Five years, four civil wars, and six overthrown governments later, the Arab Spring leaves a mixed and convoluted legacy. Most of the dictators that protesters challenged still cling to power, and in the nations where dissidents succeeded in removing authoritarian leaders, they have all too often been replaced by anarchy and violence. In short, the Middle East seems more unstable and illiberal than ever before. So how did it go so wrong? What can be learned from the countless failures and few successes of the Arab Spring?
The lessons for protesters seem all too clear. Too much focus was spent on the “easy part” of a revolution, bringing down the dictator, with little thought paid to more difficult task of building the new government. After achieving regime change, the rebels and protesters seemed unable to form cohesive governments, devolving into factionalism, sectarianism, and anarchy. The newly legalized Islamist parties, notably the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, failed to govern effectively, leading to disillusionment amongst the people.
Future democratic activists should realize that demonstrations and uprisings are incredibly powerful tools, but they can sometimes serve to destabilize fragile new governments, undermining their chances at reform. Protesters should also heed the lessons of Syria and Libya, where the revolutions were co-opted by radicals, alienating the people of the nation and pushing away potential international allies.
Arabs aren’t the only ones who have lessons to learn. The actions of western nations during the Arab Spring seemed to be an endless litany of disasters, caused by poor planning, indecisiveness, and a general lack of awareness of the situation on the ground.
The rapidly moving revolutionary wave caught the west flat-footed, frequently putting the US in the unenviable position of choosing between longtime allied dictators, who promised stability, and the unknown, but ideologically sympathetic protesters and rebels. The US responded by backing neither, instead opting for an equivocating, lukewarm foreign policy that failed to either prop up the regimes or provide guidance for the opposition, leaving everyone bitter and disillusioned.
Military initiatives were inconsistent and poorly thought out. The NATO intervention in Libya succeeded in wiping out the Gadhafi military, but once the regime was destroyed, the victorious rebels were all but abandoned. With no western “boots on the ground”, Gaddafi’s vast military stockpiles were pillaged by jihadists and have turned up in warzones across the region. The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, supported by American weapons and intelligence, has turned into a proxy war with Iran, and allowed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to thrive in the chaos.
In Syria, despite voicing support for the opposition and demanding the removal of President al-Assad, the US resisted arming the rebels until late in 2013. By that point, the Syrian opposition was fractured and dominated by Islamic Jihadists, who have seized American supplied equipment from the US backed rebels. A $500 million American program to train fighters to combat ISIS also failed miserably, and was shut down in October of 2015 with nothing to show for it.
As for success stories, only Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, stands out. After the removal of autocratic President Ben Ali in 2011, free and fair elections were held for the Tunisian legislature, which were won by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party. Then, in 2013, after the assassinations of leftist politicians triggered widespread protests, the Ennadha-led government supported the passage of a progressive, secular constitution and peacefully handed over power to an interim government. The 2014 parliamentary elections, the first under the new constitution, were won by the liberal Niddaa Tounes party. Ennadha accepted the results and congratulated the victors.
To be sure, Tunisia still faces significant problems. Unemployment is high, especially among young people, economic growth is tepid, and recent terrorist attacks have harmed the tourist industry. But Tunisia, as a whole, is a free, multi-party democracy, the only one in the Arab world. So what was it that allowed for democracy in Tunisia where so many other nations failed? What lessons can be gained from Tunisia’s success?
In short, Tunisia was simply more ready for democracy. Unlike Syria or Egypt, the Tunisian military has traditionally had little role in politics, minimizing the risk of a coup or military intervention. While the government was authoritarian, Tunisian civil society was strong, the populace was well educated and largely secular, and non-governmental organizations were influential. The National Dialogue Quartet, composed of the powerful national trade union and large groups representing businesses and lawyers, served to stabilize the country and force political cooperation. They were rewarded with the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. No other Arab nation had civil organizations of comparable influence.
For a fleeting moment, it seemed the wave of protests that swept across the Middle East in 2011 would usher in a new era of Arab democracy and freedom. That moment quickly passed. Now millions of refugees flee civil wars and government violence, hundreds of thousands are dead, and authoritarian leaders still cling to their seats of power. The dream that was the Arab Spring is dead, replaced by a brutal winter, but the lessons it provided the world should continue on, informing the actions of future leaders and democratic activists. Eventually it will be spring again.