Five years later: How the US and EU failed the Arab Spring

Analysis on the debate surrounding the Arab revolts tends to center on basic human nature.

People stand on a bridge overlooking the river Nile as many Egyptians walk on the streets with Egyptian flags in Cairo (photo credit: REUTERS)
People stand on a bridge overlooking the river Nile as many Egyptians walk on the streets with Egyptian flags in Cairo
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Thursday marked the five-year anniversary of the outbreak of the Arab Spring when a young Tunisian, Muhammad Bouazizi, set himself ablaze in 2010 to protest the regime’s seizure of his vegetable stand.
The action electrified young populations stymied by repressive Arab dictators in Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Egypt, but the US and European response to the revolts – perhaps a better phrase for the uprisings – turned out to be growing disengagement with half-hearted forms of intervention.
The debate surrounding the Arab revolts tends to center on basic human nature.
Non-interventionists like the Obama administration and German Chancellor Angela Merkel view Arab human nature as largely fixed – a form of crude pessimism, it can surely be argued. Intervention advocates seek to solidify the democracy projects in the region and see enormous Arab potential for change, however.
Take the example of the American columnist Charles Krauthammer. Writing in 2005 (yes, 10 years ago), he argued: “Those who claimed, with great certainty, that Arabs are an exception to the human tendency to freedom, that they live in a stunted and distorted culture that makes them love their chains, and that the notion that the US could help trigger a democratic revolution by militarily deposing their oppressors was a fantasy – have been proven wrong.”
Krauthammer was proved right. Tunisia has stumbled along and is jetting toward real democracy. Hence, a diverse group of Tunisian civil-society actors won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
The Nobel committee said it “hopes that this year’s prize will contribute toward safeguarding democracy in Tunisia and be an inspiration to all those who seek to promote peace and democracy in the Middle East, north Africa and the rest of the world.”
Critics of the Arab revolts see an atrocious track record. The Telegraph quoted Faida Hamdy, the Tunisian inspector who confiscated Bouzizi’s stall, as saying: “I started the Arab Spring. Now death is everywhere, and extremism [is] blooming.”
Hamdy’s perspective is tainted. Yet, there is no shortage of the phrase “Arab Winter” being tossed around to classify the trajectory of the Arab Spring.
Reuters wrote in 2012 “Violence turning Arab Spring into winter.” A Bloomberg headline described the Egyptian parliamentary election as “a Sign of Arab Winter” because the “only credible opposition [was] banned.”
Who is to blame?
US President Barack Obama said on Friday: “We didn’t trigger the Arab Spring... We did not depose Hosni Mubarak. Millions of Egyptians did, because of their dissatisfaction with the corruption and authoritarianism of the regime.”
He conceded that the US and the country’s EU allies failed in Libya by “not moving swiftly enough” to bring a successor government to that of the ousted dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
The Canadian journalist and Middle East expert Terry Glavin wrote in his Ottawa Citizen column: “It was to Obama that Syria’s democratic revolutionaries first turned for aid and solidarity. For their trouble, they’ve gotten mostly empty promises and serial betrayal. Neither has the Syrian cause been helped by the shrugging indifference of the NATO democracies generally, including Canada.”
Syria has turned out to be the bloodiest Arab revolt, with more than 250,000 dead and half the country’s population displaced or living as refugees. The Americans and Europeans are courting Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran’s clerical regime, Hezbollah and Vladimir Putin’s Russia to impose a semblance of a peace settlement on the fragmented country.
Assad, Hezbollah, Putin and Iran have been the main engine of repression in Syria and, as Glavin noted, “have slaughtered 182,079 Syrian civilians. That’s about 25 times as many Syrian civilians as have been killed by the butchers of the Islamic State and all the rest, combined.”
The US and EU, in practical terms, are no longer seeking regime change – and its corollary democracy promotion – in Syria.
It is a bizarre situation for the US, the EU and other Western democracies. Countries that used to think: Don’t ask me what a human being is, ask me what a human being can become, are now running away from the democracy project in the Arab world and Iran.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.