Was the Arab Spring a revolution?

A decade after the Arab Spring’s eruption, the jury is still out about its effects

A protester stands in front of a burning barricade during a demonstration in Cairo on January 28, 2011 (photo credit: GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)
A protester stands in front of a burning barricade during a demonstration in Cairo on January 28, 2011
(photo credit: GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)
Street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was hardly 27 when he torched himself to death after a cop confiscated the fruits that were the means of his meager livelihood, and also slapped him on the face.
The pyre that the unassuming peddler sparked in the Tunisian hinterland soon spread across the Middle East, igniting social, national and international mayhem. A decade later, the hopes of revolution those events kindled have long been dashed, though the fire in which they came wrapped has yet to die.
Bouazizi’s death on January 4, 2011, unsettled the entire Arab world, leading at least a dozen other angry men to self-immolate, from Algeria through Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Syria.
The social wrath that flickered in those infernos was clear, and its effect seemed seismic. Millions across the Arab world took those acts of desperation as a collective vote of no confidence in the entire Arab world’s leadership over nearly 70 post-colonial years.
The result, mass demonstrations in multiple capitals, unsettled the previous order and initially impressed many Westerners as a belated expansion of the democratic revolutions that freed Central Europe two decades earlier. That is how those events assumed the misnomer Arab Spring.
No Arab Spring materialized.
The Arab world today is even more politically distressed, socially disillusioned and internationally troubled than it was when Bouazizi was laid to rest in a funeral attended by thousands in Sidi Bouzid, the town where he was born, abused, and consumed in flames.
THE MOST immediate result of Bouazizi’s suicide was a spectacular domino effect whereby four veteran Arab leaders fell in rapid succession.
The first was his own country’s president of 24 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose era’s corruption is still visible through a string of lavish beachfront estates that members of his extended family abandoned as they rushed to assorted asylums abroad while he himself fled to Riyadh.
That happened the week after Bouazizi’s death. The following month what began as a Tunisian drama became a pan-Arab epic as Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president of 30 years and the perceived leader of the entire Arab world, resigned amid mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The following year Libya’s leader of 44 years, Muammar Gaddafi, was lynched by a mob, four months before Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh resigned, half a year after emerging wounded from an attempt on his life.
The rapidity with which veteran regimes were toppled, and the demonstrations’ social rhetoric, created the impression that the turbulence was about economic opportunity and political liberation.
That is what British prime minister David Cameron implied when he said, in response to Qaddafi’s flight from his capital in summer 2011, that Tripoli was being overtaken “by free Libyan fighters.” Cameron’s conclusion was that the “task now is to do all we can to support the will of the Libyan people, which is for an effective transition to a free, democratic and inclusive Libya.” That thinking quickly proved wishful, as the Libyan rebels turned on each other, uncorking violence that involved a host of tribal warlords and exposed a historic cleavage between the country’s east and west.
In Egypt, meanwhile, what initially seemed like a social rebellion quickly morphed into a religious revolution, as the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood won the country’s first free election, and set out to introduce an Islamist constitution.
Schism in that country was not only between the secular elite and its fundamentalist enemies, but also between the latter and the Coptic Christians, estimated at one tenth of the population. Attacks on churches now proliferated and intensified.
Meanwhile, anti-government demonstrations in Damascus produced a civil war – the century’s bloodiest war so far. Syria’s social structure was now exposed as even more disjointed than Egypt’s, with a 15-percent minority – the Alawites – dominating the regime with the help of other minorities, at the expense of the Sunni majority, whose share of the country’s prewar population of 21 million is believed to have been 60%.
Yemen, too, came unstuck in the aftermath of its street demonstrations, as violence pitting regions, tribes and religious denominations divided the country’s south and north.
Coupled with previous decades’ civil wars in Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria, there is reason to suspect that the Arab world’s post-colonial arrangement has been unworkable from the outset, because it forced into political straightjackets populations whose mutual hostility modern statehood failed to undo.
Then again, sectarianism’s defeat of statehood was not complete.
An anti-government woman protester gestures during clashes with police in Cairo on January 26, 2011 (AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/REUTERS)An anti-government woman protester gestures during clashes with police in Cairo on January 26, 2011 (AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/REUTERS)
IN EGYPT, Islamist president Morsi was unseated one year after his election by a military coup backed by mass-demonstrations against the government. While the jury is still out concerning his successor, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s political delivery, Egypt avoided civil war, reflecting a historic cohesion other Arab countries lack. The society that abuts the Nile has been there as a homogeneous nation since antiquity, and its borders were not mapped by foreign intruders.
Another antithesis to the Arab upheaval’s fallen regimes was Arab monarchy. The kingdoms of Morocco, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, though they also saw some demonstrations, all restored order and stability fairly quickly, and with limited violence. Other monarchic regimes saw no upheaval at all.
Added up, these distinctions may prove relevant if and when the Arab world’s elites try to re-engineer the Arab future, in response to the past decade’s events. That may, someday, produce new kingships, or remapped countries that will be more socially cohesive, like the Kurdish autonomy that in recent years began spouting from the ruins of post-colonial Iraq.
In one country, Tunisia, the upheaval has actually brought change – a reasonably functioning democracy. Otherwise, there is no meaningful movement-from-below for social transformation, and there is no Arab version of Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel or John Paul II, who inspired the revolutions that reinvented central Europe three decades ago.
Two governments, Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s, have taken measures that reveal their awareness, and fear, of the social misery that plagues the Arab world.
All understand that underpinning the past decade’s turmoil is an economic under performance. Gross domestic product across the Arab world, an annual $6,358 per capita according to the UN, is less that 60 percent of the global average. Worse, this already low figure is largely fed by several underpopulated oil economies, whose wealth is not shared with the rest of the Arab world.
The underlying cause of this economic weakness is the post-colonial Arab world’s failure to industrialize. Indirect admission of this failure and its price was offered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, when he unveiled in 2016 “Vision 2030,” a blueprint for economic transformation based on shifting much of the Saudi population to industrial work.
In Cairo, at the same time, an effort is underway to tackle the upheaval’s other underlying cause – demography.
Home to nearly a quarter of the Middle East’s 423 million Arabs, Egypt has traditionally seen itself as the Arab world’s center. While this centrality is a source of national pride and diplomatic clout, its demographic dimension is a major liability, as the population that in 1950 was hardly 20 million is now larger than 100 million. It’s far too big for the Egyptian economy.
Clearly, this population explosion has been a factor in the decade’s unrest, certainly in Egypt. Historically, religious circles resisted government efforts to encourage family planning. Now the state is setting out to promote family planning, even in remote rural areas.
Sisi discusses demographics publicly as a threat to Egypt’s future, and has launched a program called Operation Lifeline which aims to cut the national birthrate from an annual 2.6 million to 2.4 million babies. The government also enlisted the support of the country’s major Islamic authority, al-Azhar University, for the plan.
At the same time, in his quest to focus on his country’s intractable domestic problems, Sisi is shunning the kind of pan-Arab politicking that was a central part of previous Egyptian presidents’ daily diet. While the Arab upheaval has generated a massive refugee crisis, and even thought this crisis has unsettled the European Union and become a major international problem – the biggest Arab country had said and done nothing to affect the situation. Nor has the richest Arab country, Saudi Arabia.
This attitude is part of a diplomatic introversion that the upheaval has caused, and foreign powers have exploited.
A general view shows Tahrir Square in Cairo as Egyptian riot policemen try to disperse protesters on November 20, 2011 (MOHAMED ABD EL-GHANY/REUTERS)A general view shows Tahrir Square in Cairo as Egyptian riot policemen try to disperse protesters on November 20, 2011 (MOHAMED ABD EL-GHANY/REUTERS)
THE WARS that the Arab upheaval caused have drawn three foreign powers – Russia, Iran, and Turkey – into the thick of the Arab world.
Turkey has invaded Syria in 2016 and now occupies much of its north. Russian forces are parking on the country’s west coast, and Iranian “advisers” are camping in its hinterland, as they do in Yemen and Iraq. Turkish troops are also deployed in Libya, where they and Russia back rival leaders.
This is besides NATO’s bombardments in Libya back when Qaddafi was still fighting, and an American military presence – and occasional bombing – in Syria, even after the Trump administration shrank it.
In other words, the Arab world that was initially exposed as angry and poor is now also invaded. Added up, it is a display of social vulnerability, economic weakness and political ineffectiveness that run deep and spread wide.
A decade after Mohammed Bouazizi’s death the only things that can be said safely about the mayhem he sparked is that its roots lie in an era of public neglect that began well before he died, and in fact also before he was born, and that its end is nowhere in sight.