Did Arab leaders learn from the mistakes before the Arab Spring?

MIDDLE ISRAEL: The upheaval that was prematurely celebrated as a democratic outburst soon gave way to political regression, religious reaction, and international tragedy.

A PICTURE OF Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose self-immolation 10 years ago signaled the start of the so-called Arab Spring, is displayed on the post office building in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, on December 8. (photo credit: REUTERS/ANGUS MCDOWALL)
A PICTURE OF Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose self-immolation 10 years ago signaled the start of the so-called Arab Spring, is displayed on the post office building in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, on December 8.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ANGUS MCDOWALL)
 The streets of Sana were gushing with protesters demanding his ouster when then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh told a crowd of loyalists: “I am going to reveal a secret. There is an operations room in Tel Aviv whose task is to destabilize the Arab world.”
It was winter 2011, and the events of what Westerners misnamed the Arab Spring were unfolding fast. The upheaval began a decade ago this week, when Tunisian peddler Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze, soon toppling the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya as well as Saleh himself.
The latter’s attempt to change the subject from Arabs to Jews was not unique. The previous month Muammar Gaddafi said on national TV: “Fleets of boats should take Palestinians... and wait by the Palestinian shores until the problem is resolved” because “we need to create a problem for the world.”
Altogether absurdly, Syrian President Bashar Assad told The Wall Street Journal less than two months before unleashing his army on his people that “Syria is stable,” and that was because he, unlike the fallen Hosni Mubarak, was confronting Israel.
The attempts to change the subject failed. The subject was Arab expectations from Arab rule, and such it remains, as a growing number of Arab governments now implicitly concede.
THE UPHEAVAL that was prematurely celebrated as a democratic outburst soon gave way to political regression, religious reaction, and international tragedy.
Politically, the mayhem produced only one democracy, in Tunisia. Otherwise, it ignited multiple civil wars in which more than half-a-million Arabs were killed.
Religiously, the social protest was taken over by Islamists, who soon stormed Egypt’s Christian minority and then helped debilitate Syria and Yemen.
Finally, the Arab upheaval unsettled the international system, twice:
First, it fractured the European Union, as an influx of Arab refugees encouraged Brits to vote for Brexit while driving a wedge between the EU’s conservative East and liberal West. And second, three Arab lands became battlegrounds for foreign powers, and one land, Syria, became occupied, in its North by Turkish ground forces, in its West by the Russian air force, and in its hinterland by Iranian-backed militias.
This is besides the fact that the economic under-performance that fueled the upheaval in the first place only worsened, due to oil prices’ 60% plunge; Syria, Libya, and Yemen’s physical dismemberment; and Lebanon’s economic self-destruction.
As this column argued on the upheaval’s seventh anniversary (“The real Arab Spring,” January 27, 2018) the economic decay and social despair that caused it could have been prevented had Arab leaders embraced, back in the 1990s, Shimon Peres’s vision of a New Middle East.
Citing the Middle East’s yawning gap between industrial output and military spending, Peres called on the region’s governments to cut defense budgets and at the same time integrate its economies according to the models of the European Union and the North American Free Trade Association.
Awash with freely flowing credit, goods and labor; laced by regional highways and fast trains; and checkered by shared airports, power stations and electric grids, that kind of Middle East would have created jobs and shifted millions from poverty to prosperity.
Unfortunately, Arab leaders felt threatened by that vision and rejected it, thus freezing their already stagnant economies, and cooking the social wrath that they soon came to face. Fortunately, there are growing signs that those leaders’ successors realize their elders’ fateful mistake.
THE MOST enthusiastic convert to Peres’s legacy is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Realizing that his country’s reliance on oil as its sole source of income is reckless, MBS conceived “Vision 2030,” a blueprint for industrializing his country.
Just how, when and to what extent that plan is implemented remains to be seen, but its path is the same one that led other traditional societies, like Japan, Turkey and India, from an agrarian past to an industrialized future.
Riyadh is seeking this course because it knows that if its economy is not diversified and modernized, the Saudi people might storm their royal palace the way their cousins already toppled four Arab regimes.
Signs of such realism are also evident in Cairo, where President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took a major strategic decision to ignore Islamist opposition and tackle population explosion head-on.
With the number of Egyptians having swelled fivefold in just 70 years and recently crossed the 100 million mark, Sisi launched a campaign to teach family planning and distribute contraceptives. This, too, is a result of the Arab upheaval, which was so obviously fed by Egypt’s twin problems, namely, that its economy is too small and its population is too big.
Lastly, the Arab upheaval inspired a thaw between the Arab world and the Jewish state.
Yes, the governments that have so far joined this trend are not of one skin, and each has its own agenda and priorities. Sudan, for instance, wanted legitimacy, while the UAE wanted business.
Even so, there is a common denominator between all those now normalizing ties with Jerusalem: They remember vividly the Arab masses’ outcry and violence, and the way Gaddafi, Assad and Saleh tried to tell Arab rebels that their problem was not Arab government, but Israel’s existence.
Having watched with the rest of the world the lynching of Muammar Gaddafi, they understand that they must offer the Arab people a new deal, one that offers every Arab a measure of opportunity, education, prosperity, dignity and hope.
Eulogizing Mohamed Bouazizi (“Person of the Year,” September 23, 2011) this column said he proved that voiceless, hopeless and penniless people could still stir the world. A decade on, one can add that what the living Shimon Peres failed to accomplish with his bestselling statesman’s pen, the dying Mohamed Bouazizi accomplished with his voiceless citizen’s cry.


Amotz Asa-El’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.