The ‘Arab Spring’ is dead. The uprisings that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread throughout most of the Arab world were a dream, a beautiful dream, but a dream that has crashed onto the hard rocks of reality. The ‘leaderless revolutions’ were successful in mobilizing mass opposition to authoritarian regimes, but remained divided and unable to put forward a positive plan of action.
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The ‘deep state’ was too powerful, too entrenched, and its grip on the levers of the state too tight for anyone else to stand a chance. Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood were revealed for the authoritarian religious fanatics they always were. And in any case, even in a ‘best case scenario’, the prospect of anything approaching functioning democracy throughout the region would have seen populist regimes emerge that destabilised the entire region, from the Gulf’s oil upon which the world economy depends to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, from the Kurds to the Suez Canal, sending shockwaves around the world.
This story about the Arab uprisings has been around from the earliest days of the attempted revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. In fact, the basic idea predates the ‘Arab Spring’ and in one form or another has been around ever since decolonisation, when western governments were asked to choose between supporting anti-imperialist and mostly democratic movements which aimed for independence from old colonial powers, and authoritarian regimes which weren’t sympathetic to western governments’ professed democratic ideals, but were delighted to do business with them. Western governments chose the latter.
So here is the latest version of this narrative: Before the ‘Arab Spring’ mistakes were certainly made, but then western governments made amends and have since wholeheartedly supported democratic transitions in the Arab World - although unfortunately, now that democratic transitions don’t seem to be happening, despite western support, it might be that prioritising national interests over local democracy was a better choice after all...
To believe this story is entirely to miss the point of the uprisings.
This is not to say that the Uprisings don’t face formidable obstacles: the ‘deep state’ is extraordinarily well-entrenched, the ‘revolutionaries’ are divided, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership is unlikely to be genuinely committed to democracy, the government’s control of the media has made it relatively easy to whip up nationalism against both the Brotherhood and pro-democratic activists. Regional and international forces – from Saudi Arabia to the US – are more often than not stacked against change. Obstacles in 'the West’ are no less formidable.
But the point about the Arab uprisings is that, successful or not, they constituted an unprecedented mobilisation against authoritarianism and for social and economic justice, without which democracy remains an empty shell. The latter in particular resonated at a global level, not just in an Arab context. In addition, the uprisings’ popularity provided a timely reminder of how fragile authoritarianism can be, even when its levers are far more brutal than those western governments have aimed at their domestic opposition.
This is why the uprisings became a symbol of a global reaction against the hollowing out of democracy. Although movements like Spain’s Indignados or Occupy were local, they too protested against social injustice, mass impoverishment, political marginalisation, criminalization of protest, and legalised persecution of the opposition. For the past thirty years, economic and political elites have chosen to sacrifice civil liberties and social justice on the altar of their self-interest, refusing to countenance even a modicum of social and economic justice. The uprisings reminded them that such choices do not come without consequences.
The enormous popularity of the call for social justice these social movements shared provided a stark reminder of how precarious that power is: the consensus elites rely upon is fragile – in 'the West’ as much as in the Middle East – and their power brittle.
This power remains brittle because the economic, social and political problems behind the protests, in the Middle East as in Europe and North America, remain in place: while the ability to change things through democratic processes shrinks, the rich get richer, safety nets are cut out from under the poor and the middle classes, and protest is increasingly criminalised.
Three years on, the global significance of the Arab uprisings remains that they remind us of how brittle the seemingly invulnerable machinery of state can be, that they remind us that another world is possible, and not just in the Middle East.