The Arab Spring Five Years Later

Jan. 28, 2016 Many Western observers misunderstood the 2011 uprisings across the Middle East.

Geopolitical Pulse

|January 28, 2016

This week’s Geopolitical Pulse is written by Jacob Shapiro.

Five years ago, protests and unrest were spreading across the Middle East in what came to be called the Arab Spring. On Dec. 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire to protest the government. It was not clear at the time that a single act of self-immolation would catalyze dissent across the region. But protests gathered momentum in Tunisia, and on Jan. 14, 2011, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who had been president since 1987, resigned and fled. On Jan. 25, protests began in Egypt that would eventually oust Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Unrest spread to Syria and Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, Libya and Lebanon. Already by Jan. 6, Foreign Policy magazine had invoked the term “Arab Spring.” By the middle of the month, before protests had even begun in Egypt, major publications throughout the world were using the term. The great liberal revolutions of the Middle East had at long last begun, or so the story was told.

Fast-forward five years, and the dreams of an Arab Spring, of the organic sprouting of liberal democracy in the Middle East, have become nightmares. According to the UN, over 250,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war. Iraq has become a sectarian battleground on the verge of splitting into three parts. The Islamic State has evolved from a terrorist group to a budding totalitarian religious state that controls wide swaths of territory and has thus far withstood all the hot air and airstrikes that the West and Russia have thrown at it. Millions of refugees of the conflicts are pouring into Europe and wherever else they can find safe harbor. Just over two months ago, on Nov. 13, terrorists linked to the Islamic State carried out a sophisticated attack against multiple targets in Paris. The Western world was transfixed. Hundreds of people die every day as a result of horrific violence in the world. But Paris was personal for the West, and the outpouring of emotion and support was raw and widespread. In popular discourse, the Islamic State has become the Nazi Germany of the 21st century. Whenever the West is faced with evil, it inevitably seems to invoke Adolf Hitler.

The West often uses Western history to understand non-Western cultures. The term “Arab Spring” is borrowed from the “Prague Spring.” In 1968, Alexander Dubcek was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Dubcek attempted to implement a wide range of reforms, including decentralization of the economy and lifting restrictions on the press, but his efforts were short-lived. It took nine months for the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies to send half a million troops into the country to end the season.

That the West chose the term “Arab Spring” to describe what was happening in the Arab world shows just how much it misunderstood the reality. The term was first used in 2005 to describe a brief rise in democratic movements in the Middle East. Then, and in 2011, the West assumed that the rising of democratic movements in the Middle East was similar to the risings of anti-Soviet movements in Eastern Europe. In reality, the Arab Spring was a reactionary movement. Conservative and religious elements of the Arab world supported the 2011 protests because they constituted an uprising against the European elements of Arab nationalism. The Arab states had no intrinsic national bond upon which to justify their existence. Brute force was, and still is, the only glue holding many of these states together, and in 2011, dissatisfaction with this reality boiled over.

The Arab Spring was ultimately a symptom of a deeper issue. Two key developments set the stage for what is happening in the Arab world today. The first was the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime – a ruthless dictatorship partly because of how much underlying chaos it had to control. The second was the collapse of Pan-Arabism and with it the legitimacy of the secular dictatorships that ruled the Middle East after the British and the French left.

Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq was one of the many secular Arab dictatorships aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After the Soviet Union fell, the United States had no challenger in the region. Eventually the George W. Bush administration decided that the time was ripe for regime change in Baghdad. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 failed to replace Saddam Hussein with leadership that was as powerful. The U.S. simply assumed that they would be welcomed as liberators and that the Iraqis were liberal democratic revolutionaries. Instead, the fall of the Baathist regime created a power vacuum in arguably the most strategically important country in the region. This gave the Islamic State the space it needed to carve out its territory.

However, Saddam Hussein was not the only Arab dictator whose position weakened as a result of the Soviet collapse. The entire Arab world began to decline after the colonial powers dissected the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The borders drawn in the Middle East paid little attention to geographic barriers or ethnic and sectarian differences. The result of those artificial divisions was the rise of secular Muslim dictators – in the Arab world, in Turkey and in Iran. For the Arabs, the most influential was Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. These dictators weaved European nationalism together with authoritarian government. Nasser’s secular Pan-Arabism dominated the Arab Middle East for half a century. These Arab republics, particularly Syria and Egypt, were also aligned with the Soviets.

But the Pan-Arab movement brought neither peace nor prosperity to the region. The secular Arab regimes were corrupt and returned wealth to the military and state officials instead of the people. They also lost wars to the Israelis in 1948, 1967 and 1973. By 2011, any legitimacy the concept of Pan-Arabism had left was tarnished. When the protests began in Tunisia, the West thought that the Arabs were throwing off the yoke of their dictatorships. But the West did not understand that for the Arabs, these dictatorships were hated precisely because they were seen as Western puppets, not because they were authoritarian.

In some places, it should be noted, the Arab Spring has proved ineffectual. In Egypt, the military never lost its control over the country. In fact, the Egyptian military had an interest in showing Mubarak the door because his son was being groomed as a successor and he wanted to liberalize the military-controlled government and state-planned economy. Tunisia’s old power structures are also still intact. The current president is an 89-year-old member of the elite who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs under Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president. The current prime minister served in Ben Ali’s administration.

Overall, the Arab Spring has resulted in either the status quo or anarchy – a far cry from what Western liberals had hoped for. The U.S. war in Iraq and the loss of confidence in the region’s regimes created a crisis of legitimacy throughout the region. This crisis led to the rise of the Islamic State and the proliferation of various religious and ethnic militias at the same time that it brought demonstrators into the streets in 2011. Now, the region is in more chaos than at any other time since the British and French withdrew after World War II.

However, it is not just the Arab world that is in crisis. The past century has seen an undeniable deterioration of Islamic civilization. Afghanistan is in shambles. Pakistan has only recently been able to clamp down on militant insurgents. Indonesia has been fighting jihadism since the early 2000s, and Jakarta was the site of an IS-inspired attack just two weeks ago. But the West fundamentally misunderstands this deterioration. When the West thinks of Islam, it thinks of Islam’s Golden Age, a period roughly from 750 A.D. to 1258 A.D. This was a time of sophisticated Muslim culture. Algebra and algorithms were discovered and are derived from Arabic words. While Europe was in its Dark Ages, Muslim philosophers probed the depths of the same questions the Greeks had asked. Al-Azhar, the world’s first university, was founded in Egypt in 972 by the Shiite Fatimid Caliphate. All of the dates and figures used in this piece are written in Arabic numerals. In the year 1000, it is estimated that over 1 million people lived in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. Around the same time, only about 25,000 people lived in London and Paris and perhaps 35,000 lived in Rome. How is it possible that the Islamic world has fallen from such sophistication to sectarianism and violence seemingly without end?

It is not an unreasonable question. But before it can be answered it must be emphasized that this deterioration is not unique to Islam. Great powers rise and fall, and civilizations contain within them both beauty and savagery. Shakespeare wrote his plays around the turn of the 17th century – the same century that Europe was collectively and enthusiastically burning witches at the stake. Europeans assume that golden ages are secular, but just 40 years before Johann Sebastian Bach was born, Europe tore itself apart in the Thirty Years’ War, a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. One result of the Western scientific revolution was the creation and use of weapons of such scale and potency that the Western world now possesses the capability to destroy all of humanity. The creation of ships able to traverse the world’s oceans did not just allow the Europeans to discover the New World – it allowed them to destroy the native inhabitants of the New World too. The humanism and rediscovery of philosophy in Europe combined with the rise of national identity and self-determination led directly to the Nazi gas chambers. Even when a civilization flourishes – especially when a civilization flourishes – it is preceded by violence, and that violence continues to exist even in the best of times.

Islam’s Golden Age, like the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, was not just a time of creativity and learning. It was also a time of violence and religious warfare. The Arabs emerged from the Arabian Peninsula unified under the banner of Islam – the only motivating principle that has ever united the Arabs with a common purpose. Before the great Muslim houses of learning and discovery could be established in Cordoba, Damascus and Baghdad, Arab armies marched across the Middle East and North Africa, either converting or killing the infidels, and allowing select groups to coexist, as long as they paid special taxes to the new caliphate. Even then, it did not take long for Muslim unity to break down. The Sunnis and the Shiites split over a disagreement on the succession of leadership, and various dynasties plotted and waged war against each other. By 1258, the Arab world was so divided that it could not resist the Mongol invasions that sacked Baghdad and eventually led to the Ottoman Empire’s domination of the region.

The Arab Spring presents three possibilities for the future of the Muslim world. The first is that this is simply the cyclical nature of power. Every empire – the Persians, the Romans, the Abbasids, the Qin, the British – falls eventually. U.S. hegemony will pass one day too. The Arabs and then the Ottomans had their day; the Americans now have theirs. In 500 years, perhaps the roles will be reversed.

Another possibility is that the Arab world is simply 100 years behind Europe in encountering nationalism. Many important nationalist revolts happened in Europe in 1848, and by 1870, the German Empire was declared. Europe proceeded to fight two of the most violent wars ever fought. The various nation-states of the Middle East only achieved independence after World War II, and many deposed their colonial rulers later than that. National self-determination has never led to peace: time and again, it has led to war, made all the more vicious by a community’s embrace of a national identity. Europe has fought its wars over national self-determination (and may one day fight them again). The Middle East now is entering a similar phase.

There is also the possibility that the past five years have planted seeds of change that will germinate in the coming decades. Consider that almost 100 years after its founding, the United States went to war with itself from 1861 to 1865. Approximately 620,000 men died in the Civil War, or 2 percent of the total population of the United States at the time. And the United States faced far fewer challenges than many of the states of the modern Middle East. Because the Native American population was so easily (and viciously) subdued, the U.S. essentially started with a blank slate. Furthermore, the United States sits on some of the richest agricultural land in the entire world and is protected from foreign invasion by oceans on both coasts. Even with these advantages, the U.S. needed 100 years and a devastatingly violent civil conflict to find internal stability. The optimist sees this and hopes that 2005 and 2011 were the first flowerings of some elemental progress that will bring Middle Eastern countries to stability and prosperity. But even the optimist recognizes that, if history is any guide, there is much more bloodshed and chaos to come before such stability can emerge.

The Western world went through a bloody and violent process of Enlightenment. The Muslim world, today a diverse community of over 1.6 billion, is now going through its own bloody transformation as it seeks to find a balance between modernity, secularism and Islam. How the different parts of the Muslim world can find that balance and whether the West will approve if it does is impossible to know. Westerners have always forgotten the worst parts of their history and seen the best parts of their history in the affairs of other civilizations and cultures. But we need to learn from our illusions that the Middle East is different from what we might expect. What can be said for certain is this. Something happened in the Arab parts of the Muslim world in 2011, but it wasn’t the second coming of the Prague Spring. In fact, it is too early to say precisely what it was. Its meaning will depend on what happens as different types of Muslim actors fight to reclaim the foundations of Islamic civilization’s former glory. It is a battle that has only just begun.