Global Affairs

Lessons from Arab Spring, five years on

Today, after five years, the hopes of the Arab Spring lie in tatters. Power grabs followed the political vacuum after revolution, while the West's dithering policies alienated both reformers and authoritarian leaders.

LONDON • He departed five years ago in an unmarked jet airliner, together with his wife, three of his children and, allegedly, dozens of suitcases stuffed with gold bars and jewellery. But when the heavily laden plane of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his corrupt clan finally took off, the collapse of his regime was hailed as the triumph of a revolution which inspired the rest of the Middle East.

Within days, vast crowds took to the streets of Libya, Egypt, Syria and many other Arab nations, toppling regimes which seemed immovable for decades. Young people vied with one another in composing "odes to democracy" on Twitter, Facebook or the dilapidated walls of local public buildings. And Western commentators rushed to dub this the "Arab Spring", a supposedly direct follow-up to similar popular movements which united the European continent at the end of the Cold War.

But five years on, the Arab Spring has left virtually nothing positive.

Egypt is back under the control of an army field marshal, supported by the bulk of his population. Libya and Syria are torn apart between various rebels and armed militias. Among the monarchies of the Gulf, the Arab Spring is now regarded as, at best, a sad joke.

And even Tunisians who started it all and have fared better than all other Arab nations are now congratulating themselves not so much for enjoying a better or freer life, but more for the fact that they did not experience a worse disaster, and that the collapse of their economy has now largely been reversed.


Yet the story of this grossly misnamed Arab Spring is not just a matter of academic or historical interest. For, five years on, the events provide a clear insight into the true vulnerabilities of the Middle East, as well as offering a warning to the outside governments which wish to dabble in the region.


Revolutions almost always disappoint, if only because they generate unrealistic expectations. Another unwritten rule of revolutions is that they erupt not because of absolute poverty, but in response to the unequal distribution of the benefits of modernisation. The Arab crisis detonated just as the Middle East was experiencing a period of economic progress after decades of economic backwardness, and Tunisia was one of the region's most developed nations.

The causes of the Arab revolutions are fairly obvious: a huge population bulge which cannot be satisfied without rapid economic progress nobody undertook, and worn-out, ageing, kleptomaniac regimes clinging to power. But, while Westerners had many safety valves to express their dissent at similar events, Arabs had none. For Middle East governments not merely failed to provide youngsters with jobs; they also discredited all ideologies and all economic models.

Communism was rejected as too alien for masses of pious Muslims. Socialism became a set of slogans without much meaning. And democracy, with its complicated procedures of electioneering, seemed too remote for many Arabs. It was not surprising, therefore, that the only ideological framework which retained its appeal was Islam, and that Islamic-based parties were invariably the first beneficiaries.

The discrediting of all political ideas also went hand in hand with the failure of all economic models. Egyptian-style state-controlled economic management proved a disaster. But capitalism, Tunisian-style, resulted only in the rise of a narrow stratum of millionaires who parked their ill-gotten cash overseas.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, once the lid of authoritarianism was lifted, Arab political struggles developed not over social or economic programmes, but over ethnic identity and religion. This was a power grab in which Islamic-based parties always held the upper hand, since they had spent decades preparing for precisely such an opportunity.


What the Islamists did not have, however, was any knowledge of what to do with the authority which fell into their lap. Instead, people like Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi and others who came to power as a result of revolutions transformed themselves into a "ballotocracy": They believed and acted as though they were entitled to do as they pleased just because they won one ballot. Meanwhile, Libya and Syria did not even experience the luxury of a ballot: They plunged directly from dictatorship into civil wars.

Western governments can hardly be accused of this mess: They had little inkling of the onset of the Arab revolutions, and little influence over what followed. It is fashionable now to blame France and Britain for unleashing the 2011 war which toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, only to leave the country in a far worse situation. But the only alternative was to stand idly by as Gaddafi massacred hundreds of thousands of rebels, and that wouldn't have provided for Libya's long-term stability either. For, as the current example of Syria illustrates, not intervening in a cruel civil war carries as many risks as intervening.

Nor can Western governments be blamed for failing to support reformers in the Arab world. For delivering aid and other structural assistance requires willing local governments, of which there were none in the Middle East. And it also requires time, of which there was none.

Still, Western leaders - and particularly those of the United States - do carry some responsibility for the tragic twists of the so-called Arab Spring. Unwittingly, but ironically, President Barack Obama anticipated the Arab revolutions: In his Presidential Directive 11, a document distributed to US government branches in August 2010, he warned that the Middle East was "entering a critical period of transition", and ordered US administration officials to "manage these risks" by demonstrating "the gradual but real prospect of greater political openness and improved governance".

Yet that's precisely what did not happen. President Obama opted to be "on the right side of history" by dumping old US allies throughout the Middle East and by hinting that even the Gulf monarchies may be up for the chop. But he did nothing when the Muslim Brotherhood grew increasingly authoritarian, and then also did nothing when the Egyptian military overthrew the Islamists. As State Department spokesman Jen Psaki memorably put it at that time, US officials "have determined that we do not have to make a determination".

And other Obama administration officials behaved in a downright childish manner. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, for instance, sent current Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a copy of a biography of George Washington, urging him to read a chapter about how America's first president left power willingly, notwithstanding Washington's popularity at that time. Amazingly, Field Marshal Sisi refused to take the hint.

The Arab world's true reformers believe they have been betrayed. But so do the region's authoritarian leaders, as do the minority Shi'ite and the majority Sunni Islamic believers. The result is not only that the Middle East has wasted five years, but also that most of the region's population now believe themselves to be more marginalised and even more devoid of hope than ever before.

The West may end up regretting this duplicitous and contradictory policy. For as Mr Benjamin Rhodes, the man who wrote many of President Obama's Middle East speeches, readily admitted recently, the predicament of Western governments in the Middle East is that they are "in that sweet spot where everyone is pissed off at us".

The Arab world's true reformers believe that they have been betrayed. But so do the region's authoritarian leaders, as do the minority Shi'ite and the majority Sunni Islamic believers. The result is not only that the Middle East has wasted five years, but also that most of the region's population now believe themselves to be more marginalised and even more devoid of hope than ever before.

And the obsession of current Western governments with defeating terrorist organisations such as the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria may also turn out to be a historic mistake, for it ignores the pent-up frustration with bad governance which endures throughout the Middle East.

Is the region ripe for another revolt? Probably not. But as Mr Jack Shenker, a noted British journalist who is about to publish a book on Egypt, points out, the Arab Spring was about "marginalised citizens muscling their way onto the political stage", and that battle is clearly set to continue.

Still, at least for the moment, the hopes of the Arab Spring have been extinguished. And deposed Tunisian president Ben Ali continues to enjoy the good life in exile in Saudi Arabia. Evidently, all those gold bars have helped.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Lessons from Arab Spring, five years on '. Print Edition | Subscribe