The scorched earth of the Arab Spring

For the millions who felt empowered by events in Tahrir Square, a democratic awakening has been postponed but not smothered, argues Jeremy Kinsman.
By: /
March 20, 2015
A protester holds an Egyptian flag while sitting on a tree during a demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square June 8, 2012. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

When a poor fruit and vegetable vendor in a small town in Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi, doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire five years ago to protest against unfairness and injustice under his country’s corrupt family-run authoritarian regime, his match ignited a firestorm across the Arab world we came to call the Arab Spring.

The Tunisian revolution, channeled by the Internet’s power, inspired millions of Arabs, and especially the young, to militate for rights that we in established democracies take for granted. They have long been presumed to be beyond the Arabs’ grasp. For years, Western public opinion about the Middle East bought an Israeli conceit that they alone possessed democratic instincts in a backward region of kingly and dictatorial Arab autocracies, whose history of foreign occupation, violent contests for power, bitter sectarian rivalries, and stern top-down religious orthodoxy in some countries voided the potential for inclusive democratic governance.

It is now obvious that the uprisings against tyrannically entitled regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Syria have failed. Egypt and Libya discovered toppling dictators to be easier than replacing them with an inclusive, democratic government. Without the building blocks of civil society with experience in mediation of differences, building a consensus in favour of inclusive government is very difficult. Alas, in Libya, civil society had never been permitted to develop. In Egypt, NGOs were only tolerated when they served the purposes of the repressive regime.

In Syria, peaceful marchers in mass protests in Homs and Dara’a seemed by 2012 to be on the point of toppling the cruel Assad regime. To counter the regime’s claim the revolt was all about Sunni revenge-seeking toward the minority ruling Alawites, marchers carried signs saying “I am an Alawite” and “I am a Christian.”

However, this inclusive mass movement in nonviolent protest fatefully fell under the thrall of hardliners who argued for armed protection against the regime’s deadly but not yet decisive repressive tactics. Before long, escalating violence, manipulated by the regime, sidelined nonviolent leaders and hijacked the revolution.

The war was on. Instead of the inclusive popular protest movement, those fighting for a “free” Syria became a fragmented patchwork of rival militias and gangs increasingly organized around sect, power, and pan-regional issues of geo-politics. Jihadist monopolists streamed in to claim ground with which to launch ISIL’s territorial claim of a hostility-driven “caliphate.”

In its fifth year of deadly conflict, Syria is ruined. Six percent of Syrians have been killed or wounded. Half of the country’s pre-war population has fled from home: 7.6 million are internally displaced; about 4 million have become refugees abroad, placing huge pressures on neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Who among Syrians would not trade this disaster for life five years ago? In Libya, only members of criminal militias would welcome today’s ruinous anarchy. As for Egypt, the Tahrir Revolution is now remembered as a futile prelude to an army coup d’etat that restored all that reigned before except with a new strongman in uniform at the top.

Contrite democracy advocates struggle for answers. It is apparent that Tunisia’s successful transition is in large part owed to unique factors the others lack: development over time of civil society capacities, a relatively secular and inclusive culture, and the absence of sectarian rivalries. Even so, this week’s terror attack shows that no country is immune to the destructive forces of militant jihadism.

Knitting the social fabric conducive to inclusive democracy takes time. It is complex. The heady instant appeal of jihad, armed defence of sect, and the lure of power through gang force can outmuscle peaceful commitment to the longer-term pursuit of democratic ideals.

In any event, the Middle East hasn’t gone to hell because of the Arab Spring. Apart from the region’s fractious history, the hubris-driven disaster of the U.S. and U.K. invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the fracturing of Iraqi society that is probably not reparable. It sowed the seeds that became ISIL. Iraq is apt to break into three parts. An end-game outcome to the lethal stalemate in Syria may fracture that country into three parts as well.

Artificial national borders cunningly drawn on the map a century ago by French and British colonialists in pursuit of their own nationalist interests are being contrasted to a possible regional design based on grouping sectarian and ethnic communities in ethno-centric states. Apart from negating the principles of pluralism basic to inclusive democracy, a more fragmented region will be more conflict-prone. The lure of a separate Kurdistan will be deeply contested by Turkey, Syria, and Iran, wary of disloyalty from their respective Kurdish minorities. Who knows what sorts of regimes will emerge in other mini-states?

A very interested antagonist is ISIL, seeking to wrest by violence its own radical and vengeful Islamic state out of the contested space. The undeniable need to defeat ISIL’s expansionism has coaxed Western democracies into de facto military engagement with Iran and Syria, countries repeatedly marked for regime change by macho demagogues in the U.S. (and Canada). The hard necessity of defeating an expansive destructive pathology has seemed to trump the soft idealism of promoting democratic ideals, though conceivably the effects of engagement could include greater pragmatism on the parts of Iranian and Syrian leaders.

What remains in this scorched landscape of the aspirations of young Arabs who represent such a huge percentage of the region’s population? Some will embrace the violent pathology of vindictive jihadism, at least for a while. But for the millions who felt for a time empowered by the heady political festival of Tahrir Square, made contagious by Al Jazeera TV and the Internet, belief in the possibility of a real regional democratic awakening has been postponed but not smothered. Their first earnest revolutions failed against the gun. But the shoots of the Arab spring will survive.

Western democracies should do everything possible to support capacity-building for eventual democratic governance. But they must stop trying to pick winners in other peoples’ countries, a constant temptation to Americans, who moreover pick very badly.

Change cannot be imported. It can only emerge from within, though outside solidarity and support for human rights are positive encouragements. A backlash from authoritarian regimes in Russia and China challenges the legitimacy of outside engagement. They see international solidarity as a challenge to their desire to suppress internal competition to their exclusive political control. It is pretty shameless stuff to come from masters of the age-old Russian practice of maskirovka, the destabilization of neighbours we see amply demonstrated in Ukraine.

The U.S. under Obama has rightly suppressed the constant U.S. temptation to pull strings and pick winners. After two bad wars, the U.S. plan to cut back its exposure in the region has been countered by the ISIL aggression. The military response should be accompanied by unrelenting and consistent support for human rights defence, and an ongoing international contribution to civil society capacity-building to strengthen the hands of democrats. It would be helpful too, though possibly too much to hope for, if the U.S. could improve its own deplorable example of divisive and dysfunctional governance.

Ultimately, in the Middle East, there will be governance change, country by country, over a long and winding road of time and trial. Its description by one Canadian columnist as a “region of dysfunction and darkness” is the photo of this moment, not the assigned fate of many millions of Arabs for all time.

Ambassador Kinsman is one of several panelists expected for a round-table conversation, "Tragedy, Terror and Truth in the Middle East," at Ryerson University in Toronto on March 25.