The Arab Spring, Ten Years On

Islamists and autocrats have the run of things. But the millions who struggled for freedom should not be forgotten.

More than ten years have passed since a young Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself ablaze after his vegetable cart was confiscated by police in the hinterland town of Sidi Bouzid. The act, in December 2010, unleashed a wave of revolutionary protest across the Middle East that soon became known as the Arab Spring.

The movement laid bare the extraordinary discontent across the region’s grim political landscape. Calcified regimes had uniformly failed to integrate their nations into modernity and the resulting woes were suffocating: outdated educational systems, stagnant economies, strictures on women, religious zealotry, and explosive demography. Devoid of properly functioning states, captive populations had become pawns in their rulers’ game, enforced by intimidation and capricious violence. But as fear gradually lost its power to mounting desperation, the cause of freedom merely awaited a spark. For the first time in recent memory, Arab multitudes were ready to brave the wrath of their leaders and take their political fate into their own hands.

In Tunisia, this protest eventually led to the establishment of a representative democracy in 2011—the Arab Spring’s lone success story. But the country has suffered a worrying reversal: In July, President Kais Saied suspended the Parliament, dismissed the prime minister, and announced he would temporarily rule by decree. Soon after the initial announcement, a Tunisian member of Parliament critical of these moves was arrested. And, on August 24, President Saied confirmed that these extralegal measures would continue indefinitely. It’s no exaggeration to say that the viability of Tunisian democracy rides on whether or not Saied’s attempted consolidation of power is permitted to stand.

A decade on from Bouazizi’s deed of despair, the rage and idealism that generated a pan-Arab revolution seem like things of the past. The state-engineered counter-revolutions that overwhelmed the people’s movements brought forth an era of tumult and tremendous bloodletting. And, with the still-possible exception of Tunisia, in every country it appeared this “spring” uniformly devolved into some combination of renewed dictatorship, civil war, and Islamist terror. 

It didn’t take long for it to become clear that these revolts, spreading through Islam’s traditional heartland, would meet an unhappy end. Take Egypt, which claims a central place in Arab culture (if no longer the political importance that it enjoyed in the days of Nasser) and gave the first signal that this uprising would be a pan-Arab affair. Egyptian society, choking on official corruption and stifled by military rule, was primed to challenge the iron grip of President Hosni Mubarak. Within months of Bouazizi’s self-immolation, Egyptians filled up Tahrir Square and swept Mubarak from power, voted the Muslim Brotherhood into office, and—rallying again in 2013 for a military seizure of power—aborted the democratic experiment. The upshot is an autocracy even more repressive than the one that galvanized weary Egyptians to reclaim their country in the first place. 

Much worse befell Libya and Yemen, which quickly became theaters of foreign intervention. The inhabitants of these fractured lands were caught between hideous despots and odious Islamist gangs. The resulting tribal and religious strife has been exacerbated and elongated by foreign powers, which were proficient in the terror and ruin they had perfected at home.

The greatest tragedy of all came in Syria. The regime of Bashar al-Assad greeted nonviolent protests with every manner of barbarism. It began in 2011, deliberately empowering jihadist outfits by releasing holy warriors from prison in a largely successful attempt to sully the opposition in the eyes of the West. It moved on to the repeated use of sarin gas against civilian populations, an atrocity matched in recent history only by Saddam Hussein. With heavy military assistance from Moscow and Tehran (and with the abstention of the free world), Assad was able to crush the democratic rebellion and lay waste to much of the country. 

In short, the animating spirit of the “Arab spring” has been forced into hibernation. Spring has turned to winter as Islamists and autocrats have the run of things. Ever since, there has been less talk among intellectuals and activists in Arab-Muslim lands of securing the blessings of liberty, and a sterner recognition of the immense risks of change. 

After a fleeting season of hope, despair has returned to nurture the pretensions of the ancien regime. “Realists” in distant lands have doubled down, proclaiming the resilience of Arab tyranny. In the American governing class, there is no longer any great sympathy with, let alone active encouragement for, liberal reform. The reactionary right has decided that America’s Enlightenment creed doesn’t apply to the Muslim Middle East; the progressive left is more critical of Middle Eastern tyrannies, with the glaring exceptions of Iran and the Palestinian territories, but has no interest in taking up a “freedom agenda” in Islamic lands. 

Whenever another set of Arab uprisings occurs—as one must soberly expect and devoutly hope they will—the salient questions will be twofold: What shape will they assume, and how will they fare? Arabs themselves will furnish the primary answers to these questions, but neither question is beyond the scope of American diplomacy. The reflexive Western disregard of liberty in the Middle East is by no means preordained by history. But if such a toxic mixture of condescension, cynicism, and complacency toward Arab self-determination persists, a key piece of the region’s rotten authoritarian stability will already be in place when the city squares again begin to fill up.

This would be a terrible missed opportunity, with harmful consequences for the region and, with it, the world order. As the scholar Fouad Ajami noted at the onset of this great Arab revolt, a political renaissance in these lands has been a mighty long time coming. “The Arab world,” Ajami wrote, “had grown morose and menacing, and the people ... hated the rulers and wished them ill, loathed the foreign patrons and backers of these rulers, and bands of jihadists, forged in the cruel prisons of these dreadful regimes, scattered about everywhere looking to kill and be killed.” That abysmal status quo will only be aggravated by the perpetuation of dictatorship, to the detriment of Western interests in a post-Pax Americana world.

In an Arab world turned upside down and then back again, the example of millions of people thronging the streets and struggling for freedom should not be forgotten, either by foreign observers or Arabs themselves. After history had seemed to pass them by, they rallied from one end of the Arab world to the other, no longer content to be serfs. The truncheons and rifles and bombs may have smothered and deformed the revolts, but have not restored the luster, much less the legitimacy, of dictatorship. 

The best hope for Arabs to escape their world’s debilitating problems—and for foreigners to emerge unscathed from their own encounters with the region—is to dispense with the illusion that the absence of participatory politics is natural or desirable for any people. Whatever the autocrats and their apologists say, democracy can be for the Arabs what it is for everyone else: the worst form of government except the others.

Brian Stewart is a political writer based in New York.