The Arab Spring Changed Everything—in Europe

A decade after Arabs started a regional revolution, it’s the neighboring continent that will never be the same.

By Anchal Vohra, a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses for a selfie with Anas Modamani, a refugee from Syria, after she visited the AWO Refugium Askanierring shelter for migrants and refugees on Sept. 10, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses for a selfie with Anas Modamani, a refugee from Syria, after she visited the AWO Refugium Askanierring shelter for migrants and refugees on Sept. 10, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A decade after the Arab Spring, little has improved for those who stood up against Middle Eastern autocrats and demanded a better life. Most of the countries that erupted in protests and subsequently in violence are still ruled by despotic regimes under which oppression and corruption are routine while economic hardship has continued unabated.

Europe, however, is a different continent than it was before 2011—and for reasons directly relating to the failed revolutions next door. For one, Europe is split. The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union was, in part, a reaction to the refugee crisis triggered by Syria’s uprising, and its subsequent civil war. Populist political parties across Europe, leveraging growing fears of Islam and extremism, have been on the rise for years.

European foreign policy has already palpably changed, with countries increasingly embracing the new dictators who have emerged on the continent’s southern borders, without even the fig leaf of liberal moralism they once evoked. In sum, the events of the Arab Spring have not only failed to make Arab countries more stable—they’ve also made European ones far less so.

In 2015, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel found it reprehensible to deny shelter to Syrians whose homes and entire cities had been pulverized in a mad bombing spree by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. She opened Germany’s doors to the refugees, and almost a million walked in. That decision was hailed by many as the right thing to do. But its implications were far-reaching.

Emma Sky, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, said limiting immigration was a key driver of the British decision to leave the European Union, and she recalled how the populists fanned insecurities to their advantage. “Nigel Farage, the leader of the far-right UK Independence Party, was filmed standing in front of a massive poster of Syrian refugees at the Slovenia-Croatia border. The implication was clear: Unless the U.K. left the European Union and took back control of its borders, the refugees would flood into Britain,” Sky said. “There was continuous media coverage of clashes at ‘the Jungle’—the makeshift camp in Calais—between the French police and migrants desperate to reach the U.K.”

As hundreds of thousands took boat rides, marched, and spent months and years in cramped camps to reach safety, the populists—hitherto relegated to the margins in European politics—saw their chance. They preyed on the fears of many Europeans that their jobs might be given to refugees or that the presence of people from distinctly different cultures—and predominantly one religion, Islam—may alter their way of life. The antagonism toward refugees emanated from deeply embedded Islamophobia in the minds of many Europeans. However, the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and a spate of terror attacks carried out by the group’s members or supporters in Europe, further aided the populists. Immigration exacerbated fears of extremist attacks and changed the face of European politics, perhaps forever.

Daily conversations at coffee tables in Europe, even in cities considered centers of liberal ideas such as Paris and Berlin, are often xenophobic. The polity is broadly divided between those who feel morally inclined to help the refugees and those who see them as a burden; between those who strenuously differentiate between Islam and Islamic extremism, and those who are openly Islamophobic.

The last decade has also tested Europe’s self-professed foreign-policy values. It advocates liberty and democracy but increasingly lacks the will to promote them abroad. Many Arab youths who looked up to Europe are disenchanted and increasingly see the European governments as self-serving.

The European giants of France and Germany are conducting business with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, an autocrat who simply replaced the Islamist president who formed a government after longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted. Earlier this month, France rolled out a red carpet for Sisi and embellished him with its highest state award, the Legion d’Honneur. Sisi’s brutal repression of political opposition, Islamists, and liberals had little bearing on France’s decision. Activists say 60,000 political prisoners are languishing inside Egypt’s prisons, the press is muzzled regularly, and civil society activists are terrified.

Julien Barnes-Dacey, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the Arab Spring presented an opportunity to reshape developments on the ground, but Europe failed to deliver. “The European focus increasingly narrowed in on the security and migration challenges with decreasing self-belief in any ability to push the region’s political order in a more positive direction,” he said. “Ten years on from the uprisings some Europeans are now re-embracing the notion of authoritarian stability, as symbolized by the increasing embrace of President Sisi in Egypt.”

In Libya, France and the U.K.-led NATO intervention toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi. But as the power vacuum led to warfare among different stakeholders—Islamists, extremists, tribes, Qaddafi’s son Saif Qaddafi, and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar—Libya catapulted into chaos. Post Qaddafi, Europe was expected to manage the fallout and lead Libya toward a democratic political transition. It remained ineffective mainly because it had neither interest nor plans to stabilize the country; it simply looked the other way. The conflict now displays broader regional rivalries between Turkey and Qatar, which back the internationally recognized government also supported by political Islamists, and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which see the political Islamists as their nemesis and Haftar as the man who can give them a fight.

Europeans ostensibly support a U.N.-mediated peace process, but some of their policies are prolonging the civil war. Germany, for instance, has reportedly sold arms to both warring parties in the Libyan conflict but, like Italy, it doesn’t back either politically. France, however, is accused of tacitly arming Haftar’s forces. French President Emmanuel Macron is betting on strongman Haftar to contain immigrants and extremists among them who are trying to get to Europe. French analysts have said that domestic instability in France is linked to Islamist militancy in certain African nations in the Sahara-Sahel belt that were former French colonies.

Europe had a similar transactional relationship with Qaddafi as it is now building with Sisi and Haftar. In 2010 Qaddafi had demanded 5 billion euro a year from European countries if they wanted him to stop illegal African immigration and avoid, he reportedly said, a “black Europe.” But it was his oppression that eventually led to rebellion, a civil war, and mass immigration to Europe.

Dictators across the Mediterranean have time again used the threat of opening the floodgates of economic migrants, and extremists, as blackmail to Europe and presented themselves as indispensable to secure its borders. The Arab Spring displayed that carrying on as usual with dictatorial regimes was a defeatist policy for Europe. And yet that is exactly the approach many European countries seem to be once again adopting.

Joost Hiltermann is the International Crisis Group’s program director for the Middle East. He said Europe misunderstood the nature of the Arab Spring from the beginning as a movement about democracy. “The people in the squares were not primarily agitating for democracy, but Europeans wanted them to be. The protesters wanted dramatically better governance and, failing that, the overthrow of unresponsive and corrupt regimes. When the protests resulted in violent and chaotic outcomes, the Europeans became more cautious, blaming Islam for the absence of democratic progress, and tightening border controls against refugees and migrants, among whom they suspected were jihadists trying to get to Europe,” Hiltermann said.

“In the end, European governments re-embraced the stability paradigm (supporting autocratic regimes—the devil you know) that had given rise to the popular uprisings in the first place.”

On Syria, Europe is officially united and has made provision of reconstruction funds contingent on political transformation on the lines of U.N. Resolution 2254, which calls for the inclusion of rebels in Syria’s politics, the release of political prisoners, and accountability for war crimes. But behind closed doors, the populists in Italy and several other countries advocate resuming ties with Assad’s regime. While Italy wants to liaise with Assad’s intelligence services on extremists who may have crossed its borders, Germany’s major opposition party Alternative for Germany asserts that Syrians are safe under Assad and it’s time for refugees to leave. Instead of regime change, Europe has toned down its expectations to a change in regime behavior.

Olivier Guitta, the head of a security firm that offers advice to governments in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, said Europe’s refusal to intervene militarily in Syria was the cardinal sin that pushed Muslim Westerners into the arms of the Islamic State. “The rationale for convincing young Westerners [to join the Islamic State] was simple: Your government is supposedly defending human rights but when it comes to saving Muslim lives, it does not care. We need your help, come join us,” Guitta said. “The European security services tell me that the level of the threat today is higher than at the heyday of Islamic State in 2015 that saw the major attacks in Europe.”

However, other experts cited Libya’s collapse and disagreed that military action in Syria was the right course of action. The Syrian battlefield was also bursting with all sorts of groups, including the jihadis and not just the moderates of the Free Syrian Army. Moreover, democratic and liberal protesters were a disorganized force. The Baath regime ruled with an iron fist and never allowed any meaningful political opposition to emerge. Ground realities made it harder for Europe, and the United States, to carry out a definitive military operation against the Assad regime.

For all its failings, Europe has sent billions of dollars in aid and been steadfast in keeping alive some of the civil society movements that emanated out of the Arab Spring, even if the torchbearers are in exile.

“The real lesson seems to be that meaningful reform needs a longer-term vision of change,” said Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “one more focused on cementing bottom-up transformation than suddenly pulling the rug from beneath the feet of incumbent orders.”

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra