December 22, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 248

The Hard Lessons Of The Arab Spring

December 22, 2020 | By Yigal Carmon and Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Yemen | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 248

In 1848, Europe was wracked by a series of popular democratic revolutions aimed at bringing down multinational monarchic regimes. All of these revolutions failed and the royal autocrats regained controlled. But the victors of 1848-1849 would indeed fall decades later, aided by various catastrophic wars.

The uprisings associated with the Arab Spring failed over the past decade, with the notable, fragile exception of Tunisia and possibly Sudan. The resulting authoritarian winter very successfully crushed most of these revolutions. An entire generation of youth has been silenced, squashed, or marginalized, or has fled into exile. Perhaps, such as in 19th- and early 20th-century Europe, these failed Arab revolutions will lead to success decades later and bring about a better reality. Or the revolutions of the future will lead to the turbocharged autocrats of the future, as when the Bourbons were replaced by the Reign of Terror, Romanov autocracy by Soviet power, and the near absolute rule of the Shah by the absolute rule of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution.

In the meantime, what are the lessons that can be drawn from this cycle of the past decade triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings? We say "cycle" because this is a narrative not only of the risings themselves but of their repression by states, internal dynamics within states, and broader regional reactions and trends. The hard lessons of the Arab Spring are about revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, about states and individuals, about propaganda and ideology as much as history.

The Arab Spring cycle severely stressed nation states in general, but particularly some states that had been created by colonial powers – Libya, Syria, and Iraq. All three states, even Syria where Bashar Al-Assad emerged seemingly victorious, seemed trapped in a nebulous status quo where the state is divided, falling into old divisions, and facing factions and opponents that are armed and dangerous. While Libya is split between West and East ruled respectively by Islamist and non-Islamist Sunni Muslim factions, the "victorious" Assad faces both disaffected factions on his own side and a host of weaker but still unreconciled opponents (Islamists, Kurds, Salafi-jihadis). The essential help provided by Iran and Russia in saving Assad are also ongoing pressures on Syria as a state. All of Assad's saviors expect to be paid. In Iraq, the formal government led by Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi, such as it is, faces not only a still deadly ISIS insurgency but Shia extremist factions which both depend on and constantly subvert the state. Iraq, no less than the others, seems stuck in neutral. The situation can certainly deteriorate in terms of security and economics, but shows little possibility of moving forward absent some unlikely financial windfall brought about by an oil price spike.

The second hard lesson is about the crisis's winners. While regimes may have lost in places like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, and other regimes won in places like Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Algeria, the big winners were not any of these Arab states but non-Arab regional powers. Both Turkey and Iran used the resulting chaos and infighting among and within Arab states to increase their regional influence. And that increased threat from both Ankara and Tehran has driven some regimes towards the state of Israel, seen as much less threatening than the ambitions of Turkey's Erdogan and the Iranian Revolution. 

Thirdly, the Arab Spring weakened authoritarian regimes that, while not actually secular (no Middle East regime seems to actually be secular in any meaningful sense), were opposed to political Islam. The resulting turmoil has energized an Islamist hype and ferment along a spectrum ranging from Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamism to the Salafi-jihadism of the Islamic State. With the exception of Sudan – the lone case of a revolution replacing an Islamist state – the result has been regimes that care more rather than less about political Islam. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which did not experience open turmoil, have moved aggressively against the Islamists, anti-MB Egypt and anti-Islamist Syria follow the well-honed tactic of using religion as an element of state power against their religiously motivated opponents. Meanwhile, Islamist Turkey, seconded by Qatar, has replaced Saudi Arabia as the pied piper of Islamism, funding and encouraging Islamist parties and propaganda throughout the region and even worldwide.

It is unlikely that Turkey could have pursued its new role as godfather of regional Islamism without close cooperation – the lavish financial backing of Qatar. Qatar's role in stoking the fires of revolution and keeping them burning have been underappreciated in the West, and the symbiotic relationship between Turkey and Qatar will seek to shape the Arab revolutions of the future in their own image. Qatar seeks constantly to ensure that Islamists are privileged at any possible political opportunity. And, as it faces conflict with its Arab neighbors, Qatar has become increasingly not only a key partner of its soulmate Erdogan but also an enabler of Iran.

The next hard lesson is that Western hopes that revolution would lead to democratization were, at best, premature. Westerners had placed their hopes on the result of revolution being not just democracy but liberal democracy, in the image of how the West sees itself. This didn't happen, or, rather, was not allowed to happen. There are indeed liberal democrats in the region, and they were active during the Arab Spring, but they were dwarfed, outmatched by their adversaries: illiberal democrats, illiberal authoritarian rebels, and illiberal authoritarian regimes.

The hope was that Middle East revolution would lead to reform and that reformed states would be better run and more attractive to their citizens, keeping them happier and at home. But war, revolution, and state collapse in the region have unleashed a wave of immigrants that threaten democracy in the West itself, as mass migration to Europe triggered an existential internal crisis about identity and politics. Europe finds itself dreading Middle Eastern chaos more than Middle Eastern autocrats who can at least control populations, especially if bribed by fat EU concessions disguised as economic assistance.  

Our final point is not so much a hard lesson as a concern. The states that "won" over the Arab Spring do not seem to be more capable or reform-minded than in the past. If anything, they seem crueler and more cynical than ever. Without incremental change towards better governance, it seems quite possible that the revolutionaries of the future will also mirror that mindset, crueler and more cynical than anything we have seen before. They will have learned their own lessons and drawn their own hard conclusions from the ruthless states that survived and those that fell, and from the failed revolutionaries of the past. If history is any guide, they are unlikely to have grown kinder or more humane over the decades.


*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI. Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.   

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