Ten Years After the Arab Spring, Tyranny Lingers On

On the 10-year anniversary of the Arab Spring, there is little to celebrate

Ten Years After the Arab Spring, Tyranny Lingers On
Mohammed Mohiedin Anis, or Abu Omar, 70, smokes his pipe as he sits in his destroyed bedroom listening to music on his vinyl player, gramophone, in Aleppo, Syria, on March 2017/Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images

The 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring uprisings, which shook Arab states and societies and were once considered transformational milestones, passed without even a whimper.

In Tunisia, where the spark that literally lit the first uprising consumed its first victim, the 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who waged the ultimate lone protest against coercion, the authorities canceled a minor local ceremony in the town of Sidi Bouzid after dozens of protesters marched in the streets demanding a “new revolution.” The self-immolation of Bouazizi on a cold Dec. 17, 2010, who snapped after a degrading encounter with a local policewoman, also scorched the cruel universe that millions of angry Arabs and others in Tunisia and beyond inhabit in quiet desperation. The flames burned Tunisia, spread eastward to Libya and Egypt, then crossed to another continent, engulfing Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain.

During the first few months of 2011, every majority Arab state felt the heat in varying degrees of intensity. Millions of Arabs watched themselves and others on pan-Arab satellite television, marching in huge demonstrations or sit-ins in the streets and squares of their capitals and cities, roaring in unison, “The people demand the overthrow of the regime.” That was the battle cry of the protest movements, its rhythmic cadence understood by every Arab from Yemen to Morocco.

The initial impulse behind the uprisings, the very impulse that led Bouazizi to self-immolation, lay in the fact that humiliated peoples, suffering from economic dislocation, political repression, and denial of basic human rights had grown impatient with their status as subjects and had risen, demanding their rights as citizens. Wealth redistribution, social justice, and good governance were as equal for those demonstrating en masse as regaining their lost karama — their dignity.

Most of the political and intellectual debates that animated the early stages of the uprisings had their roots in the reformist movements and the intellectual ferments and the drive to modernize Arab societies that began in the first half of the 19th century. Those debates took place in the relatively open cities of Cairo, Tunis, and Beirut. The issues included state and religion, constitutional governance, women’s rights, parliamentary representation, social and economic development, and relations with Western powers, among others. In the 1830s, the Egyptian religious scholar Rifaa al-Tahtawi called for a constitutional government and a separation of powers between the monarch and the elected assembly, a bold move at the time. In the middle of the 19th century in Tunisia, an enlightened prime minister named Khayr al-Din Pasha al-Tunisi pushed for liberal political reform and, drawing on European experiences, proposed strategies for good governance.

Tunisia became the first Arab country to outlaw slavery in 1846, a year before Sweden and 17 years before the United States. After gaining independence from France, Tunisia’s national leader and first president, Habib Bourguiba, abolished polygamy and pushed for laws allowing women’s suffrage. Modern Tunisia developed secular traditions, a relatively tolerant polity, and a literate population. Also, unlike most Arab states, Tunisia was blessed with small armed forces that were not designed to serve as a praetorian guard. However, under Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, whose iron-fisted rule lasted from 1987 to the Arab Spring, the Tunisian polity and economy stagnated.

For a fleeting moment of enthusiasm, the uprisings appeared for many Arabs and outside observers as signaling the end of generations of political stagnation and cultural decay, giving way to tumultuous weeks of swift and at times dizzying change. The old, former lefties among us dusted off their old books by Vladimir Lenin and Antonio Gramsci in search of great quotes to encapsulate the epic times we felt we were living in. None was more popular or more accurate than Lenin’s insightful observation: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.” Others hailed the end of what modern Arab poets called “the wounded time” or the end of the “time of the assassins.” But that was not meant to be.

In Tunisia, in less than a month, Ben Ali fled the country and sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, the preferred place of exile for African despots. In the early months of 2011, the uprisings swept away the tyranny of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for 30 years, but his life was spared by his former colleagues in the military; Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, whose rampages lasted for 42 years before he was captured, tortured, and killed gruesomely; and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled by guns and bullets for 33 years, proved by initially surviving the uprising that he had more than nine lives. In Bahrain, the al-Khalifa dynasty, facing large, mostly peaceful demonstrations seeking political reform and the empowerment of the Shiite majority, first reacted by using its own available means of coercion. When that proved wanting, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, led by Saudi Arabia, dispatched an expeditionary military force to snuff out the uprising that the GCC erroneously claimed was made in Iran. In the long season of Arab uprisings, that was the only time a large protest movement was crushed by external military intervention.

Some analysts erroneously labeled the uprisings as “revolutions,” projecting on them certain unifying patterns as if they were a cohesive movement. Inevitably they were superficially compared to the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 (Völkerfrühling in German, “springtime of the people”) because they shared common characteristics. Cultural affinities among Arabs, their autocratic regimes, and the proliferation of pan-Arab satellite television channels explain why the Tunisian uprising triggered others like dominoes. Western observers labeled the uprisings the “Arab Spring,” borrowing the convenient but utterly inappropriate “Prague Spring” of 1968.

The Arab uprisings began as spontaneous protest movements led first by middle-class students and professionals who were then joined by workers and other social groups. The Islamists, skeptical at first, joined later. In a political landscape bereft of organized liberal and secular mass movements or political parties, with only defunct old Arab nationalists and leftists, it was a question of time before the Islamists would control the political square and hijack the uprisings.

The states that faced their people’s wrath have few characteristics in common; the majority of their people speak Arabic, they are mostly Muslims, and some of them have had similar historic experiences. But socially, culturally, and demographically they are not alike. After all, what is there in common socially and culturally between Yemen and Tunisia? And yet, the repressive regimes shared one thing in common: All reacted with brute force to peaceful calls for empowerment and accountability.

Some of them, particularly those ruling heterogeneous states, brazenly weaponized religion, regionalism, sectarianism, and tribal and ethnic cleavages in their societies to divide and crush the uprisings. For decades, Syria and Iraq were ruled by minorities that wrapped themselves in the cloak of (Baath) Arab nationalism. Dictators like Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Assads in Syria would rule by the swords of their minorities. These ruling minorities would live, fight, and die by identity. This is the tragic tale of the uprisings that occurred in fractured countries controlled by religious minority-based regimes like Syria and Bahrain or those afflicted with tribal and regional divisions and conflicting loyalties like Libya and Yemen. These internal divisions and the regimes’ willingness to cynically and violently exploit these cleavages, coupled with the failure of the opposition to create broad-based national movements representing all components of society, allowed some of the uprisings to morph into civil wars.

Nowhere was the use of absolute violence as state policy more embraced than in Syria. The Syrian uprising began in March in the southern city of Daraa, when the residents of the drought-stricken region took to the streets to protest the arrest and torture of teenagers caught writing anti-regime graffiti. True to form, the regime reacted with live ammunition, more arrests, and more torture, which ignited the whole country. President Bashar al-Assad unleashed his Alawite-dominated armed forces and security agencies and militias against the mostly peaceful opposition. In a diabolical move that proved disastrous to the opposition and to the Syrian people, Assad released hundreds of hardened Islamists from his prisons, hoping they would join and Islamize the increasingly militant opposition.

What happened next was the slow, grinding descent of Syria, an ancient land boasting Damascus and Aleppo, two of the oldest and most important cities in the Middle East, into an abyss of horrors not even Dante could have imagined. Assad used every weapon system in his considerable arsenal against his own people. His escalation was deliberate and cunning. After each escalation he would pause and wait for world reaction, and after each timid reaction, he would escalate further. He used his Scud missiles and war planes and turned towns and cities into desolation.

His preferred weapon of terror was his Russian-made helicopters, infamous for their deadly barrel bombs designed to maim and terrorize. Assad began using small-scale chemical attacks as the ultimate terror weapon. Then in August 2013, he launched a major chemical attack against the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 civilians, including 426 children. The international outcry subsided, along with potential U.S. military strikes, when Russia intervened to save the Assad regime by convincing it to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal.

When Assad realized that he lacked skilled fighters, he sought help from Iran. The leadership in Tehran directed Hezbollah, its reliable satrap in Lebanon, to send the modern Shiite equivalent of an elite unit of Janissaries to save the regime.

In subsequent years, the Syrian people were subjected to industrial-scale violence by the Assad regime and Islamist groups like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State. The Islamic State engaged in wanton ritualistic and mass killings and reintroduced the slavery of women and children of the Yazidi kuffar (infidels) community. The Islamic State, entrenched in its capital of Raqqa, attracted an estimated 20,000 foreign jihadists, terrorists, and petty criminals, including a significant contingent from Europe. Some were lured by the promise of living in a pure Islamic State like the one established by Prophet Muhammad and his companions, others to seek camaraderie believing that End Time is approaching, or simply driven by the thrill to kill and sexual conquests.

These hardened terrorists were light years away from the thousands of idealist volunteers who trekked clandestinely to Spain to participate in the “good fight” with the Republic against the forces of fascism in that country’s civil war in the 1930s. None of those who fought in Syria would end up writing a tribute with a title like “Homage to Raqqa,” à la George Orwell’s 1938 “Homage to Catalonia.” By the time the Islamic Caliphate was destroyed as an organized military force by the international coalition led by the United States in 2019, many Syrian cities and towns looked like countless pyramids of rubble.

From the start, the trajectories of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings differed from those of Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. Given the relative homogeneity and stability of both countries, a modern history unmarred by widespread communal and political violence that has afflicted heterogeneous countries like Algeria, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, and Yemen, a more developed sense of national identity, and a relatively developed civil society, their descent into civil war was not preordained. Yet even they were not spared.

Egypt, one of the oldest nations in the world, has a well-established sense of national identity and continuity. Its long Pharaonic history and its medieval and modern Islamic histories have had profound influence on the Middle East and beyond. Egyptian civil society, which was vibrant in Cairo and Alexandria during their heyday as cosmopolitan cities between the two world wars, retained a degree of vitality despite efforts to crack down on civil society and liberal values by the military officers who have ruled Egypt since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. The students and professionals who first occupied Tahrir Square calling for the ouster of Mubarak represented the last gasp of that civil society.

Mubarak’s long rule, which was marked by suffocating repression and venal autocracy, marginalized Egypt and ended Cairo’s reign as the shining capital city on a hill for the Arabs. The long and slow decay of Egypt began when President Gamal Abdel Nasser turned the country into a military society. A previously open, liberal society came under military rule, unwelcoming, intolerant of dissent and diversity, and more receptive to atavistic dark visions. I remember after finishing Alaa Al Aswany’s novel, “The Yacoubian Building,” I had the urge to cleanse myself as if I had walked out of a sewer. Every relation in that novel, the state and the devout young man, the young girl and her predatory boss, the cynical newspaper editor and the poor security guard, the corrupt politician and his mistress, was based on deception and coercion.

When the massive uprising toppled Mubarak, with a strong push from the military, Mubarak’s old cronies established the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. The brief, one-year civilian interruption of military rule following the election of the Islamist Mohamed Morsi as president was also illiberal and corrupt. The short Islamist interregnum was violently destroyed in an unprecedented bloodbath when the Egyptian army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who staged a coup in July 2013, moved in August to crush a large, pro-Morsi sit-in, massacring more than 900 civilians according to Human Rights Watch. This was al-Sisi’s way of introducing himself to the Egyptians: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” In 2011, the Gulf Arab states brandished their swords to save the Bahraini dynasty; following al-Sisi’s bloody putsch, they generously brandished their checkbooks.

Only Tunisia made a peaceful transition after the uprising into a fledgling democracy, but the last 10 years have been marred by political dysfunction and major terrorist attacks by elements of the Islamic State. But a stagnant economy remains the greatest threat to Tunisia’s stability and a major source of Tunisians’ discontent. Tunisia’s robust civil society made it possible, even during periods of political and security tensions, to conduct executive, legislative, and municipal elections democratically, although elected officials still display some of the discredited habits of the ancien régime. Ennahda, the main Islamist movement, proved adept at political transformation when its founder Rachid Ghannouchi declared the moderate Islamist party was abandoning political Islam. Ten years on, Tunisians are openly critical of their government’s failure to address their economic needs, forcing the youth either to immigrate to Europe or to join radical Islamists abroad. Ten years after Mohamed Bouazizi’s fiery end, disillusionment is the national mood.

Looking back at the early phase of the uprisings, it is surprising that those moments of spontaneous outbursts of enthusiasm that people feel when they are at the cusp of monumental changes were interpreted by some as signaling the coming of historic revolutionary transformations à la France in 1789, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and, closer to home, the Iranian Revolution of 1979. These revolutions were animated by an overarching ideology seeking fundamental social, economic, and cultural changes, relying on a revolutionary agent/class, and led by charismatic leaders. No such overarching ideology or meta-narrative was at the heart of any of these Arab uprisings. None of them proposed any radical changes to the economic relations in these societies, let alone their superstructures.

The political, social, and cultural maladies afflicting Arab societies that were supposed to be swept away by the young activists have proven to be immovable. Of all the countries swept by the uprisings, only Tunisia escaped physical ruin, maintained a robust if tired civil society, and is still struggling to strengthen its wobbly polity and weakened economy. Syria is a land of desolation. Yemen is still tearing itself apart with a little help from its cynical neighbors. Bahrain has essentially become a Saudi province. Libya, abandoned by the international coalition after Gadhafi’s overthrow, finds itself an arena where two rival authorities are battling each other for control, supported by regional and international actors including Russia, Turkey, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, either seeking to exploit its resources or determine its political future. Libya today is a vast theater of proxy wars. Egypt emerged from the uprising more sullen and more repressive than at any time in its modern history. These scarred and broken societies, ruled or controlled by merciless men, will remain in constant ferment for the foreseeable future.

That does not mean that the spirit and the yearning for empowerment that animated the early phase of the uprisings have been irrevocably defeated. In recent years we have seen the populations in majority Arab states like Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon erupt in fury over their ossified, repressive, and venal regimes. In Sudan, the protests forced the military to oust Omar al-Bashir, their tormentor for 30 years. In Algeria, the mass protest forced the stagnant regime to end the 20-year reign of the ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. In both countries we have seen a glimpse of the hope and enthusiasm that animated those who went to the streets in 2011. So far the positive changes in Sudan and Algeria are not fundamental, but at least the protests have shaken two stagnant and moribund regimes.

Massive movements of marches and civil disobedience shook Baghdad and other cities in Iraq in late 2019 demanding an end to corruption, nepotism, and the rule of warlords and militias. In the following months more than 500 Iraqis, mostly civilians, were killed by government forces supported by Iran-allied militias. The protests succeeded only in forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who was replaced by Mustafa al-Kadhimi who pledged to investigate the deaths and the jailing of numerous protesters. As expected, he did not honor his pledge. What happened in Iraq has proven once again how the country’s future is still influenced by Iran.

In October 2019, a small demonstration in downtown Beirut sparked the most comprehensive anti-government protests in Lebanon’s modern history. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets of Beirut and other major cities. They hailed from every region in the country and represented every sect and class. They were protesting a predatory political-financial class that has depleted Lebanon’s resources and dragged it close to bankruptcy. Like Iraq, the demonstrations in Lebanon forced the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The initial moment of hope and enthusiasm gave way later to anger and disillusionment because the demonstrations did not evolve into a movement that could challenge the ruling class and withstand the government’s onslaught and the intimidation of Hezbollah. Like Iraq, Lebanon’s poorly named “October revolution” failed to shake a bizarre ruling class composed of oligarchs, former warlords, political misfits, and a major sectarian militia serving as a proxy for a foreign country.

The protests that rocked Iraq and Lebanon in 2019 also brought to the fore a new, emergent reality. Despite or partly because of the uprisings, the Middle East is less Arab today than at any time in a century. Iran is the dominant force in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Israel owns the skies over Syria, while Iran, Turkey, and Russia carve up zones of control and influence on the ground. In Iraq, Turkey has established military bases, and Iran pulls the strings of many militias. In Libya, Russia and Turkey continue to play their cynical proxy wars. In this “wounded time” many Arabs are living in the shadows of their more powerful neighbors.

It is clear that the Arab ancien régimes have proven to be more resilient than many had thought. The uprisings faced not only entrenched ruling classes but also deep-rooted patriarchy and religious and cultural traditions that are not amenable to swift and significant social and cultural change. It appeared that decades happened in a few weeks in Tunisia and Egypt, and later in other countries when the tip of the ancient tyrannical pyramid was blown away. Ben Ali, Mubarak, and others have gone, but the pyramid — more broadly the political, economic, and security structure and the cultural superstructures that supported these modern-day pharaohs and allowed them to torment their societies — is still intact. None of the uprisings managed to seriously shake these immovable structures. The tyrant has gone, but his tyranny lingers on.

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