Betrayed by Their Leaders, Failed by the West, Arabs Still Want Democracy

The Arab world is trapped in a state of permanent revolution.

A man mourns the death of seven members of a family in Syria
A man mourns the death of seven members of a family, killed in a house hit in a reported airstrike by pro-regime forces in the town of Sarmin in the northern Syrian Idlib province, on Feb. 2. Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images

On Dec. 17, 2010, the world was changed forever by the actions of one man. A Tunisian fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire outside the provincial headquarters of Sidi Bouzid in protest against local police officials who had seized his fruit cart.

Just 28 days later, Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution had ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, driven by the righteous fury of a population who had witnessed enough, a reaction not just to the desperation and subjugation of a 26-year-old street vendor, but to the routine humiliation and oppression of many decades.

One question frequently asked during the early days of the Arab Spring was whether the Arab world was ready for democracy. After 10 years, it is clear that it was always the wrong question. The Arab public systematically dismantled decades of oppressive silence overnight. The question was always whether the rest of the world was ready to support them. The answer to that question should be clear from the decade of Middle Eastern blood spilled to almost total indifference from world powers.

For generations, Middle Eastern dictatorships had grown bloated and complacent, consoled by the false belief that their security apparatus could intimidate their populations into subservience in perpetuity.

But by 2010, those dictatorships no longer held a monopoly over information. Greater access to the internet in the Middle East brought social media, and with it access to the kind of platforms for ideas and debate that many of these same dictatorships had so effectively prohibited, repressed, and criminalized in previous decades.

Under those new conditions, the suicide of a young Tunisian man in the small city of Sidi Bouzid was no longer a local story reduced to a footnote dismissed in a state-controlled newspaper, it was a tragedy that triggered widespread outrage and a civilian uprising that would result in the downfall of a 23-year-dictatorship in the space of just 28 days.

Tunisians were not alone. Witnessing events in Tunisia, civil protests broke out across the Middle East in a series of uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring. The Middle East had previously lived for generations in a culture of fear and silence, where even mild public criticism of political authorities resulted in arbitrary arrest, torture, and even death. For the first time in the lifetimes of many, that silence had finally been broken, and it was now the tyrants who were trembling with fear.

After Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and eventually, Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi fell. The uprisings spread as far as Bahrain and Syria, where the Assad regime had been in power for four decades.

However, the Arab Spring and the political movements it created were less united by collective democratic goals than they were by a rejection of decades of failed governments. The uprising in Syria, for example, began as small regional protests calling for political reforms, not the downfall of the dictatorship. It was only after the initial calls were met with overwhelming violence that those calls eventually changed.

But other than geographic proximity and a shared history of living under dictatorship, the Middle Eastern uprisings had very little in common, besides the chant that spread collectively across the region: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”

This sense of optimism, this palpable feeling that democratic freedoms could finally be in reach for people across the Middle East, was so dangerous to the hereditary dictatorships and monarchies that governed them that they spent the next nine years at war against their own populations, salting the earth to make sure the democratic movements that terrified them could never take root again.

Hundreds of protesters were killed by security forces in Bahrain and Libya in the first few weeks of the uprisings. Bahrain’s protests were crushed, Libya’s death toll began to spiral out of control, prompting a U.N.-Security Council response, mandating a NATO no-fly zone, eventually leading to Qaddafi’s downfall and extrajudicial execution by Libyan rebels on the streets of Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011.

By December 2011, the Assad regime had murdered more than 5,000 civilians, many of them protestors gunned down on the streets of Syria, or arrested and tortured to death. By 2020, Syria has become the worst war of the 21st century, with the U.N. officially giving up on counting the death toll in 2014, with the last estimate put at more than 400,000 dead in April 2016, with the true figure expected to have risen substantially since then.

There is no way to neatly package the impact of the Arab uprisings into comforting lessons for the future. While the death toll and infrastructure damage in Libya has remained several orders of magnitude below the bloodshed in Syria, it is still no success story. While the Western-imposed no-fly-zone reduced civilian suffering and was never intended as state-building, the civil war, migrant slave markets, and deteriorating human-rights situation remains a shameful legacy for the international community that intervened, but failed to follow through.

Things are little better elsewhere. Revolutions were crushed, or fell under the weight of nationalist or Islamist counterrevolutions.

In many cases, especially Syria, the uprising was not crushed from within, but from without, only falling after the full-scale military intervention of Iran and Russia. Syrian revolutionary interests were also further destabilized, co-opted, and corrupted by Qatar and Turkey.

The dictatorships in Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain continue to receive legitimacy and support from the Gulf monarchies, just as the Gulf states continue to provide legitimacy and support to Libya’s embattled warlord Khalifa Haftar in his goal to take control of the country from the barely functioning Turkish-backed, U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord.

The Gulf States are not the only culprit. The grotesque embrace of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s junta by the United States government that began under former President Obama, even after killing 1,000 civilians during the Rabaa Square massacre, was perfectly encapsulated by outgoing President Donald Trump referring to Sisi as his “favorite dictator” at an international summit late last year. France, which has played a crucial role in legitimizing Libya’s Haftar alongside its Gulf allies, has also embraced the Sisi regime, with French President Emmanuel Macron handing the dictator France’s highest award, the Légion d’honneur, last week.

This cycle of conflict is far from over. The protests and ongoing economic difficulties in Lebanon and Iraq show that the public appetite for democratic change is still burning strongly, even after a decade of crushed regional protests, mass displacement, and Western indifference. Iran’s regional Shiite paramilitary organizations and their brutal techniques continue to escalate tensions, and non-state Sunni fundamentalist organizations are finding fertile ground throughout the chaos. The economic and sociopolitical factors that triggered the Arab Spring uprisings are significantly worse than they were in 2011, and that’s before the region has fully realized the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Arab Spring may be over, but the civilian uprisings in the Middle East have barely begun. The Middle East now finds itself in the state of flux that Karl Marx described as permanent revolution, the aspirations of its people permanently churning but never fulfilled. There is no way for dictatorships to turn the clock back to 2011, and there is no desire from their populations to accept a status quo that permanently disenfranchises them. The powder is drier than it has ever been; all that is missing now is the next spark.

Oz Katerji is a British-Lebanese freelance journalist focusing on conflict, human rights & the Middle East.

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