It’s been eight years since a Tunisian fruit seller, driven to desperation by corruption and police brutality, set himself alight outside the office of an official who refused to hear his complaints. His death sparked protests across the region that ousted four despots — in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen — fueling hope that democratic aspirations would topple dictators like dominoes, rewarding 400 million Arabs with political and economic freedoms. So why — outside of Tunisia — did it all go horribly wrong?
This month’s anniversary of the peaceful departure of Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the civil resistance in Cairo’s Tahrir Square is a reminder of the optimism that infused the stirrings of the Arab Spring. We were told — or wanted to believe — the Arab world would go the way of Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall, would democratize like Latin America after the military juntas.
The conditions weren’t the same; in many Arab countries, there were few functioning institutions, rule of law was scant, and organized democratic political opposition was nonexistent. Where European nations got NATO membership as entree to a military alliance and a club for democracy, there were no such institutions for the Middle East. Where Latin American nations had generous packages from Washington and international financial institutions and positive role models in the Organization of American States, not so for the Arab world.
Instead of liberalization, we saw counter-revolutionary crackdowns by dictators and Gulf monarchs who spent billions of dollars across the region to squelch democratic uprisings and boost strongmen. Horrific civil wars ensued in Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen that drag on today, resulting in the deaths of a half a million people from fighting and famine. Civil war scared other countries into accepting a “Faustian bargain” from autocrats, according to Brian Katulis, a senior national security fellow at the Center for American Progress. The repression of activists in Egypt and Saudi Arabia is harsher now than ever.
Yet the same problems that brewed in a cauldron of discontent since the early 2000s, sparking the Arab uprisings — a massive youth bulge, unemployment, low wages, education systems mired in the past, a lack of innovation, and absence of freedoms — are still stewing, and getting worse.
The strongmen haven’t delivered an economic and political system to address the underlying problems. If Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian president and former military leader Abdel Fattah El-Sisi “think they can continue to use brute repression to quell these forces, they’re kidding themselves,” Katulis said in an interview. “They don’t realize the volcano they’re sitting on.”
Indeed, in the final weeks of 2018, protests rocked eight nations — Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia — underscoring festering discontent over poor standards of living and unanswered political demands, unnoticed outside the region.
Jake Walles, US ambassador to Tunisia from 2012 to 2015, said it was that country’s openness to the outside world and tradition of moderation that set Tunisia apart, enabling factions to resolve differences, adopt a constitution, and hold free elections in 2014. It isn’t perfect, but it remains a beacon for the rest of the region, proof that an Arab democracy isn’t a contradiction of terms, William Taylor, the former State Department special coordinator to assist Arab Spring nations, told me.
The Internet that connected protesters was supposed to be a liberator; instead, it’s being used to surveil and repress citizens. Organizers who channeled dissent didn’t engage in politics afterward or articulate an agenda to compete with Islamists, the military, or monarchies.
Washington has largely stood at the sidelines since the Arab Spring, burned by our disastrous intervention in Iraq. As the largest Arab nation, a democratic Egypt would be the logical tent pole to stand up a liberalized region, just as a reunified Germany was the cornerstone of post-Cold War Europe. But Washington’s discomfort with Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government — and failure to speak out when it was ousted in a military coup — and the US government’s cozy alliances with oil-rich Gulf monarchies have forestalled any bipartisan vision to support a democratic Arab world.
So what role, if any, can the United States play? In Cairo this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attacked President Obama’s decade-old speech, squandering an opportunity to deliver a tough message to Arab autocrats about opportunities they owe their citizens. This administration has abandoned lip service to democracy or human rights, and focused instead on countering Iran and bolstering Israel. The truth is, the best way to achieve those goals and much more is to encourage economic development and democratization among their neighbors.
Indira A. R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. She is the executive editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.