Has the Arab Spring Failed?
By Nayyer Ali MD
A little over two years ago the political gridlock of dictators and kings that had sat upon the Arab nations for 60 years finally broke free. A peaceful uprising in Tunisia quickly overthrew the secular dictator and opened the door to democracy. Within weeks, the Tunisian example inspired similar uprisings across the Arab world.
The most earthshaking was the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt after weeks of public protests. Libya revolted against Gadafi, but he fought back viciously with his mercenaries, until NATO airpower gave the rebels the needed edge to demolish his regime by the summer. In Yemen, President Saleh held on for months and barely survived an assassination attempt, until he too relinquished power.
The monarchies of Morocco and Jordan made internal reforms but managed to avoid massive upheaval and have held their political system mostly in place. The oil states of the Gulf have the money to buy off their population and were also able to keep the citizens in line, except in Bahrain, where a harsh crackdown stopped the popular demonstrations in favor of democracy. Bahrain was complicated by a Sunni monarch allied with the Saudis facing off against a majority Shia population, and the Saudis clearly would not tolerate a Shia takeover in Bahrain.
That left Syria, which has lived under a harsh secret police regime of Hafez Assad since 1970 followed by his son for the last 10 years. The Assad regime felt immune to the Arab Spring as it was harshly anti-Israel and anti-American. But in reality, the Syrians wanted the same thing as the people of Libya or Egypt. They wanted to live in a normal country, where they could choose their government, get justice, and speak freely. Syria though is a divided society, with the Assad regime based in the minority Alawite sect, while 70% of the population is Sunni. Assad responded to demonstrations with force and violence, and what could have been a peaceful change has now turned into a vicious and sectarian civil war that has killed 60,000 people and devastated Syria. The only end game is the slow destruction of the Assad regime, while the most successful rebel groups are highly conservative Sunni militias backed by Saudi Arabia, some of which are Salafists. This does not bode well for creating a state that provides equality for all, whether Sunni or Shia or Alawi or Christian or Kurd or Armenian.
In Egypt and Tunisia there has been a very tumultuous struggle between secular forces and religious forces represented by the Muslim Brotherhood or similar Islamist-style groups. Tunisia recently had a major secular leader assassinated, throwing the government into crisis. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has captured the government, but they are having a hard time governing effectively, and the economy remains very weak. Secular forces continue to demonstrate against President Morsi, who mistakenly pushed through a constitution that did not safeguard religious and personal freedom.
So should this chaotic picture cause despair? Should we conclude the Arab Spring was no spring, but just another step backward? What will history make of the massive events of the last two years?
The Arab Spring is very real. To destroy the old system was the critical first step for the Arab nations to enter the modern world. This group of 22 countries was remarkable for how they had avoided democracy. Islam cannot take the blame for that, most non-Arab Muslim countries are democratic, from Indonesia to Pakistan to Turkey. Now the winds of democracy are blowing through the entire Arab world, and given the demographic and cultural dominance of Egypt it is a matter of time before democracy becomes the norm, even in the petro-states. But all these nations are going to go through a very messy and difficult period of learning how democracy works. Winning an election does not make you dictator for four years. Many of the Islamist parties admire the “Turkish model”, but they have a lot to learn about how secular Turkey is, and how even the Turkish Islamist party that is in power, is committed to a secular state.
When the US won its Revolutionary War against Britain in 1781, it began a six-year experiment in how to self-govern. That experiment was failing, and the US then drew up a much stronger central government and wrote a new Constitution that was drawn up in 1787 and went into effect in 1789, 13 years after the Fourth of July, 1776. It took the US a while to figure things out; the Arabs are just getting started, and the whole world gets to watch this messy process day by day. But there is no going back to the old system. In the end, the will of the people will decide what happens. Syria will join them by 2014, and the Gulf States in the next decade. By 2030, the Arab world will contain a group of successful democratic nations, very different from what existed in 2000, or the painful transition of this decade.