From the quickfire collapse of seemingly invincible regimes to the rise and fall of a jihadist caliphate in its heart, the Middle East hurtled through the 21st century’s second decade in a state of relentless upheaval.
The chain of uprisings that shook the region from late 2010 and was soon dubbed the “Arab Spring” led to disparate long-term outcomes, with many countries today looking worse off.
The popular protests that erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen a decade ago were followed by disappointing reforms at best, dictatorial backlash or all-out conflict at worst.
Yet the spirit of the revolts is far from dead, as evidenced by the second wave of uprisings that caught on in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon eight years later.
Something “in the fabric of reality itself” has changed since then, said Lina Mounzer, a Lebanese author and translator whose family has roots in both Egypt and Syria.
“I don’t know that there is anything more moving or noble than a people demanding a life of dignity in a single voice,” she added.
“It proves that such a thing is possible, that people can revolt against the worst despots, that there is enough courage in people standing and working together to face down entire armies.”
– Tunisia spark – It all started on December 17, 2010 when a young street vendor, goaded by years of police harassment, doused himself with fuel in front of the governor’s office in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid and set himself on fire.
Mohamed Bouazizi’s was not the first self-immolation in the region, or even in Tunisia, but it sparked a rage never seen before. Nor was his story caught on camera — but it went viral nonetheless.
By the time Bouazizi died of his wounds on January 4, the protest movement against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power for 23 years, had spread to the entire country.
Ten days later, Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia. Within weeks, pro-democracy protests broke out in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
It was when the rage spilled into the streets of Cairo, the region’s largest city and its historical political crucible, that the contagion earned its “Arab Spring” moniker.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Egypt to shout their democratic aspirations and demand the removal of Hosni Mubarak, president since 1981.
It’s hard to overstate the sense of hope and euphoria that these images projected across the region and the rest of the world.
Groundswell of hope
“Look at the streets of Egypt tonight; this is what hope looks like,” celebrated Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif wrote in The Guardian at the time.
The voice of the people was rising as one, not just in one country but across the region, toppling some of the planet’s most entrenched dictatorships.
One sentence that will go down as the slogan of the Arab Spring rippled across the region: “Al-shaab yureed isqat al-nizam” — Arabic for “The people want the downfall of the regime”.
These words were both a primal scream giving courage to a generation that never knew it had so much and a kind of incantation that, if repeated long enough, would miraculously free the people.
A new paradigm was being born for the Middle East with the realisation that its tyrants were not ten foot tall and that change could come from within.
Author Lina Mounzer remembers how the early days shattered the sense of “Arab defeat” that weighed on two generations after the death of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and his pan-Arab nationalistic project.
“There was a sense that we Arabs were somehow too lazy and tired to rise up against oppression, that we accepted the rule of dictators and despots because we were fundamentally flawed, or else had been shaped into beasts of burden by colonialism and Western meddling,” she told AFP.
The unthinkable happened on February 11, 2011, when it was announced that Mubarak was resigning.
“The night that Mubarak fell I cried with joy. I couldn’t believe how brave and beautiful were the Egyptian people. It seemed like the dawn of a new era,” Mounzer recalled.
“And then, Syria. If I thought I was happy for Egypt, surprised by Egypt, I was ecstatic for Syria… It felt like my parents’ Arab nationalist dreams were finally being realised… through the force and will of the people themselves.”
Six months before being murdered in Istanbul, Saudi author and dissident Jamal Khashoggi argued the revolts once and for all put paid to the notion that Arabs and democracy were a mismatch.
“The debate about the relationship between Islam and democracy conclusively ended with the coming of the Arab Spring,” he said in a 2018 speech.
Besides Ben Ali and Mubarak, Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and last year Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir were the other significant scalps claimed by the Arab revolutions.
The five of them combined a whopping 146 years of rule, not counting Saleh’s 12 years as president of North Yemen before the country’s unification in 1990.
— Ben Ali 1987 – 2011
— Mubarak 1981 – 2011
— Kadhafi 1969 – 2011
— Saleh 1990 – 2012
— Bashir 1989 – 2019
For a while, the collapse of the region’s autocracies looked unstoppable.
Yet the term “Arab Spring” itself, which started appearing in late January 2011, is seldom used in Arab countries — where the words for uprising and revolution are preferred — and has since been criticised as a misnomer.
Noah Feldman’s 2019 book on the subject is entitled “Arab Winter”, a catchphrase that started being used almost immediately after the phrase “Arab Spring” caught on.
In a cover blurb for the book, prominent academic Michael Ignatieff says it highlights “one of the most important events of our time: the tragic failure of the Arab Spring”.
The vacuum created by the downfall of reviled regimes was not filled by the democratic reforms protesters had been calling for, instead in many cases turmoil ensued.
In Egypt, a brief and exhilarating experience in self-rule was soon soured by brutal police repression.
In 2012, Egyptians elected Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist whose programme was met with fierce opposition from part of the protest camp, paving the way for a 2013 coup by the defence minister.
Retired general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is still in power today and his rule is arguably more autocratic than Mubarak’s ever was.
The disappointment within the original protest camp was bitter. Ahdaf Soueif’s hope from the heady days of February 2011 now seems a long-faded mirage.
“I never imagined that my nephew, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, would still be in prison today,” she told AFP. “Or that poverty would be at an all-time high… or that Egypt, for the first time in its history, should become a land its young want to leave.”
In Bahrain, the only Gulf monarchy to experience mass protests, the uprising was brutally quashed with the help of Saudi Arabia, which preempted any revolutionary inclinations on its own soil with massive cash handouts.
Protests in civil war-scarred Algeria did not catch on, those in Morocco were doused with cosmetic reforms and repression through the courts.
Libya’s erstwhile revolutionaries split into myriad militias that fragmented the country. Yemen slid into a sectarian-fueled civil conflict.
But the place where the Arab Spring came to die was Syria.
Few of the region’s leaders could have seemed more difficult to unseat than Bashar al-Assad when 2011 started, but within weeks of the first protests, the writing was on the wall for the former London-based ophthalmologist. Literally.
“Your turn, doctor.” The words, inspired by the undoing of Ben Ali and Mubarak, were spray-painted on a wall in the southern town of Daraa.
The teenagers guilty of such lese-majeste were swiftly detained and tortured, prompting a wave of angry protests for their release many point to as the spark for the nationwide uprising.
Assad’s turn never came however. He weathered the storm, becoming the domino that didn’t fall.
With the exception of Tunisia where there is now a fragile democracy, each of the revolution countries collapsed in their own way. In Syria, the regime’s ultimately successful fight to the death killed more than 380,000 people.
One of the graffiti boys, Moawiya Sayasina, told AFP in 2018 that the backlash was worse than he had ever imagined.
“I’m proud of what we did back then, but I never thought we’d get to this point, that the regime would destroy us like this. We thought we’d get rid of it,” he said.
As protest movements were brutally repressed and sectarian hatred ignited, jihadists — in Syria and elsewhere — found fertile ground.
“It didn’t take long for the protesters’ non-violent ethos to flicker out in the battle zones of Libya, Syria, and Yemen,” author and journalist Robert F. Worth writes in “A Rage for Order”.
“Under the convenient cover of street protests — where they could travel without being recognised — the jihadists were suddenly watching the collapse of the state in all three countries.”
Their growth culminated with the 2014 proclamation by the Islamic State group of a “caliphate” roughly the size of Britain straddling Syria and Iraq.
The ultra-violence that IS craftily propagated on social media and the group’s ability to attract thousands of fighters from Europe and beyond instilled a fear in the West that wiped out the early pro-democracy enthusiasm.
The world’s focus shifted to the fight against terrorism and away from the removal of autocratic regimes, which quickly recast themselves as the last rampart against Islamic extremism.
The West, led by the US administration of Barack Obama, failed to see the Arab revolts coming, initially voicing support for protesters. But they stopped short of direct intervention, with the exception of the controversial NATO-led raids which dislodged Kadhafi in Libya.
“The central political meaning of the Arab Spring and its aftermath is that it featured Arabic-speaking people acting essentially on their own, as full-fledged, independent makers of their own history and of global history more broadly,” Feldman writes.
The West moved away from its decades of support to some of the region’s dictatorships, but failed to follow up by backing an alternative.
A decade on, one would be hard-pressed to look at the Arab revolts as a success.
The conflict in Syria has left the country in ruins and triggered the worst human displacement since World War II.
In Yemen, children are starving to death, and Libya has turned into a lawless and fragmented battleground for militias and their foreign sponsors in which democratic aspirations have been buried deep.
Work in progress
So what is left of the Arab Spring, if anything?
Ahdaf Soueif argues it is still too early to tell what its legacy will be and that the revolts are still a work in progress.
“The conditions under which people had lived from the mid-70s onwards led to revolt. It was unavoidable. It continues to be unavoidable,” she said.
She and other activists are eager to shoot down the narrative that links the growth of radical Islam to the revolutions, stressing it was the counter-revolutions that fueled the kind of disenfranchisement and poverty jihadists feed on.
Soueif also rejected the suggestion that Egypt has reverted to what it was before 2011 and argued that “people are now alive and alert” in a new way.
“Also, there’s a social revolution that got a big push forward. Issues like women’s rights and LGBTQ rights — their path is very rough, but they’re more visible, they’ve elbowed their way into a fraction more space,” she said.
A fresh wave of protests demanding transparency and democratic reform broke out last year in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon.
The same slogans echoed again, confirming that the spirit of 2011 was still alive and a source of inspiration for the region’s youth.
For Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, the core demands of the protests are still bubbling under the surface and “will boil over at the next opportunity like a political tsunami”.
“The people of the region set a new yardstick for the politics and governance that they demand. Since then, all politics has been measured against those demands,” said Adib-Moghaddam, who authored “On the Arab revolts and the Iranian revolution: Power and resistance today”.
“Any state that doesn’t understand this new reality is bound to be confronted,” he said.
History shows that revolutions can take many, often troubled, years to yield results but the less visible changes that occur among those who took part are not easily reversed.
Alaa al-Aswany, arguably Egypt’s best-known living novelist and a central character of the commune-like scene that briefly camped out on Cairo’s Tahrir square, likes to say that “revolution is like falling in love, it makes you a better person.”
Lina Mounzer, who since those days has lived through Lebanon’s own revolt in 2019, concurs that whatever comes next, the way people view their leaders, the rest of the world and perhaps more importantly themselves has been durably affected.
“We have lived so long in a world that has tried to instill in us the idea that communitarian thinking is suspect and that individualism is synonymous with freedom. It’s not. Dignity is synonymous with freedom,” she said.
“This is what the Arab Spring, in its early, idealistic days, not only taught us, but confirmed… What we do with that lesson — bury it or build on it — is something that remains to be seen,” said Mounzer.
“But I can never wish us back into a world before its emergence.”
Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” is often held up as an example of how the Arab revolts can indeed be successful.
The bloodletting was contained, politicians and citizens alike stayed mostly clear of tactics that could divide the nation, the dominant Islamist party Ennahdha made a relatively smooth transition to consensus politics.
“Contrasted with the failure of Egypt and the disaster of Syria, however, Tunisia looks like an extreme outlier in the broader, regional phenomenon that it started,” Feldman writes.
While the small North African country clearly fared better than others, the dividends of the revolt are still not obvious.
Speaking to AFP a few blocks away from where it all began, opposite the square in Sidi Bouzid where a sculpture of Bouazizi’s street cart was erected, Achref Ajmi is disenchanted.
Ben Ali is gone, the country has held together but the economic situation has not improved.
“The slogan of the revolution was ‘work, freedom, national dignity’. We haven’t seen any of it,” the 21-year-old said.
“There are no jobs.”