Just a few years ago, people power seemed unstoppable. Arab revolts in 2010 and 2011 overthrew a quartet of tyrants—Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and Moammar Khadafy in Libya. Vast police states proved no match for crowds armed only with newfound courage. Egyptian youth leader and labor activist Ahmed Maher could have been speaking for the entire region when he declared in January 2011: “The people are no longer afraid. We want a democratic state that respects human rights and allows all its citizens to live in dignity.”
The display was enough to rattle China, which tightened its control of the Internet, local party bosses, and the foreign press corps. Russia’s Vladimir Putin clamped down so hard that he threw the punk band Pussy Riot in prison. In Saudi Arabia, the king spent billions in new handouts to quell revolutionary sentiment, while the dictatorship in Syria went for broke, torturing and shooting the first unarmed demonstrators and escalating to a consuming and murderous civil war.
Popular movements, in 2013, turned out to have less power than it had seemed, while authoritarian states emerged as crafty and resilient. In Egypt, after a brief experiment with an elected civilian president, chanting crowds demanded the installation of a new dictator, General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi; the activist Maher, meanwhile, is now in prison, sentenced to three years for protesting. Regimes in Iran and Syria regained their old swagger, while activists in Saudi Arabia and Algeria watched these outcomes and held back. The one bright spot in the Arab world was Tunisia, where elections have spawned coalition governments and where real change and compromise appear to be in the works.
After the crackdowns, the leaders of Russia and China today appear confident that no Internet activists or civil society groups can break their regimes’ monopoly of power. Egypt’s muscle-flexing new authoritarians, and Syria’s resurgent old ones, convincingly demonstrated that if the wind of people power is still blowing, it is far from an irresistible force.