HISTORY, when it happens, tends to take you by surprise. This is especially true of the often violent upheavals that revolutions bring with them, and as far as those are concerned no one put it better than David Mitchell: “All revolutions are the sheerest fantasy until they happen; then they become historical inevitabilities.”
But then something else happens, and this is particularly true in today’s world of hot takes and instant gratification: we pronounce movements as successes or failures based on whether they achieved their immediate goals in the time that we have allotted them. While this is natural, it does of course ignore that even ‘failed’ movements and revolutions do in fact sow the seeds for change, even if the actual bloom comes later, and not in a way one may expect.
This is the trap we often fall into when, 10 winters later, we discuss what the ‘Arab Spring’ achieved. On the face of it, the answer is: ‘not much.’ After all, the autocrats it sought to topple are still in power and even more autocratic. The Syrian civil war plunged an entire region into chaos, killing thousands and starting proxy wars that caused millions to lose their homes and become refugees. A similar situation emerges in Libya where, after initial jubilation at the fall of Qadhafi, factional warfare set in.
Egypt, which saw a historic uprising in Tahrir Square did enjoy a brief ‘democratic’ interlude which brought the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi into power, until counter-protests gave the Egyptian military the chance to bloodily reassert its power with the only real difference being that Mubarak was replaced by Sisi. That leaves Tunisia, where the self-immolation of 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi lit the spark of revolt; only here do we see that democracy took root as the regime of president Zine-al-Abidine was swept away followed by the holding of elections. Successive democratic transitions notwithstanding, there remains widespread discontent over the economy, corruption and social inequality, with tensions bubbling over into street protests.
What did the Arab Spring achieve?
So, if we were to look at this with an accountant’s eyes, we would be forced to conclude that the so-called Spring was in fact a net loss. But history takes a long time to balance the books and given that, in Mark Twain’s words, history tends to ‘rhyme’ we can find a historical precedent to the Arab Spring in the European revolutions of 1848. More importantly, we may also find a hint of what is yet to come.
The revolutions of 1848 were called the springtime of the peoples: a year in which a series of revolutions spread through Europe demanding greater freedom and democracy. There was no single organised leadership to be seen; the revolutions and protests were led by motley groups of reformers, nationalists and members of the middle class with the composition varying from country to country. The sparks for these protests ranged from lack of freedom to economic inequality to the rapaciousness of the ruling classes, and the speed with which they spread stunned the rulers. For a moment, it seemed like the sun had set on the ancient, autocratic regimes and monarchies but soon enough, the reactionaries swung into action and, one by one, the flames of revolution were stamped out. Nothing, it seemed, had been gained. Such was the despair that French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said: “We have been beaten and humiliated ... scattered, imprisoned, disarmed and gagged. The fate of European democracy has slipped from our hands.”
Yet just a few decades later, the very same forces that crushed this rebellion ended up granting the people many of the very freedoms that the revolutionaries had demanded. Granted, many of the reforms fell short of the mark and were also in many countries eclipsed by increased repression but the seeds had been sown, and the rulers were forced, out of fear of another round of revolt, to listen to the voice of the people.
Thus far, the Arab states have mostly responded to the Spring with a mixture of coercion and co-opting, with a heavy emphasis on the former. The UAE in particular took the lead when it came to stamping out any democratic aspirations, not only domestically but, thanks to the funding of autocratic regimes and governments, across the entire Middle East and beyond. However, funding dictators is a temporary fix, and Sudanese protesters, despite being brutalised, did manage to depose a president even if his regime remains in place.
In other countries, political and social dissent continues to bubble over despite crackdowns. This is because the fundamental issues that sparked the 2010 revolts remain in place, and have, in fact, gotten worse: unemployment in the region is increasing and a huge youth population sees no real future as traditional avenues, like government jobs, dry up. The seeds remain, just waiting for the right kind of rain. The fuse is dry, waiting for a single spark.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2021