Hayward: Ten Years Later, Policies that Birthed the ‘Arab Spring’ Set to Return

<> on February 11, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.
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The “Arab Spring” approaches its tenth anniversary – more specifically, the tenth anniversary of the event that triggered those uprisings across the Middle East, the death of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010.

The anniversary arrives after President Donald Trump’s historic Abraham Accords brought real and positive change to the Middle East, but next year is poised to bring back the kind of foreign policy thinking that led to the cascade failure of corrupt governments and the rise of Islamism a decade ago.

The inciting event of the Arab Spring was the death of Bouazizi, an impoverished 27-year-old street vendor frequently harassed by government officials despite the minuscule size of his enterprise. On that fateful December 17, inspectors confiscated his merchandise after accusing him of doing business without the necessary permits. Bouazizi marched to the governor’s office to plead his case and, when the governor refused to speak with him, he set himself on fire. 

It took Bouazizi about two weeks to die from his self-inflicted injuries. During that time, protests against government corruption and economic despair in Tunisia grew into a movement powerful enough to topple President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from the office he held for 23 years.

Inspired and emboldened by the ouster of Ben Ali, activists in other countries launched similar protests, with the largest and most successful occurring against longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who resigned in February 2011. 

The movement – dubbed the “Arab Spring” because it supposedly marked the flourishing of democracy after decades of authoritarian dictatorship, even though it mostly occurred during the winter of 2010-2011 – also sparked or exacerbated some brutal civil wars, including the bloody chaos in Libya, the brutal revolt against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, and the ongoing Iran-backed insurgency in Yemen.

Ten years on, the legacy of the Arab Spring remains disappointing at best. The politicians and media personalities who championed it most vociferously, especially after the Mubarak regime in Egypt started wobbling, seem disinclined to discuss the “uprisings” or their aftermath, which could hardly be described as a triumph of vibrant democracy. 

Mubarak was replaced by the hardcore Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were in turn deposed in a 2013 coup by the current president of Egypt, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Assad clung to power, with help from Russia and Iran, after a savage decade-long civil war that created some of the worst humanitarian crises in history.

Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown in October 2011 after U.S. and European military intervention, turning Libya into a wasteland haunted by feuding warlords and bloodthirsty jihadis. Few were more bloodthirsty than the Islamic State, a nightmarish evil that tortured, enslaved, and murdered thousands of victims, including American citizens. 

Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, deposed and arrested in April 2019 after months of protests, was arguably the last of the few dominoes toppled by the Arab Spring. Connecting his belated fall to those of the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan regimes might seem like a bit of a stretch, but Bashir himself made the connection. By the time Bashir went down, the “Arab Spring” had become a cautionary tale. Sudanese protesters were spotted carrying signs that said “We Don’t Want to Be Like Egypt.”

As for Tunisia, the human rights situation might have improved for a while, although it appears to be getting worse again, and there has been little improvement in the standard of living. On the contrary, in August 2020, The Economist found growing nostalgia for the old dictatorship among many Tunisians, while others strive to rekindle the spirit of the Arab Spring by recalling the euphoria of the government falling after Bouazizi’s “martyrdom.”

AFP’s ten-year retrospective of the Arab Spring found only “broken dreams” remaining in the memories of fleeting international media stars like Ameni Ghimaji, a then-18-year-old photographed pumping her fist in triumph on the streets of Tunisia when Ben Ali resigned. 

“The revolution showed me that everything is possible. We had no plan for the future, but we were sure of one thing: anything has to be better than this,” she told AFP on Sunday, neatly summing up the rise and fall of the Arab Spring.

One of the problems highlighted by AFP’s retrospective is that Ben Ali seemed invulnerable at the outset but threw in the towel fairly quickly, inspiring protesters in places like Syria and Libya to dramatically underestimate the difficulty of overthrowing the vastly more pugnacious strongmen who ruled over them. 

Then-President Barack Obama bumbled through years of expensive, but comically ineffective, efforts to find “white hat” moderate rebels in Syria he could support. The tiny force of U.S.-trained rebel fighters vanished without a trace when Obama finally sent them in to fight Assad, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. Their weapons wound up in the hands of terrorist militias.

Qaddafi’s suppression of his “Arab Spring” uprising was so brutally effective that European powers prevailed on President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to launch the disastrous invasion that took out Qaddafi. They replaced him with a patchwork of gangsters, warlords, and terrorists who wanted to build a “caliphate” atop a mountain of headless corpses.

Qaddafi’s cousin and adviser Ahmed Kadhaf al-Dam told AFP on Sunday that the Arab Spring was a “hoax” and the U.S.-European invasion unleashed “famine, poverty, and destruction” upon Libya. He saw Tunisia as the only real success of the 2011 uprisings and thought Egypt, where he now resides, narrowly escaped disaster when Sisi overthrew Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.

“Destruction, forced displacement, murders, looting of wealth, instability, terrorism, illegal immigration. It is a thousand times worse than 10 years ago,” he mused, a grim but defensible analysis even with all due allowances for sour grapes from Qaddafi’s cousin and former representative to Egypt.

Yet another AFP retrospective on Monday postulated that the Arab Spring erupted because the Arab world was mired in a sense of futility and “defeat” for two generations after the failure of “pan-Arabism,” Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s effort to unite the Middle East into an Arab nationalist superpower. The Middle East was so thirsty for hope that it got blind drunk from its first sip of the stuff after the Tunisian government fell.

Not coincidentally, the Arab Spring happened after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency with the slogan of “Hope and Change.” In both domestic and foreign policy, Obama and his team rarely bothered to ask what they were changing into, or if the systems they could not wait to burn down had any intrinsic strengths. “Hope” was all anyone needed. Questions about how and why the old order worked, about what dark forces it might have been holding at bay, were viewed as sandbags to be cut loose so the Hope and Change balloon could sail into the sky.

As Ameni Ghimaji put it: We had no plan for the future, but we were sure of one thing: anything has to be better than this. The semi-official slogan of the Arab Spring was “Al-shaab yureed isqat al-nizam,” which translates to “The people want the downfall of the regime.” When Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir heard that slogan chanted in the streets last year, he remarked that the Arab Spring was coming for him at last.

The problem with the West’s romanticized view of the Arab Spring, and the Obama administration’s policies toward it, was that no one stopped to ask what would come after the downfall of the regime. “Democracy” was hailed as a pure and absolute good, the triumph of hope. Everything else would work itself out, once the people threw down their 20- or 30-year-old dictatorships and demanded a say in who would lead the nation.

The more complicated, more painful, and far less romantic truth is that democracy requires certain precursors to flourish. Voting is not a triumph that ends the war against oppression and begins an inexorable national transformation into enlightened republican rule. Other forces must be in place first.

In their absence, the fall of the old regime can lead to civil war, ethnic cleansing, anarchy, or the kind of “one man, one vote, one time” transformation the Muslim Brotherhood had in mind for Egypt – tyranny with a thin veneer of democracy to make it look legitimate. When “democracy” came to Egypt, the hardline Islamists were the only group with the organizational resources and street muscle to compete in the election.

The Obama administration was both naive and arrogant, with a great hunger to throw out decades of precedent and replace the realistic compromises of traditional diplomacy with starry-eyed visions of transformation. It found some very unappealing villains for its simple foreign policy morality plays – Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, Bashar Assad – and never stopped to ask if what came after them could be worse.

President Trump challenged both Obama foreign policy and the decades of stagnant assumptions that preceded it, launching a process that began with moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, and ended with the Abraham Accords. Trump’s policy was not as flowery and poetic as Barack Obama’s vision for the Middle East, and it certainly did not have the kind of glowing press coverage Obama enjoyed – but unlike Obama’s serial disasters, it worked. The last thing the Middle East needs in 2021 is another Arab Spring.

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