Whither the Arab Spring

Finally, there is a probability that the Arab Spring might be understood. Yes, I believe that the reported impending Battle for Idlib in Syria has a probability of being the deciding battle for ending the last major rebel stronghold in Syria. Thus, it has a probability of ending the Syrian civil war that started as part of the Arab Spring wave of protests that the region felt since December 2010.

Therefore, there is a probability that historians will have a start date and an end date for understanding the futile quests of the Arab Spring. Pragmatically I believe that probability should be considered on a scale of 0 to 100. It might not happen, or it might happen. The question “Why” is answered by the answer “The theory underestimates Political Islam.”

The significance of the Arab Spring and indeed the Syrian civil war is to grasp that disorganized urban liberalism cannot compete with the politics of tribe let alone Islamism. Even if President Asad’s forces manage to win the Battle for Idlib it doesn’t mean that President Asad will be in control of Syria. The underlying causes for the Syrian civil war remain and this poses an ever-constant threat for all including Israel.

Turning back to December 17, 2010 the first day of the Arab Spring shows this. Poverty, lack of rights and the use of force to suppress expression are all matches that could spark the flames of revolution and anarchy. Then a Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after the authorities confiscated his goods and beat him. The incident sparked an uprising that within weeks would topple Tunisia’s venal autocracy. Protests spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Despots from Morocco to Mesopotamia felt the heat of popular anger. Many couldn’t withstand it.

Consequently, the Middle East is now less stable, and less hopeful, than it was before. Such instability poses a threat because it introduces the probability of instant anarchy, chaos and war with no clear indication of who will emerge as governance. At the start of the Arab Spring democracy thirsty denim-clad, smartphone-wielding young Arab liberals were projected across social media and TV screens as being the new hopeful leaders of the Middle East.

The terror of 9/11 and the ensuing bad image of Islam were on the way out of the door. However, this was short lived. Once the dictators fell, the liberals were quickly sidelined as Islamists and remnants of the old order battled for dominance. Knife-wielding jihadist and refugees rose to global prominence as the image of Middle East in turmoil.

The quest for democracy left each Arab Spring country worse off than, each in its own way. Dreams turned into nightmares. Although Tunisia has adopted a secular constitution it is also the world’s top exporter of fighters for the Islamic State. Egypt is once more ruled by the officer corps through repressive means. Yemen and Libya have ceased to exist as unified states. Then there is Syria, the regions battle ground for proxy conflict. In hindsight it is clear what happened. By crushing or co-opting opponents, secular autocrats empowered Islamist outfits that were the only remaining channel for dissent.

The lesson learnt is that simply removing a dictator has no connection to Islamism’s attraction. While secular Arab nationalism is state centric, the Islamists’ agency and inherent ideological drive is not state centric. So, while leaderless, social-media-driven protest is effective against unpopular regimes it is insufficient for winning power and for effective governance to provide essential services.

The Arab Spring was a quest for individual freedoms that is political Islam which is more attuned to the contest for geopolitical mastery. There will still be a quest for individual freedom, however probably it will only be a dream. The Arab Spring has been a setback in the quest for such freedom; partly to blame because of Western powers. For example, in Libya, the U.S. removed Moammar Gadhafi but abandoned the country with few viable institutions to its tribal furies. In Syria, American President Obama watched impassively as the Iran-backed tyrant killed and gassed his own people.

Wither the Arab Spring for individual freedoms after the Battle for Idlib to end the Syrian civil war because it is a dream and not a practicality. The Syrian civil war has highlighted that intellectuals and activists don’t dare imagine another uprising because they know that, given an opening, large numbers of Arabs will demand Shariah law, repression of women, and ethnic and sectarian revenge.

In short, the opposite of the Arab Spring quest. The millions that have fled the Arab Spring countries to other parts of the region are rendering their own judgment about the state of Arab civilization. Perhaps that’s an unfair judgment, but it follows my observations about an Islamist political culture that prizes honor, tribe and piety above reason and compromise. 

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
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