The dashed hopes of the ‘Arab spring’
If the hopes generated by the 2011 revolts in the Arab world were quickly dashed, it was because they quickly turned out to be less an “Arab spring” than Islamist uprisings. Hope was that the uprisings would lead to jobs and freedom. Instead, they led to wars over identity and threatened to shatter Middle East and North Africa maps.
While the uprisings were at least partially spontaneous, speculation quickly grew that they were perhaps programmed from outside the region. A University of Michigan survey released in December shows that the percentage of Tunisians who see a “Western conspiracy” behind the political upheavals in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia had increased from 9% in 2013 to 40% in 2015. Those who say that “freedom and democracy” were the main reasons for the uprisings dropped during the same period from 56% to 29%.
The change of views is a measure of the disillusionment over the uprisings.
Eventually, freedom of expression remained the main tangible achievement; even though its benefits have been curtailed by money and business lobbies. There were also free elections in Tunisia in 2014. But employment, dignity and freedom have remained mere slogans as violence, sectarian strife, trafficking and the deterioration of the economic and security situation became the norm in the region.
The main problem was that in 2011 the prime concern among the new elites in “Arab spring” countries was the establishment of Islamic rule. Once in power, the proponents of political Islam, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, felt they did not anymore need the support of the liberal or the leftist politicians.
They chose to ally themselves with Salafists, smothering the yearning for a better life and dashing hopes initially generated by the “Arab spring”. They did not bring about a democracy-based project. They promised civil democracies but worked instead on establishing quasi-religious political systems whose central project was the pursuit of identity wars.
The common denominator among “Arab spring” countries is the widening of insecurity as the jihadist peril spreads. Priority has shifted from employment and freedom to restoring security and rebuilding what wars have destroyed.
In Libya, armed Islamist militias and jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia have been mostly in control of political and security decisions. Whatever remained of state institutions quickly crumbled and Libya is in total chaos.
A look at development indicators in the Arab world shows that “Arab spring” countries have suffered the most serious setbacks. Foreign investors are absent. Tourism is shattered. Security is in jeopardy. Even non-“Arab spring” countries have suffered the adverse effects of the turmoil since 2011.
It remains to be seen whether the US-led and Russian-led coalitions will restore security in the Middle East and North Africa or whether terrorist groups will grow beyond the Islamic State (ISIS).
Developments since 2011 have dashed hopes that Arab governments introduce fundamental reforms and anchor a new moderate and enlightened religious narrative that is reconciled with the rest of humanity.
What has been missing is a process of true modernity that constitutes the basis of genuine political and societal democracy; not the formal democracies of the days before the “Arab spring”– which were either sterile or led to bloodbaths such as Algeria’s 100,000 dead — nor the “Arab spring” situation that has led to more than 250,000 dead in Syria and undermined all sense of security in the region.
Will 2016 usher in the end of wars and the needed focus on construction instead? Let us hope so.