The Guardian view on the Arab Spring, a decade on: a haunting legacy | Editorial

High hopes in the region soon turned to exhaustion and despair. But the movement is not over

It is sometimes said that the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, when asked in 1972 about the influence of the French Revolution, replied: “Too soon to tell.” Though the tale is apocryphal – he was referring to the student revolts of 1968 – it reminds us that the world’s great events may look quite different from another temporal perspective.

In January 2011, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled by protests triggered by the self-immolation of a street vendor weeks earlier. Within days, tens of thousands of Egyptians had flooded into Tahrir Square, forcing Hosni Mubarak from power and transforming the nascent movement into a true phenomenon. Yet a decade after the region rose up against its dictators, authoritarianism has a tighter grip than ever, and its people are drained or traumatised. Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, is in the throes of its worst human rights crisis for decades. Poverty has deepened, with the pandemic and falling oil prices exacerbating the impact.

Most terribly of all, the violence that followed the initial euphoria killed hundreds of thousands and forced tens of millions from their homes. Bashar al-Assad’s brutal response turned Syria into a slaughterhouse. Islamic State prospered amid the chaos. A decade after Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, the struggle for Libya continues; Yemen is devastated by war. The reverberations of the Arab Spring have been felt far beyond the region, too. It probably played a part in the turn towards increasing repression in China. As migrants fled the chaos, anti-immigrant populism grew in the west.

The frailties of the uprisings are obvious: the inexperience and lack of organisation, thanks to decades of political repression; the fractures between secular liberals and authoritarian Islamists. But the blame for the devastation does not rest with those who sought freedom, but the rulers who chose to crush them and the foreign powers whose interference has deepened and worsened the region’s devastation. Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all seized their opportunities. People who aspired to a better national story found themselves as geopolitical pawns.

In a poll for the Guardian, most of those surveyed in nine countries across the Arab world felt they were living in significantly more unequal societies than before the movement. Yet, outside the societies which plunged into war, most did not regret the protests. Young people are least likely to lament them. In 2019, uprisings ousted long-reigning presidents in Algeria and Sudan. Iraq and Lebanon have seen sizeable recent protest movements. In Tunisia, the movement’s success story, people are on the streets demanding reform once more.

Power structures essentially inherited from colonial rule have been undercut by large-scale demographic change. An elite prospers while an ever-growing mass sees the struggle to get by becoming ever harder. Corruption, stifling bureaucracy and indifference restrict the prospects of the rapidly expanding ranks of youth. The events of the last decade should have exploded the myth that autocrats spell stability. Yet western countries have continued to sell arms to and throw their weight behind despots or supposed strongmen in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and trusting that authoritarianism will provide security. The White House suspending arms sales agreed by Donald Trump to Riyadh is, perhaps, a hopeful sign.

The Arab Spring is unfinished business. The kind of hope felt in 2011 has long since dissipated. Yet if many in the region fear more chaos and violence, others still believe they will one day realise their aspirations of justice and freedom. The verdict on the uprisings cannot yet be written.



The GuardianTramp

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