arab uprisings will be realized in the growing appreciation of the value of self-reliance, of perseverance, of engagement and vision. Libya, Syria, Yemen must construct governments that are accountable not to foreign patrons but to local constituents. Existing governments, like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are trying to juggle reform and repression, must be held to account. When and where this happens, it will be thanks to citizens who seize opportunities, work long hours, and demand what is rightfully theirs - and this is the legacy of the movements of 2011. "Bread, freedom and social justice" are still powerful aspirations - and without the expectation that international patrons will help serve them up, the peoples of the region might just produce them themselves. 



Copyright: Khaled DESOUKI / AFP


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