January 18, 2019

The Arab Spring, five years on: A season that began in hope, but ended in desolation

Five years ago, waves of popular protest began to spread, thrillingly, across the Arab world. Is anyone better off as a result? Patrick Cockburn reflects

Arab Spring was always a misleading phrase, suggesting that what we were seeing was a peaceful transition from authoritarianism to democracy similar to that from communism in Eastern Europe. The misnomer implied an over-simplified view of the political ingredients that produced the protests and uprisings of 2011 and over-optimistic expectations about their outcome.

Five years later it is clear that the result of the uprisings has been calamitous, leading to wars or increased repression in all but one of the six countries where the Arab Spring principally took place. Syria, Libya and Yemen are being torn apart by civil wars that show no sign of ending. In Egypt and Bahrain autocracy is far greater and civil liberties far less than they were prior to 2011. Only in Tunisia, which started off the surge towards radical change, do people have greater rights than they did before.

What went so disastrously wrong? Some failed because the other side was too strong, as in Bahrain where demands for democratic rights by the Shia majority were crushed by the Sunni monarchy. Saudi Arabia sent in troops and Western protests at the repression were feeble. This was in sharp contrast to vocal Western denunciations of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of the uprising by the Sunni Arab majority in Syria. The Syrian war had social, political and sectarian roots but it was the sectarian element that predominated.

Why did intolerant and extreme Islam trump secular democracy? It did so because nationalism and socialism were discredited as the slogans of the old regimes, often military regimes that had transmuted into police states controlled by a single ruling family. Islamic movements were the main channel for dissent and opposition to the status quo, but they had little idea how to replace it. This became evident in Egypt where the protesters never succeeded in taking over the state and the Muslim Brotherhood found that winning elections did not bring real power.

The protest movements at the beginning of 2011 presented themselves as progressive in terms of political and civil liberty and this belief was genuine. But there had been a real change in the balance of power in the Arab world over the previous 30 years with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies taking over leadership from secular nationalist states. It was one of the paradoxes of the Arab Spring that rebels supposedly seeking to end dictatorship in Syria and Libya were supported by absolute monarchies from the Gulf.

The West played a role in supporting uprisings against leaders they wanted to see displaced such as Muammar Gaddafi and Assad. But they gave extraordinarily little thought to what would replace these regimes. They did not see that the civil war in Syria was bound to destabilise Iraq and lead to a resumption of the Sunni-Shia war there.

An even grosser miscalculation was not to see that the armed opposition in Syria and Iraq was becoming dominated by extreme jihadis. Washington and its allies long claimed that there was a moderate non-sectarian armed opposition in Syria though this was largely mythical. In areas where Isis and non-Isis rebels ruled they were as brutal as the government in Damascus. The non-sectarian opposition fled abroad, fell silent or was killed and it was the most militarised and fanatical Islamic movements that flourished in conditions of permanent violence.

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