(This article was also published in The Conversation.)
Last week violence in Syria intensified again with new allegations of the large-scale use of chemical weapons. Western leaders, still seeking confirmation of President Assad’s culpability, debated an appropriate response.
Syria illustrates the dangers of uncompromising regimes and radicalised opposition forces pitted against each other in an increasingly vicious sectarian civil war. Yet Syria is not the only case of the Arab Spring gone wrong. Elsewhere across the Middle East and North Africa, too, the prospects of a new wave of democratisation, similar to what happened in parts of Central and Eastern Europe after 1989, are no longer as promising as they may have seemed a year or two ago.
Egypt is an example of the gains of the Arab Spring being rolled back. Last week, a court in Cairo ordered, the release from prison of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – a sharp contrast to the impending trials of his secular and Islamist opponents. The ouster in a military coup of the democratically elected successor of Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi, on 3 July 2013, was the culmination of a series of events that had taken the country in a rather different direction than what the revolution in 2011 that overthrew Mubarak ostensibly stood for. The crisis in Egypt that began to engulf Egypt following democratic elections led to ever more intense violence and a deepening rift supporters and opponents of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood who had won the elections.
In Libya, the overthrow of the Gadaffi regime almost exactly two years ago has not produced a stable let alone democratic country. To the contrary, the government’s control of the country is limited and militias remain in charge of several key regions.
In Bahrain, a Saudi intervention and continuing repressive policies by the incumbent regime have left little room for change.
Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring had its “founding moment”, has also experienced significant violence and instability over the past year, including the murder of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi in July.
Yemen, in the meantime, struggles to cope with insurgencies, an active al-Qaeda affiliate, and a humanitarian crisis while trying to negotiate its transition in a National Dialogue Conference.
The stalled and reversed transitions across parts of the Arab world have also created and intensified wider regional turmoil. The crisis in Syria has forced millions from their homes and created refugee crises in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Arms from Libya have found their way to other conflict spots in the region and beyond, including to Niger, Mali, Syria and Egypt. The increasingly sectarian nature of violence across the region, the secular-Islamist clashes in Egypt and Libya, and the continuing instability in Yemen have attracted, and been fuelled by, foreign Jihadists and given al-Qaeda and its affiliates a new lease of life.
The Arab Spring has left the international community divided, bewildered, powerless and incoherent in its response. A UN-backed, NATO-executed intervention against Gaddafi in 2011 happened swiftly and was instrumental in defeating his regime. More than 100,000 dead and millions of refugees and IDPs later, no such intervention has so far happened in Syria. Until recently, this was because of Russian opposition to a Libya-style UN mandate and US government reluctance. Following last week’s chemical weapons attacks, Western sabre rattling has intensified, with one option discussed being a Kosovo-style coalition of the willing within NATO launching an air campaign.
Yemen has seen a significant escalation of the US drones campaign against AQAP, the local al-Qaeda branch. In Egypt, the United States and the European Union were unable to mediate a compromise between the army and pro- and anti-Morsi protesters.
It is this combination of internal and external factors that can best explain why the Arab Spring did not live up to the hopes and aspirations of the people who put their lives on the line to overthrow the regimes that had suppressed them for so long, and why it did not meet the expectations of democracy and human rights campaigners outside the Middle East and North Africa.
Within the countries of the Arab Spring, the forces unleashed by the sudden opening of political spaces were largely inexperienced, remain fearful and intolerant of each other, and were easily manipulated in regional and global proxy conflicts. Egypt is a clear example of popular hopes for better living conditions disappointed, for individual civil and political rights, including those of minorities, respected and protected, and powerful and long-entrenched interests taking an opportunity to re-assert themselves. Less violent than in Egypt, a similar situation is unfolding in Tunisia and Yemen.
In contrast, incumbent regimes in Syria and Bahrain have been strong enough, so far, and had sufficiently powerful and motivated external backers to allow them to hold onto power, albeit at significant cost. Libya has seen the decisive defeat of the Gaddafi regime, again with external support. Yet as this support came to an end, the country has morphed into a state in which the government commands only limited support beyond the capital.
As regional and global players pursue their own narrow self-interests – from the Western war on terrorism, to Russia’s desperate attempts to remain influential and relevant in the region, to Saudi Arabia’s and the Gulf States’ policy of containing and pushing back Iranian influence – local leaders have failed to rise above the sectarian, regional, ethnic, religious and other differences that now pit them against each other and make them such useful pawns for outsiders. Unless and until these differences are overcome by moderation and mutual accommodation, the region and its people have little hope of avoiding the long and hard winter of violence, destruction and socio-economic decline that the current unravelling of the Arab Spring seems to foreshadow.