The Arab Spring is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. Bereft of life, it rests in peace.
Or so we’ve been told.
The popular narrative says that the Arab states “either devolved into chaos or restored autocracy in a bid for stability,” as Ha’aretz’s Anshel Pfeffer claimed. In 2014, with the Arab Spring just reaching its third birthday, Patrick Cockburn mourned how the Arab Spring had so far produced “anarchy in Libya, a civil war in Syria, greater autocracy in Bahrain and resumed dictatorial rule in Egypt.” In the end, The Arab Spring gave us ISIS, too.
Who is to blame? The Arab people themselves, unable to overcome “tribal politics and Islamism?“ Perhaps it was their “brittle state institutions,” or maybe they got spooked by all the chaos in the region and ran as fast as they could back into the arms of so many willing autocrats-to-be. Democracy has been discredited in the eyes of the people. Maybe they just weren’t ready. The Arab people just want stability and subsidies. Only plucky little Tunisia shows any hope.
Or it’s Turkey and Qatar’s fault for backing Muslim Brotherhood-type groups around the region. It’s Saudi Arabia’s fault for turning everything into a Sunni-Shi’a struggle. Maybe it’s Iran’s fault because Iran does Iran things.
America, and in particular President Barack Obama, are popular choices for blame. It’s interesting to see, as Aaron David Miller found, the “the strange marriage of neocons and liberal interventionists” that has “hammered home the theme that the president has lacked vision, leadership, and strength in responding to these historic transformations.” Bush did too much, Obama too little. The middle ground in the Middle East has yet to be found.
Contrary to popular belief, though, the Arab Spring still lives.
Everything that caused the Arab Spring is still there. The old elites, bloated bureaucracies, Islamist activism, police states, repression, economic stagnation, and more. It might seem that, five years on from the beginning of the Arab Spring, we have reached the Arab version of Fukuyama’s “end of history.” For the Middle East, it’s autocracy. The ascension of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt is just confirmation.
It may seem like the safe route to let the strong men of the region win, because the other option is ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Let the Arab autocratic state system restore itself in the name of stability. We need the firm hand of military dictators like Sisi, absolute monarchs like King Hamad of Bahrain, or senile, constantly-rumored near-death kleptocrats like President Bouteflika of Algeria. Otherwise, chaos. We don’t need any more Libya or Syria situations, thank you very much.
But the fact that the Arab Spring has temporarily given way to the Arab Winter does mean that the old approach was the correct one. We knew even before the Arab Spring that the “strong man” system was part of the reason for the rise of extremism in the region, and the same mistakes are being made again. Autocratic regimes like Sisi’s in Egypt give off the illusion of control, but by rebuilding and reinforcing the old ways of suppressing, diverting, or co-opting voices of discontent and opposition, they are paving the way for later problems. More specifically, they’re making the coming of the next Arab Spring almost a certainty.
Life is no more acceptable for tens of millions of Arabs across the region than it was in 2011. Autocratic regimes, old and new, are still failing to deliver on promises. For Sisi, facing rising discontent over the economy, corruption allegations, the crack-down on journalists, and handing over islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, the honeymoon is clearly over. Good governance is still lacking; sectarian tensions are still being exploited and inflamed; opposition to regime policies has been mishandled; genuine grievances have been ignored. By leaving no outlet for voicing discontent or ability to seek the redress of grievances, the regimes have inadvertently kept the Arab Spring on life-support.
It is also important to note the major generational change that happened in the Arab Spring. The monopoly of state-run media and party lines over national thought has been broken, and won’t be returning any time soon. The younger generations were woken up, and are active, wired into the latest technology and social media advances, and keenly aware of the inherent vulnerability of the current order. The aura of invulnerability and inevitability of the autocratic regimes has been shattered.
“They might come across as helpless and unable to make change but deep inside they are rejecting the status quo,” said the famed Egyptian doctor and comedian Bassem Youssef.
Should the Arab Spring bloom once more, it might finally lead to democracy for some. For Egypt, maybe the third time really is the charm. Or it might lead to a new despotism, with the emergence of a new cast of autocrats. The outcome may be in doubt, but there is no doubt about one thing: the Arab Spring will be back.