A Decade Later, the Arab Spring Gave Us an Important Lesson in Democracy

Ten years have passed since the West got excited over what it hoped would be the imminent democratization of the Arab world. But just as revolutions aren’t created in a day – they don’t end overnight, either

Yemeni anti-government demonstrators shout at supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 22, 2011.
Yemeni anti-government demonstrators shout at supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 22, 2011.Credit: Muhammed Muheisen,AP
Zvi Bar'el
Zvi Bar'el

“It’s true that we haven’t yet achieved freedom, but we can at least dream about it and imagine it,” Syrian civil rights activist Kenan Rahmani said three years ago. He was speaking in response to a survey by the website Raseef22 that posed the question “Would it have been better if the Arab Spring had never happened?”

This month, The Guardian published the results of another poll, with more than 5,000 respondents around the Arab world, conducted on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the eruption of the protests. Judging by the results, Rahmani’s view doesn’t have many supporters today. Out of the eight countries where Arab Spring uprisings took place – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Algeria – at least 50 percent of the respondents in five countries said their situation today is worse than before the protests.

The exceptions were Egypt, Algeria and Iraq. In Syria, Libya and Yemen, 60 to 75 percent of those responding said they regretted the outbreak of the protests; in the other countries, about 40 percent did.

In this March 26, 2011 file photo, anti-government protestors react during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen. Credit: Muhammed Muheisen,AP

Asked, for example, if they foresaw a better future for their children, only 5 percent of those surveyed by The Guardian in Yemen said yes. In Syria and Iraq, the percentage was also in the single digits. The highest proportion was 30 percent in Algeria, followed by Egypt at 26 percent.

But is it even fair to judge the revolutions solely by their success – or, primarily, by their failure – in achieving the participants' slogan of “life, freedom and human dignity” within the short span of 10 years? Does the current situation in the Middle East stem from those huge demonstrations, which toppled regimes and created new blocs? Can democracy in the Middle East, or the lack thereof, be judged solely according to universal criteria, or should it be judged in the local context?

Marc Lynch, a Middle East scholar at George Washington University in the U.S. capital, is very familiar with the prevailing view of experts and politicians that the Arab Spring upheavals were utter failures. In some countries, the ousted dictators were replaced by even worse tyrants. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, for instance, is considered far more tyrannical than his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. Bashar Assad still rules Syria after slaughtering hundreds of thousands of his own citizens. Iraq hasn’t yet recovered from the ouster of Saddam Hussein. And a decade after dictator Muammar Gadhafi was killed, Libya is embroiled in a bitter civil war.

FILE PHOTO: Women carry their belongings as they wait to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria December 18, 2016.Credit: Abdalrhman Ismail/ REUTERS

However, in an article titled “The Arab Uprisings Never Ended,” which appeared in the most recent issue of the journal Foreign Policy, Prof. Lynch argues that this declarations about the failures of the protests are “in fact just the latest in a series of premature conclusions. Before 2011, most analysts took the stability of Arab autocracies for granted. This was wrong.

“As popular pressure drove four long-ruling dictators from power – Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali , Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar al-Gadhafi, and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh – some observers rushed to assume that an unstoppable democratic wave had arrived; others warned that democratization would open the door to Islamist domination. Both were wrong,” he continued.

Lynch said the demand for democracy was just one of several demands raised by the protesters, so “the fact that dictators once again sit on the thrones of the Middle East is far from evidence that the uprisings failed.” Rather, he said, the revolutions haven’t yet ended.

Long-burning embers

Success or failure in this context can’t be judged solely by local criteria or be based on a limited time period. The uprisings didn’t actually begin in December 2010, when the young Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire after police dismantled his stall and scattered his wares (one humiliated him further by slapping him in the face).

In Egypt, too, the embers were burning long before January 25, 2011, when the massive demonstrations that ultimately led to Mubarak’s resignation began. The first squeeze of the trigger was on June 6, 2010, with the death – or more accurately, the murder – of Khaled Saeed, a young Egyptian entrepreneur who was sitting in an internet café when two detectives arrested him, beat him viciously and slammed his head into a steel door until he died. Yet even that dramatic incident was just the culmination of a long process that began years earlier.

Theoreticians say there are four stages in a revolution’s development. The first is deep distress shared by large sections of a country. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean only economic distress.

Massive violations of human rights, lack of freedom of expression, loss of faith in the political system, a lack of any real ability to replace the government through democratic means, a broken or corrupt judicial system and unlimited power concentrated in the hands of the police and internal security services – all these are coals waiting to be heaped on the bonfire, along with abject poverty, monthly salaries that suffice for only a week and yawning gaps between rich and poor. And when this distress is shared by both the lower and middle classes, a critical mass is achieved.

In the next stage, the distressed populace expresses its unhappiness publicly. Strikes, limited demonstrations, opinion pieces in newspapers, social media posts, satire and biting graffiti all forge a protest space that starts to define the public’s demands. Such situations existed in several Arab states even before the Arab Spring.

A supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad waves a Syrian flag as she looks over a crowd gathered to show support for their president in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, March 29, 2011.Credit: Bassem Tellawi,AP

In Egypt, for instance, there were dozens of demonstrations and strikes over the years. One time it was the railway workers. Another time it was employees of the cement and steel factories in the town of El Mahalla El Kubra, a vast industrial city near Cairo that’s perpetually shrouded in smoke and dust that causes serious lung diseases among both workers and residents.

Mubarak was actually the most flexible of the Arab dictators. He allowed some demonstrations to take place, permitted new newspapers be sold despite not granting them a license, and understood the pressure coming from Western countries.

In Tunisia, the iron first of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali penetrated deep into the guts of computers at the cafes where young Tunisians used the internet. Oppositionists, especially religious ones, were arrested and jailed, and some of their leaders were exiled. People were abducted and "disappeared." And all the while, the West applauded the dictator from Tunis, who spoke in Western, pro-American language.

At this stage in a revolution, protests can still be beaten down and stopped. But in some countries, such uprisings morphed into genuine rebellions of the type the security services couldn’t, and sometimes didn’t want to suppress. You have to grasp the depth of the distress, despair and anger to understand how much courage it took for these unarmed protesters to stand up to armed government forces.

Yet even after a revolt erupts, and even if a ruler is ousted or killed, this doesn’t guarantee a real revolution that will meet all its participants' demands.

The transition from dictatorship to democracy requires political organization and groundwork that translate the protests into a democratic-political framework, move the demonstrations in city squares into parliament and turn slogans into party platforms. In this regard, the Arab Spring countries parted ways, based on their individual political traditions, socioeconomic structure and the nature of the contract between the regime and the public.

Tunisia ostensibly went by the book. It established a democratic government, drafted a liberal constitution and began functioning relatively quickly like a country that had embarked on a new era.

Egypt also started off as a ground-breaking democracy. For the first time, the Muslim Brotherhood was treated as legitimate, and thanks to its superior organization, even managed to win the presidential election.

Residents walk past graffiti in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. Credit: Riadh Dridi,AP

Libya, Yemen and Syria were torn into pieces. In Libya, Gadhafi was murdered by a mob. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted. And in Syria, President Bashar Assad is still sitting in the presidential palace. None of these countries have regimes that represent the entire population or a government that has won the public’s trust, and in all three, civil war still rages.

Just as revolutions don’t begin on the day proclaimed as such by the media, after some dramatic event becomes widely publicized – their end is also the result of a long process that can last for years. The questions that must be asked when examining the political changes resulting from a civil uprising are whether the revolutions actually sparked long-term shock waves in the countries where they took place, and whether they had an impact outside their own territorial boundaries. The answers go to the heart of a revolution’s success or failure.

In this Jan. 28, 2011 file photo, anti-government activists clash with riot police in Cairo, Egypt, to challenge President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.Credit: Ben Curtis,AP

Fear has been sown

In the past in the countries in question, public opinion, often known as the “Arab street,” was seen as powerless. It was perceived as completely controlled by the regimes, or sometimes driven by interests, but certainly not as a force that could determine the nature of the government. And yet the uprisings proved that angry publics can topple a regime.

True, in some cases, they threw out the baby with the bath water. They tore their countries asunder, destroyed the social and political fabric of their societies and paid a heavy price in human lives. Yet they also sowed fear of the people in their governments, thereby winning certain political stature despite their failure to translate their power into a meaningful political partnership.

In the countries of the revolutions, the new regimes hastened to formulate laws and conventions which, on paper at least, paid due respect to human rights, freedom of expression, women’s status and the principles of equality, and were referred to as the “principles of the revolution” or the “spirit of the revolution.” In most cases, this turned out to be mere lip service, as these principles were crushed in brutal campaigns of suppression by the different regimes. Even so, at least there was a recognition by these regimes of the need for reforms – as long as the latter did not endanger the rulers’ survival.

In Egypt, for example, tough laws were passed against sexual harassment and harassment of women, and for the first time in decades, the president permitted the construction of new churches. In Saudi Arabia, which did not experience the waves of protest, women were eventually granted the right to drive and to work in dozens of professions from which they had previously been barred. The shock waves of the uprisings continue to reverberate. Street protests which in the past had quickly been suppressed by security forces, have brought down governments in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan and Jordan years after the Arab Spring revolutions ended.

In this Feb. 26, 2020, file photo, a supporter holds a photo of Egypt's ousted autocratic President Hosni Mubarak as he weeps outside the gate of the mosque ahead of his funeral in New Cairo, Egypt. Credit: Maya Alleryzzo,AP

Those revolutions shattered the traditional Western conception that powerful and tyrannical autocratic regimes are a guarantee of peace and stability – and particularly of unlimited support for the United States and its policies. Their corrupt conduct, trampling of human rights, fettering of free speech and profound economic failures are what provoked the uprisings, some of which evolved into brutal civil wars. Instead of asserting that the revolutions did not achieve their objectives, one could just as easily say that the new regimes, or those that survived the upheavals, also failed to prove that the old system is better.

Besides the mass murders he has committed, Assad, the ultimate survivor, also entrapped Syria in an international war involving Russia, Turkey, the Gulf states and, to a lesser degree, the United States. Saudi Arabia, which spent a fortune to buy domestic tranquility, elevated to power Mohammed bin Salman, whose actions and policies have unraveled the kingdom’s historic ties with the American public and the U.S. Congress. Yemen has become a killing field in the wake of the regime’s objections to the demands of the Houthis and other oppressed minorities.

The scenes of killing and chaos that have emerged in some of the Arab states since the revolutions of a decade ago make it tempting to compare the period preceding them to today's reality. But such a comparison obscures the basic fact that the reality of the past, now perceived as an era of calm and stability, is what spawned the uprisings in the first place.

The term “Arab Spring” has lost much of its charm, particularly in Western countries where people teared up with emotion in anticipation of a wave of democratization that would sweep the Arab countries. When that hope was dashed, the West reverted to the comfortable Orientalist theories that “explained” the “hopeless” East – the same theories that never believed that anything like the Arab Spring could ever happen.

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