Is the Arab Spring over?
While it might not have died, the Arab Spring has not lived up to its promise, though much has changed, writes Abdel-Moneim Said
2011 was the year of the Arab Spring in full bloom. The winds of revolution blew in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Other countries were shaken by waves of demonstrations, sit-ins, and strikes that did not reach the point of full-scale revolution but that left their stability uneasy. The situations in Morocco, Algeria, Kuwait, Oman, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, for example, were far from calm. Nor was the Arab Spring limited to the Arab region. The phenomenon spread among youth in other countries of the world, such as China, Russia and even the US in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It even reached Israel where social protest movements took to the streets.
In a sense, Cairo's Tahrir Square epitomised the Arab Spring. It breathed the memory and the spirit of Bouazizi in Tunisia and Khaled Said in Egypt, who had become symbols of a world of fresh and vigorous youth crying out against an unjust world and who were crushed by a generation of geriatric officials who clung tenaciously to their seats of power from which they sewed enormous corruption. Of course, the revolutions were not solely political, striving to overthrow rulers and change the forms of government. They also gave rise to new forms of music, art and literature that sought to break old moulds.
Much has changed in the 15 months since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Figures who looked like they would never leave until they keeled over into their graves have gone. As they fell, so too did thousands of dead and wounded during an upheaval that sometimes descended into civil war and occasioned foreign intervention in the form of money and/or troops. In 2012, the Arab Spring dealt with the unfinished business of Ali Abdallah Saleh in Yemen. The spring in Syria, on the other hand, turned into a huge quagmire after a year of revolution and confrontation. The prestige and status of the Baathist regime in Damascus may have sustained blows that seemed debilitating enough to force it into undertaking fundamental changes in order to survive, but it has survived nevertheless. At the moment, therefore, Damascus looks like the Arab Spring's last battle as the seasons shift to a scorching summer filled with blasts of hot sand storms.
In spite of the uplifting romanticism that infused the Arab Spring at the outset, the revolutions soon returned to the basics. The revolutions in the Arab region are a manifestation of a phase of the profound transformations that Arab societies have undergone in recent decades. However, it soon became apparent that Facebook, Twitter and the other contemporary IT phenomena that had lent their badges to the revolutions formed no more than a surface layer of the change. Modernist culture has not yet penetrated Arab society deeply enough, while the traditionalist opposition, which has built up over the past eight decades, was presented with the opportunity to assert itself. Represented primarily by the Muslim Brotherhood, it leaped to the fore in the streets, in the "million-man" marches and the occupation of city squares, and then in the ballot boxes that brimmed with the votes of its supporters.
But then a long-established historical process came into play. One of the conventions among the leaderships of movements of profound change is a form of ideological one- upmanship that casts to the fore the most hard line and dogmatic factions. As communist parties assumed power in various parts of the world in the early 20th century, there immediately sprouted Trotskyist, Maoist, and Guevarist parties, and there proliferated proponents of permanent revolution or whatever they might have termed it so long as the revolution didn't end. The same phenomenon occurred with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the form of the Salafist trends and the Jihadist Islamist groups that date from the 1990s. The US may have succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden, but his many offspring remain and, after some changes in approach and outlook, they have returned to the field. Be that as it may, the upshot is that the original revolution generation, the one that spearheaded the Arab Spring, has been eclipsed by the more traditional and familiar elements in the political scene with the result that the movements that are the most steeped in traditionalism have surfaced as the chief adversary of existing regimes. The "bogeyman" of the past has come to life as a player in the political game, which differs from country to country according to the local rules and the historical circumstances specific to each country.
The rise of the Islamist movements in the Arab countries may present a formidable obstacle to the Arab Spring. They have probably caused large segments of Arab youth to wonder whether their revolution has turned out to offer a shortcut to domination by political movements whose particular ideology, even at its most moderate, is not conducive to the realisation of the dream to catch up with the Turkish, Malaysian and Indonesian experiences. This is not just because such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood have an excess of conservatism, but also because such groups are staring at the even more conservative Salafis who are constantly threatening to encroach on their space.
As though what was happening in post-revolutionary countries were not enough, after over a year of Arab Spring, the region is teeming with various forms of violence, sectarianism and even threats of partition. What appeared to be a new Arab world in the making has returned to familiar ruts. After the secession of the South, Sudan has reverted to war between the North and South as though unable to break the habit. Even the Palestinian rift, which had seemed to have subsided, has begun to show signs of flaring up again. Perhaps Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Abu Moussa Island in the Gulf was little more than an attempt to remind the Arabs that the Arab Spring probably has not altered the issues that we are all too familiar with.
Still, it is impossible to say that the Arab Spring has died. Many things have changed and irreversibly so, even if there remain certain causes and problems that do not fade away with the onset of a spring or autumn, or even with the passage of all the seasons of the year, if not many years. For one, we can no longer accept the Arab systems of government as they currently exist. Regardless of whether the ruling elites themselves realise this and are in a quandary as to how to change them and to what degree, these were the regimes that bred the passion for more radical change that now pervades large segments of Arab societies. It is impossible to put that genie back into its bottle. These segments of society have probably matured over the past year. They have come to realise that the IT revolution has limits and, perhaps, they are sobered by how naïve they have been and how inept they were in their management of complex political processes. But they have definitely hit upon the key to moving the masses.
Another significant change is related to the rise of the culture of law and constitutional jurisprudence. After succeeding in their immediate aims, the revolutions found themselves in unknown territory and had no choice but to seek refuge in the law against the spread of chaos. Producing constitutions and legislation was a major key to curbing the chaos and forestalling its heavy toll. But even in those countries that have not been hit by the Arab Spring, authorities have cracked open the law books in the search for legal legitimacy to bolster the various forms of traditional legitimacy. Their hope is to avert the Arab Spring and enjoy all the other seasons.
Such are the dynamics unleashed by the Arab Spring. They operate on the ground and they work to change realities there. In this sense, at least, the Arab Spring has probably taken a warrior's rest at the gates of Damascus as it searches for a new beginning.