The Arab Spring: was it worth it?
By Nureddin Sabir
Editor, Redress Information & Analysis
Hardly a day passes without someone asking me whether the Arab Spring had been worth it.
Libya is in chaos with no effective government, police or army, and with armed militias acting as the Italian mafia once did in American cities. Egypt and Tunisia have swapped pro-Western lackeys for reactionary Islamists. In Syria even more backward-looking Islamists, in the shape of Salafis-cum-“jihadists”, are exploiting disunity within the armed opposition to infiltrate the country, and that is not to mention the daily death toll of innocents and the destruction wreaked on homes, businesses, public buildings and infrastructure, mostly by Bashar Assad’s forces. Meanwhile, despite the pain and sacrifices of ordinary people, the revolutions in Bahrain and Yemen have been stopped in their tracks thanks to Saudi Arabia, its Gulf satellite states and their Western backers.
Just as frequent as the “Was it worth it?” question is the refrain from some in Tunisia, Egypt and, to a lesser extent Libya, that at least under the defunct dictatorships citizens could go about their business in relative peace and security, as long as they did not get involved in politics or criticize their regimes.
The case of the Tunisian woman who was allegedly raped by police and then arrested for indecency is the most recent incident to highlight the chaos into which Arab Spring countries have plunged, in addition to becoming a rallying cry for critics of Tunisia’s Islamist-led government, for which women’s rights are not exactly a top priority.
The picture all around, then, is depressing. But is it surprising?
The eruption of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria had generated high expectations and sparked off popular and media euphoria the like of which had not been seen since the days of the late Egyptian President Jamal Abdel Nasser before the 1967 war or, in the case of Libya, the first year or so after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1969.
Writing in Foreign Policy in April 2011, just a few months after the unimaginable happened and people’s power toppled the sclerotic dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, Indian-American author Parag Khanna marvelled at the borderless youth revolution sweeping across the Arab world. He looked forward to the emergence of “a new Arabism”, one that derives its strength “from genuinely trans-Arab phenomena” such as the younger generation’s demand for more accountable governance. In this new Arab world, even the elusive prospect of Arab unity seemed within reach:
The next great step towards a new Arab renaissance will come through physically overcoming the region’s arbitrary political borders, most of which derive from European colonial callousness. As the European Union itself demonstrates, the only way to achieve genuine collective security and a political-economic order greater than the sum of its parts is to physically build it.
A new pan-Arab rail network could connect Tripoli to Cairo to Amman to Baghdad, and Damascus to Dubai… More pipelines and canals could connect oil-rich and low-population states with poor, heavily populated ones. Where borders are straight and arbitrary, these fluid and deliberately curvy lines – railways, pipelines, and water channels – will be the necessary and natural consequence of the opening of Arab societies to the logic of globalization.
For a few weeks, between the downfall of the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes and the initial, rapid advance of the revolutionaries in Libya, I too shared Mr Khanna’s optimism, as did no doubt millions of people across the Arab world – with good reason. Egypt’s Islamists were distancing themselves from the anti-Mubarak revolution and did not seem destined to play a big part in post-Mubarak Egypt. In Libya, the uprising was being led by educated, liberal youths, and the people of the liberated parts of the country were displaying an unprecedented degree of solidarity and organization. Wherever one looked, everything pointed to a promising, progressive pan-Arab future defined by common interests and shared ideas and values – democracy, accountability, civil society and the rule of law. Even Syria, where the regime had a track record of mass murder in Hama (1982) and Tal Zaatar (1976), appeared within reach.
But, alas, it was not to be – and it will not be for many years. Instead, disappointed expectations have led to depression, which has become the watchword encapsulating the mood of progressives in every Arab country that had sprung into life and hope with the first cinders of revolution in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid back in December 2010.
There are terrible debts to be paid for the way power was organized in the Arab world over the last 60 years; they will be paid in blood. Let’s get on with paying them… (Issandr El Amrani, journalist and commentator)
The reasons for the disappointed expectations differ from country to country but what they have in common is the fact that the collapse of the dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – the three countries where the Arab Spring has succeeded in unseating the ruling tyrannies – had exposed hitherto hidden and unfortunate realities and unleashed dormant forces that had been kept in check for decades through policies of repression unparalleled anywhere in the world outside North Korea.
Egypt and Tunisia
In both Egypt and Tunisia, those dormant forces come under the banner of Islamism, from the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda to the different shades of Salafism – all of them backward, reactionary and irrational. Long repressed under the fallen dictators who imprisoned, tortured and gagged them, the Islamists had been prevented from airing their views in public, and the public had been deprived of the opportunity of scrutinizing and challenging their ideologies and politics.
Consequently, a whole mythology was built around them, one in which they are portrayed in the public’s imagination as brave heroes willing to stand up and die for their principles. Their meaningless slogans, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s “Islam is the Solution”, were passed off unchallenged and became rallying calls to mobilize the masses. The fact that “Islam is the Solution” is, in effect, nothing more than advocating magic in lieu of public policy went unchallenged because it was never allowed to be debated openly in public.
Likewise with Tunisia’s Islamists who under Ben Ali were never given the opportunity to explain how their only “policy”, adopting Islamic law, or shari’ah, would solve the country’s innumerable economic and social problems and enhance the people’s wellbeing.
The rest is now history. Following the fall of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes, the Islamist Ennahda movement in Tunisia came out as the strongest party in the Constituent Assembly elections, and in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-reactionary Salafi parties, Nur and Daawa Islamiya, swept the scene in parliamentary elections, and an Islamist president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Mursi, won the presidential ballot.
Libya, on the other hand, is a different story. In contrast to Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Tunisia, Islamist parties had never put down roots in Libyan society either before or clandestinely during the Gaddafi era. The Muslim Brotherhood is, and always has been, very small and is seen by many people as a holier-than-thou cult rather than a credible political movement. The other Islamist organizations, such as Abdelhakim Belhaj’s Watan party, Muhammad Ali Sallabi’s National Gathering for Freedom, Justice and Development, and the armed thugs of Ansar Shari’ah, are alien forces rooted more in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where their leaders had spent time in exile, than in Libya. Thus, in their first free election for over 45 years, Libyans bucked the post-Arab Spring trend and gave their vote to relatively liberal coalitions.
Rather than Islamism, Libya’s problems are far more basic. Compared to Egypt and Tunisia, Libya is politically barren. It was neglected under the Ottomans and the Italian colonialists, who banned education for Libyans aged more than 10 years. During the monarchy that came after independence in 1951, political parties were permitted and an elected parliament existed, but with a largely illiterate population and no political culture, these acted more as vehicles for patronage and other forms of corruption than as bodies that reflected the popular will. Then came the military coup that brought Gaddafi to power in 1969, and on that date the country’s political, intellectual and cultural life was placed in a deep freeze that was to last for the 42 years of the Gaddafi family’s reign. That is, four decades of complete intolerance of any political ideas that did not emanate from Gaddafi, no freedom of speech or expression, no freedom to organize (e.g. a political party or trade union – or even a debating society), and no institutions other than the armed thugs and snitches of the “Revolutionary” Committees and the pillars of Gaddafi’s system of institutionalized chaos, the People’s Committees. In other words, no civil society whatsoever.
That is where Libya has been since liberation in October 2011. Society is thawing out but, having been frozen in backwardness for decades, it will take many years before Libyans experience a real spring. In the meantime, Libyans will have to get accustomed to using their critical faculties. They will have to learn the art of persuasion, as opposed to violence and emotion, and each Libyan will have to accept that his or her opinion is not the only opinion worth listening to and that nobody, whether Islamist or liberal, holds a monopoly over the truth. Above all, Libyans will have to start thinking and behaving as responsible members of a wider society, and this will be the hardest task of all because society and community are precisely what Gaddafi had done most to destroy.
So, that is where we are now as far as the countries that have succeeded in toppling their dictators are concerned. The others – Syria, Bahrain and Yemen – are unfinished business, as it were, and others still – Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the Gulf states, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco – will sure follow suit sooner or later. But it would be a delusion to expect any of them, once they finally manage to kick out their unwelcome rulers, to assume a different trajectory than that taken by Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Indeed, for some, much worse will happen before life begins to get better.
Was it all worth it?
This brings us to the question we started off with: has the Arab Spring been worth it for those who have managed to overthrow their dictators and are now in the throes of chaos and violence, or are living in the shadow of ultra-reactionary Islamists? Is it worth it for the Syrians who are paying with their lives in droves to free their country from the grip of the sectarian Assad regime?
There is another way of asking this question: how much is freedom – your freedom, my freedom, our freedom – worth? If freedom can be given up in return for food on the table and conditional physical protection, then why do prisoners yearn for their release? Why give up guaranteed prison food and the protection of prison officers for the uncertainties of life in freedom, where one could never be sure whether there will be a next meal or a bed to sleep on?
Needless to say – but it needs saying, especially for the Westerners who have never experienced tyranny and take their freedoms and rights for granted – freedom is priceless. There is no alternative to the struggles taking place in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen, and those that are sure to take place in the rest of the Arab world sooner or later.
But our pain, blood and suffering are unlikely to bear fruit in our lifetime. As Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, says in reference to Syria (but it applies to all Arabs): “People were mistaken if they thought it would be like Europe, a whole system collapsing and its people joining the West. The Arabs don’t want to join the West. What they’ve embarked on is a generation of change.”
To quote Egyptian journalist and commentator Issandr El Amrani, what is happening in the Arab world is history in motion. “There are terrible debts to be paid for the way power was organized in the Arab world over the last 60 years; they will be paid in blood. Let’s get on with paying them…”