Why the Arab Spring ended in a cruel winter: Sarah Whitson

Many experts and commentators have written in recent months, with the benefit of hindsight, about the errors, shortcomings, and near total failures of the unprecedented revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa that erupted 10 years ago.

But what has largely been missing from these analyses is an examination of how future battles for freedom and democracy might be more successfully waged.

In many ways, the strengths of the uprisings were also their weaknesses, and each weakness their strength. The revolutionaries of Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and even Tunisia are judged as having been unprepared, ill-equipped, and without strategy, not only for toppling tyrants, but for preventing the ensuing civil wars and foreign meddling, or governing well where they gained power. 

In reality, the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings would not have occurred at all without their core features as unplanned, disorganized, and decentralized movements. If they had been otherwise, their governments would have detected and crushed them before they could emerge. Their lack of preparation to negotiate and govern was not by accident, but by design of decades of repression that kept civil society fragmented and weak. 

The Arab uprisings’ breakthrough was in essence what motivated them. Unlike prior regional revolutions  in the 19th and 20th centuries, the 2011 protests were not about Arab nationalists battling imperialism, occupation, or the wrongs of the foreign other, but instead about Arab citizens of individual nations rising up and demanding their freedom and rights against homegrown malignant rulers.

With regional governments and global superpowers backing dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa, however, the fight of one nation’s people alone against their government was not enough to secure victory. The Syrian people weren’t just battling the Assad government, Egyptians weren’t just up against Mubarak, and so on. In each case, the Arab revolutionary masses confronted allied forces of powerful states — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Russia, most prominently among them — determined to crush their revolutions.  

As a result, the strength of the Arab uprisings as national movements also became their weakness. The revolutionaries didn’t form transnational popular alliances as a counterweight to the counter-revolutionary ancien regime forces at home and abroad. The anti-imperial, anti-colonialist national revolutions of the prior century were successful because of their ability to form strong, new, cross-border coalitions to support their national resistances, including the Non-Aligned Movement, which became, for a time, a global force in its own right. By the time of the Arab Spring, the pan-Arab nationalist movements were dead, and third world solidarity movements long faded. 

Each country’s band of revolutionary citizens was on its own. They may have inspired each other, and generated hope and acclaim across the world. But they were unable to find meaningful transnational support for their democratic aspirations as they came under attack, and certainly not from democratic Western governments. In the worst cases, faced with overwhelming government violence, they allowed foreign military intervention to transform their peaceful civil uprisings into unrecognizable proxy wars that had nothing to do with democracy or human rights, such as in Syria and Libya.

It’s no accident that dictators in countries with only small uprisings perceived democratic Islamism, and the Muslim Brotherhood movement in particular, as the most important threat to their own security and survival. The Brotherhood was the only transnational movement with ideological support and adherents in every country in the region that could potentially serve as a unifying base of cross-regional support to revolutionaries.

This is why Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers throughout the region — though they played no leading role in any single country’s revolution — paid and continue to pay such a high price for the Arab Uprisings. They have been labeled as “terrorists,” hunted and persecuted, jailed, tortured, gunned down, executed, and even massacred en masse.

The Muslim Brotherhood inspired fear not just among the dictators of course, but among the more secular elites, whose initial and tentative support faded amidst the messy growing pains of democracy. The support of this critical segment of society, as well as their allies in foreign policy circles abroad, and their commitment to democracy apparently depended on elections that produced no Islamist victories. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Egypt, where secular, erstwhile freedom-loving supporters of Egypt’s revolution backed the military coup against Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi. 

There was no real record of human rights abuses to cite for their opposition to Morsi, of course. Instead, secular elites in Egypt relied on the bogeymen of what Morsi and the Brotherhood might do, one day in the future. Their imagined fear, shared by Western governments, of what might happen loomed much larger in their minds than the actual brutality and oppression of decades of military generals ruling Egypt, and probably looms larger still than the reality of the nightmare military dictatorship ruling the country today.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration found itself in its typical hand-wringing mode, supporting the cause of the Arab revolutionaries, but unwilling to break with its apparently unshakeable policies of arming and protecting the region’s unelected tyrants. It wasn’t until the last, inevitable moments of Egypt’s revolution that the U.S. realized the time to stand by Mubarak had come to an end. They did nothing to support the anxiety-provoking Islamist Morsi government, and looked the other way during the military coup that toppled it. And despite a nano-second weapons freeze following the Rabaa Massacre, they quickly transitioned into business as usual, Kerry assuring us that Sissi was “restoring democracy” to ensure renewed weapons transfers.

Washington responded to the Arab uprisings in the worst possible way with military interventions, ostensibly in support of protesters, but conveniently targeting nemesis governments in Libya and Syria. As the death toll in Syria climbed, American debates about the entire region morphed into a single question: whether Obama would expand America’s intervention in Syria from arming proxy forces to direct bombardment of the Syrian government. The U.S. is still fighting another long-running Arab Spring war in Yemen, supporting the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their mission to “restore” the Hadi presidency. Talk of Arab democracy was supplanted with the handy red flags of Iran, Islamism, and extremism.

The challenges for the revolutionaries to come —  as the people of Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, and Sudan have reminded us over the past year — will be greater than what the brave Arab men and women faced a decade ago. Mass surveillance fueled by Western technologies and internet, along with information and social media controls, make even impromptu organizing by nascent democratic forces much more difficult and dangerous. With all the hacking by intelligence services, sudden or unpredictable uprisings seem even less likely. Moreover, the region’s current tyrants have learned from the mistakes of the past and have tried to eliminate any vestige of civil society, lest new popular movements of resistance emerge. 

And yet democratic seeds have been planted. Millions of political exiles from the uprisings are today the only independent civil society voices of the Arab world, who may be able to provide the foundation for a transnational movement that collectively presses for democracy in the region. Indeed, the most brutal of Arab rulers understand the power of these exiles, and they fear it.  Look no further than the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul for proof of that fear. Perhaps these rulers also understand that immutable law of nature: try as you might, you can’t extinguish the Spring. It will always return.

*By: Sarah Leah Whitson, an American lawyer, current executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), and former director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. (The article was first published on Responsible Statecraft on 3 February 2021)