It was ten years ago, on the evening of January 14, 2011, when the long-term authoritarian ruler of Tunisia Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali escaped to Saudi Arabia. The Tunisian army refused his orders to supress mass demonstrations that had started on December 17, 2010, after the self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi. The 23-year long autocratic rule was over. The regime change in Tunisia triggered massive popular movements through what was called the “Arab Spring”.
In a few weeks the entire “Arab World” was witnessing popular mobilizations, over thousands of kilometres from Algeria to Bahrain. Next fell the leader of Egypt Hosni Mubarak – in power since 30 years – and later the autocrat of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh – in power for 22 years – while in other places popular protests did not bring any political change, notably in Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain and Iraq.
If you check newspaper reports ten years back, you will see the excitement with the event. The Arab World was the last frontier now succumbing to “wave of democratic change”, after Southern Europe, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. The new technologies of communication, the internet and the social media, could not coexist with censorship and dictatorship, it was argued. The Arab World was thought through the parameters of Eastern Europe – non-violent regime change that would open the doors to liberal democracy and consumerist capitalism.
Yet, this narrative did not reflect the reality. The Arab revolts did not start like the revolts in Eastern Europe, around contested electoral results. Nor were they peaceful from day one: by the time Ben Ali left his country, there were already 380 killed, and by the time Hosni Mubarak resigned over 800 Egyptians had succumbed to violence. This is not comparable neither to the overthrowing of Milosevic in Serbia, or Shevardnadze in Georgia, or Armenia’s Velvet Revolution of 2018, achieved with no casualties. In Libya, mass protests that started in Benghazi triggered not only a violent repression by the regime of Muammar Gadhafi – in power since 1969 – but also Western military intervention under the flag of NATO. In Yemen and Syria, massive repression by the old regimes turned the popular, non-violent protests into bloody civil wars, leading to hundreds of thousands of casualties, destruction of entire urban centres, and multitude of foreign military interventions.
The first reason for the failure of the Arab Spring was therefore regime repression. It is not enough to have a “revolutionary crisis” to produce “revolutionary change”. In a number of countries, the old regimes with complete domination over the military institution unleashed limitless violence against their own population, to keep their monopoly of power. The result is not only physical destruction of the country, with up to hundreds of thousands of casualties, entire urban centres destroyed, and millions of refugees and displaced. For the long run the problem will be deeper: is it possible to put together after such violence the populations of Syria, Yemen, or Libya within the same political framework?
The failure of the Arab Spring is not limited to the old, repressive regimes. The protest movements that triggered the Arab Spring, whether in Tunisia or Egypt, failed to produce a political leadership. Political Islam filled the vacuum whether with its Muslim Brotherhood version in Tunis, or the salafi-jihadi version in Syria and Iraq. But political Islam is obsessed with violence, and unable to propose neither the necessary institutional reforms, nor propose solutions to the acute socio-economic problems. Tunisia is a good illustration for this.
What about the “West”? Neither the European Union, nor the US could have brought regime change, nor guarantee that the new authorities would be able to solve the problems that caused the massive Arab explosion. But one thing the “West” could have done was to ensure that the internal struggles would not lead to massive violations of human rights, and massacres. In this, the West failed. The darkest symbol of this failure is Obama administration’s impotence to have any impact after the chemical attacks by Syrian regime against the rebel suburb of Duma in 2013.
The failure of the Arab Spring did not preserve the status quo ante, but produced a series of failed states, unstable, in a state of permanent civil wars. But its negative impact surpassed the borders of the Arab World, leading to militarization, and concentration of power in the hands of hard regimes. The entire international relations have become more violent and brutal, as a result. For one, it hardened Turkish politics. Turkey was in a timid reformist course before 2011, both in internal political change, and in the major problem that the country faces that of the Kurdish question. After the failure of the negotiations between the AKP leadership and Kurdish forces in 2009, a second attempt was made in 2013 when a cease-fire was declared in between the Turkish army and Kurdish rebels. Ankara was initially hesitant what policies to follow in Syria, but eventually chose to embrace the Islamists, abandoning the dialogue with the Kurds. The other sacrifice was the limited freedom of media in Turkey, witnessed by the case of Cumhuriyet and its chief editor Can Dundar and their reporting on the “Syria connection”. The political transformation of Turkey did not start with the failed coup of 2016, but by political choices made during the battle of Kobane between Daesh and the Kurdish armed groups in 2014.
Russia under Vladimir Putin was a hard regime, largely conditioned by the second Chechnya war. But the failed Arab Spring reinforced the militarized Russian regime to project its forces not only in the Middle East but also globally. There is little debate in Russia about the costs of those choices, and how far an ailing economy dependent on oil and gas exports could go in global power projection.
It also influenced Europe; the continuous Middle East instability produced waves of refugees escaping death, which in its turn led to the rise of the extreme right. Since 2016, the EU has delegated Turkey to guard its south-eastern borders against refugees, in return not only paying cash but having less to say on its foreign policy.
Yet, repression, civil-war and chaos did not solve the causes of the Arab Spring. It made the problems only more acute. The moment Mubarak gave his resignation, Egypt has 81 million population; today it has over 102 million, and it is not clear how a regime anchored in the military institution could address the socio-economic needs of the new generation. The massive unemployment, financial failures, and regime corruption triggered a new wave of protests in 2018-19 in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. What is surprising to see in many cases, like Algeria and Lebanon that the ruling regimes do not feel obliged to react to massive popular demonstrations.
The failure of the Arab Spring created hardened political regimes all around us. This is bad news because in our fast changing world we need political, economic and social adaptation. If change is not offered through institutional reforms, then the danger of sudden and violent explosions will only increase. This observation is even more true in the aftermath of a pandemic that exhausted the financial resources of our globalized world. When the next wave of popular explosion arrives, one thing is clear: between civilization and barbarism we do not have policemen to protect the most vulnerable amongst us.
Vicken Cheterian is a Swiss-Lebanese historian, journalist and author.
These views are his own.