But five years later, the countries that followed Tunisia’s example could hardly be worse off, the hopes of their people dashed by new autocrats, strife, civil war and the rise of the virulent jihadism exemplified by the Islamic State group.
“Those were exciting days. The democracy fever spread,” Hafez Ghanem, the vice president of the World Bank, wrote in a recent book (right) to mark the start of the Arab Spring.
“But can a country with no democratic tradition and with weak institutions become a well-functioning democracy and improve the lives of its citizens overnight? The answer is obviously no.”
There were six Arab countries in which massive peaceful protests called for hated rulers to go in the spring of 2011. Other than Tunisia, none of the uprisings came to a happy end, The Economist notes:
Libya and Yemen have imploded, their central states replaced in whole or part by warring militias, some backed by foreign powers, some flying the flags of al-Qaeda or Islamic State. Egypt is now yet more autocratic, in some ways, than when the protests began. And Syria has descended into an abyss. Half its cities lie in ruins, much of its fertile land has been abandoned; millions have been displaced within the country, millions more have fled beyond it; hundreds of thousands have died; there is no end in sight.
The Arab revolutions produced few leaders, few credible programs for action, and few ideas. But they did produce much-needed clarity about such things as what political Islam actually means in practice, where the Arabs stand in the world and with each other, and what the weaknesses and strengths of Arab states and societies are.
The Arab spring seems therefore to have brought nothing but woe. It has become fashionable in some circles to ape Russia and Iran in blaming this failure on supposedly “naive” Western policymakers, the Economist adds:
Had Western powers not abandoned old allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak; had they not intervened in support of Libyan rebels; had they not presumed that the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was just another domino waiting to topple; had they not turned a blind eye to the danger of Islamist fanatics: then all would be well.
This is tosh. To frame the uprisings of 2011 as a sequence of isolated events, each of which had a unique and optimal policy response, is to deny the historical reality of what happened. Such hindsight belies the actual experience of seeing an entire region—and the world’s most politically torpid region, at that—whirl into sudden, synchronized motion. It also denies agency to the actors themselves: to the crowds whose cries of “Enough!” reached critical mass; to the paranoid rulers whose responses exacerbated the protests. RTWT