On Dec. 17, 2010, a street vendor in Tunis named Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in protest of the arbitrary seizure of his vegetable stand by a local government official. That act triggered the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and a wave of public unrest throughout the Middle East that came to be called the “Arab Spring.”
Six years later, little remains of the hopes that the West saw in the Arab Spring. Instead, that spring has given way to a winter of economic stagnation and political violence that has plunged Syria, Libya and Yemen into bloody civil war, has led to widespread unrest in Egypt, Iraq and Bahrain, and threatens to destabilize Arab governments from Morocco to Saudi Arabia.
What went wrong? Should the West have moved more forcefully to support the various Arab Spring movements or did it fail to understand the true nature of the popular revolts? Simply put, should we have done more or done less?
Western media was quick to characterize the uprisings as popular democratic revolts against corrupt dictatorial regimes. As noted international affairs commentator George Friedman has pointed out, “For the western media, anyone under the age of 30 with an iPhone is by definition a liberal democrat.” Add to that the use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter for social mobilization and the presumption of political modernity appears validated.
That presumption was reinforced by the fact that the “spokespeople” invariably identified and interviewed by western media tend to be individuals who are fluent in English, have ties to the West and often were educated in the West. They come across as moderate, reasonable supporters of secular democratic government. The problem is that such spokespersons are rarely indicative of the nature or aims of these popular revolts.
The reality is the Arab Spring was never the popular democratic revolt that western governments or the media made it out to be. In fact, the Arab Spring had little to do with democracy, although it certainly included some liberal-democratic groups. It was a reactionary movement led primarily by conservative, religious and Islamist elements against secular Arab regimes.
The Arab Spring represented a rejection of the secular military regimes that came to power from the 1950s through the 1970s, and which devolved into little more that corrupt, crony governments ruling by brute force and a pervasive security apparatus.
What’s the legacy of the Arab Spring?
The most immediate consequence is three civil wars that have spawned horrendous human costs, destabilized the regions around them and proven to be training grounds for large numbers of jihadists. These conflicts have resulted in the spread of illicit arms and jihadist movements that will be destabilizing to surrounding governments.
Libya has become a vortex of radical jihadism and political violence that is drawing jihadists across a broad area of North Africa from Morocco to Somalia, while spewing unrest throughout the region. Syria has become a source of refugees who are swamping Europe and raising serious security concerns there. And Yemen, even more so than Syria, has become a bitter proxy contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The second consequence is widespread economic stagnation throughout the Middle East; the result of the political chaos that accompanied the Arab Spring. The spread of jihadist groups has also impacted economic growth. Tourism, a major industry in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan, has been singled out by jihadist groups, resulting in a 40 percent decline in revenues over the last several years.
The political instability accompanying the Arab Spring has created spaces where jihadist groups can flourish. That has resulted in the spread of such groups and the emergence of multinational jihadist organizations with franchises in multiple countries.
Moreover, in those countries where there are significant Sunni or Shia populations that don’t hold political power, as in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, popular discontent with ruling governments is being subsumed into a broader Iranian-Saudi/Shia-Sunni rivalry that turns these conflicts into proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Consequently, what began as domestic disputes can quickly morph into broader, Middle East-wide conflicts.
In retrospect, little good came from the Arab Spring. In those countries where the West intervened, brutal regimes were either replaced by even worse regimes, or existing regimes became even harsher or gave way to complete political chaos.
Those countries that avoided social turmoil did so by making cosmetic changes while clamping down even harder on popular unrest.
Ultimately, the Arab Spring didn’t solve the crisis of governmental legitimacy that plagues the Middle East, it simply resulted in just enough additional repression to defer the inevitable explosion.
The West ultimately misunderstood and mischaracterized the Arab Spring. Was this an intelligence failure, poor decisions by those in power, an ignorance of the region’s history or simply an example of the hubris that presupposes we can reshape the rest of the world to fit our preconceived notions of what it should be like?
Any way you look at it, our efforts to encourage the Arab Spring spawned more chaos and civil war, and only served to destabilize the region even more.
Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.