Arab Dignity Is Real. So Is Arab Failure.

Ten years after the start of the Arab Spring, it’s time to accept that the revolution may never return.

A woman cries in Tahrir Square after it is announced that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was giving up power Feb. 11, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.
A woman cries in Tahrir Square after it is announced that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was giving up power Feb. 11, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. Chris Hondros/Getty Images

On Dec. 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. After lingering in a hospital for more than two weeks, he finally succumbed to his self-inflicted injuries. While he lay dying, popular protests rolled toward the Tunisian capital, eventually overwhelming Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s fearsome 24-year iron-fisted and corrupt reign when he took flight to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, 2011.

Ben Ali was not supposed to fall. Neither was Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Nor was Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi supposed to be run out of Tripoli. Ali Abdullah Saleh was supposed to have mastered the art of dancing on the pin that was/is Yemeni politics. The Assads were also supposed to have Syria wired. The events of late 2010 and 2011 were so extraordinary and so unexpected—at least to most Westerners—that journalists, analysts, and officials began referring to them collectively as the Arab Spring. The name was poetic, in a way, but it implicitly assumed an outcome that in those early days was far from assured no matter how awe-inducing the uprisings may have been.

Now, a decade later, what was the meaning of the uprisings? There has been a bounty of articles about how the Arab Spring turned to winter, but perhaps it is too early to tell. After all, the Prague Spring was crushed mercilessly, but Czechs and Slovaks threw off communist rule two decades later. The idea that the uprisings in the Middle East have set the stage for future success has been a fallback position for activists and analysts alike. It may well be that the winter and spring of 2010-2011 was a prelude to change that will slowly, but inevitably, topple regional authoritarians, making way for democratic politics. But then again, maybe not.

It is true that much has changed in the Middle East since Bouazizi’s self-immolation. The uprisings altered the discourse in the region, demonstrated that centers of power are not invulnerable, and inspired promise for a better future. These are factors that activists can leverage should a new opportunity to challenge authority arise, yet the defenders of regimes have also undergone their own transformation. For them, the terms of battle have changed. They see the events that unfolded a decade ago as an aberration, a distortion of the natural order of things, and thus seem determined never to allow public, private, and virtual spaces to become spheres of dissent again.

It would be considerably more difficult for the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page to be a mechanism of mass mobilization today given how much the Egyptian security services have learned in the last decade. Still, Egypt’s present crop of officers and their counterparts in other parts of the region are no more omniscient than those who were responsible for the stability of their countries a decade ago. The result is an odd dynamic in which activists who imagine just and open societies are in a race against those responsible for the reinstitutionalization of authoritarianism in Middle Eastern societies before their inevitable arrest.

The way observers think about what might come next in Arab countries is dependent on what they think happened 10 winters and springs ago. And on this there is less agreement than one might expect. Were the uprisings revolutions? In an offhand way, they seem like revolutions. People rose up and leaders fell, but revolutions are more complicated. They require the overthrow of both the political system and the mutually reinforcing social order. This is what happened in Iran in 1979, but not in Arab countries in 2010-2011.

Tunisia, which has progressed more than other countries, did not have a revolution. It has undergone a transition, if not exactly by a pact, but by a series of negotiations and renegotiations among leaders in order to avoid or move beyond crises. This is all a testament to Tunisia’s civic culture, but the old social order that buttressed Ben Ali’s rule remains.

In Egypt, only the romance surrounding the Jan. 25 uprising and Mubarak’s ignominious fall 18 days later makes what happened a “revolution” instead of what really happened: a coup. If Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in July 2013 by way of a coup, then surely the same is the case for Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in February 2011. In Egypt, there was a change in leadership, but the political order and the prevailing patterns of power in society remained unchanged.

Libya, perhaps, came closest to a revolution. But, despite the best efforts of some political elites to forge a peaceful and democratic way forward, the social order did not disintegrate and put fragmentary pressure on the country. People resorted to tribe and region for succor and support in the chaotic aftermath of the Feb. 15 uprising. That was hardly surprising given the importance of both during the Qaddafi era, but narrow political interests soon took over and cracked Libya, resulting in a dizzying array of militias, two governments, extremist groups, and a civil war that became a regional proxy struggle. Syria never even got that far as Bashar al-Assad responded to peaceful demonstrators with bullets and torture. Ten years later, Syria has been torn asunder in a conflict so cruel and devastating that repeating the numbers of dead and displaced people is almost pointless, if only because, as numbers, they seemingly don’t mean anything.

How is any of this a “spring,” and what can it tell anyone about the future? Intrinsic to the moniker “Arab Spring” was the assumption that from the thundering calls for “bread, freedom, and social justice” those good things would necessarily follow once leaders were forced from their palaces. Yet looking back over the last decade, it is hard to fathom why anyone would venture to argue that the uprisings produced much more than sorrow. That does not mean that the uprisings were a mistake—as if such unpredictable events could even be categorized as such. Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians, Yemenis, Bahrainis, and others rose up in response to their bitter circumstances to demand a better future. They were mostly crushed.

Does this make Middle Easterners exceptional? No. Revolutions are rare, and transitions to democracy fail more often than they succeed. And should activists somehow manage to capture lightning in a bottle again and fill the public spaces of Arab cities with demands for the end of their regimes, there is no guarantee that the outcome would be any different. One can only hope.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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