The Arab Spring One Year Later: A Story of Progress

ByNathan Lean

No one said it would be easy. Or bloodless. Few revolutions of seismic proportion have been, and the Arab Spring, or as others have begrudgingly called it, the “Arab winter of discontent,” is no exception. One year later, the political earthquakes that ripped from the streets of Tunis to the crowded avenues of Bahrain have left many with a sour taste in their mouths. Furled brows evidence worry among some that the toppling of tyranny was anticlimactic — that the revolutions played out as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “not with a bang but a whimper.” How dare the U.S. and its European allies assert their influence in a region already tangled in turmoil, others say. And for fear-merchants of the right, the success of Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco marks the end of religious freedom and the rise of the great “green peril.”

Of course, these narratives, spun much like a top throughout the news media, have only perpetuated the very story that revolutionaries in North Africa and the Middle East set out to correct in the first place: Theirs is a destiny that shouldn’t be constructed or commented into shape by naysayers anyways. One year later, what has come from this beautiful mess? Quite a lot, actually.

First, down goes the meme that Arabs hate freedom. Or that Islam is incompatible with democracy. The tired stereotypes fell the minute President Ben Ali fled Tunisia. And despite the fact that Islamist groups have emerged as the victors, the underlying drivers of these historic demonstrations were not tinged with religious ideology. Rather, rising food prices, high unemployment rates, and widespread corruption fueled the protests and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia’s Al-Nahda, and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party did the groundwork to ensure that those issues — not a domineering religious mandate — were at the fore of their campaigns. If the citizenry in these countries believe that these groups offer the best way forward, so be it. They deserve the vote. America does not have the best track record when it comes to choosing rulers of the Middle East. Besides that, we should not be choosing to begin with.

And how about NATO? For all the missteps of the Obama administration during the dawn of the Arab Spring (ahem, Madam Clinton, but Mr. Mubarak is most certainly not a “stable ally”), the case of Libya seemed to evoke quite a different tenor. Seven months after their decision to spur the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, the United States and its European allies ended an operation that did precisely what it was intended to do. It was, in fact, the first time that such a thing has happened so effectively. Sure, there was a heavy civilian death toll, but such is always the case in these types of “no boots on the ground” interventions; foreign policy is an ugly beast for sure. At the end of the day, Gaddafi — arguably among the most brutal of the Arab dictators — was forced to go on the run which resulted in his capture, not by NATO forces, not by Western troops, but by his compatriots.

Let us not forget either that the United States has been forced to reconcile the great paradox of American politics — the strong, undemocratic hands Washington supported (and paid) in the Middle East for years were forced out by citizens who were not blind to the obvious hypocrisy dealt to them by the “land of the free.” Saudi Arabia being one obvious exception, it will be difficult for the United States to revert to such policies, namely because dictators in the Middle East will be a thing of the past.

Though authors like Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder suggest that nationalistic rhetoric of elite rulers during times of transitions is meaningless and that movements from autocracy to democracy are more likely to produce violence (perhaps we are seeing that now in Syria), they, like many, fall into the trap of setting the time-table for such transitions far too low. Here we are, one year later, asking for answers much like we were one week after the revolutions started. Now it is, as it was then, still too soon to know everything. And why should we expect to fix decades of problems in 52 short weeks? The United States Constitution — the backbone of governmental stability — was not even ratified until 11 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Is it uncomfortable to deal with leaders whose politics you can entice with a payout? Yes. Is it unnerving to watch groups with little track record of governance suddenly climbing the ladders of power? For sure. Is it natural to fear that the Egyptian military or Syria’s leadership will stifle what good has been done? Perhaps. Is it right to dismiss what has been accomplished in the Middle East thus far simply because our fast food eating, 140-character typing, sound byte world wants a quick fix? Categorically no.

What we have seen are populations that won’t back down. And when they rise up in opposition to the rigid structures that stifle them, we — regardless of our nationality or political persuasion or hopes for immediate answers — should stand with them, shoulder to shoulder. As John Esposito, professor of Islamic studies and international relations at Georgetown University, one wrote here at PolicyMic, “let's walk the way we have talked.”

Photo Credit: Saleem Homsi