The past few months have brought despair to millions of Arabs as they’ve watched the rapid and seemingly definitive restoration of an old, dictatorial order throughout a region that was not long ago full of promise. The end of the Arab Spring has been forecast many times already. Now the last stubborn buds have been crushed.
Tunisia, the country that started the wave of democratic uprisings in December 2010, served for more than a decade as a model for other states contemplating the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Now it’s sliding back toward autocracy, with President Kais Saied, elected in 2019, appearing to outdo the country’s previous dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in repression. Since assuming office, Saied has imposed an emergency regime, suspended parliament, and rewritten the country’s constitution. In recent months, he’s taken to cracking down on any whiff of criticism of his rule by arresting journalists and union and political leaders.
Sudan renewed hopes for a democratic wave when a year-long movement of protest, led mostly by women, brought an end to the two-decades-long dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. A 22-year-old woman named Alaa Salah, standing atop a car, dressed in white with large gold earrings and leading men in a chant about freedom, became the image of that democratic revolution. But last month, two of the generals who helped remove Bashir went to war against each other in an all-out battle for control of Khartoum. The conflict has already killed more than 500 people and led tens of thousands to flee the capital, with no end in sight.
Then there is Syria, whose revolution was the bloodiest of them all. For 10 years, world leaders shunned President Bashar al-Assad for his ruthless repression of what began as a peaceful uprising in March 2011 and became a bloodbath in which 500,000 Syrians were killed, an estimated 90 percent of them by Assad’s regime and its allies, Iran and Russia. Assad, who also used chemical weapons against his people, has now come in from the cold, at least in the Arab world. His neighbors have turned to him for help resolving a host of problems that he himself created, such as huge outflows of refugees and a lucrative trade in a highly addictive synthetic amphetamine called captagon, produced in Syria under the control of the Assad family.
Successive American administrations have treated the Middle East as a lost cause, a place to fix by force or to ignore. Former President Barack Obama described strife in the region as “rooted in conflict dating back millennia,” suggesting that it was an inevitable and eternal condition. Such an approach risks blinding Washington to the region’s place in the bigger global story that the current U.S. president, Joe Biden, likes to speak of as a worldwide contest between democratic and autocratic forces. In the Middle East, the autocratic side is making a strong comeback. What happens there will have ramifications for the West, whether in the war in Ukraine or the standoff with Iran.
The sight of Assad walking the red carpet to the Arab League meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last month was particularly troubling—not only because he should instead be standing trial at an international tribunal but also because of what this moment signaled beyond Syria’s borders. The Syrian dictator is still standing in large part because of Vladimir Putin’s 2015 military intervention in Syria to shore up the regime. At the time, Washington reacted with relative indifference, if not satisfaction: Syria was going to be someone else’s problem. Russia might even sink into a quagmire there. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself recently highlighted this view as a gross miscalculation by the West.
“The people of Syria received no adequate international protection, and this gave the Kremlin and its accomplices a sense of impunity,” Zelensky said in a speech this March. “Russian bombs were destroying Syrian cities in the same way as they are our Ukrainian cities. It is in this impunity that a significant part of the Kremlin’s current aggressiveness lies.”
Arab officials who have met Assad recently say he has shown neither remorse nor any willingness to compromise. He feels vindicated, and his sense of victory will give comfort to Russia and to Iran, which is assisting Putin with drones and other military support in his war against Ukraine. So far, the Biden administration has adopted a mostly laissez-faire attitude to Assad’s return to the Arab fold.
Western countries share the blame for the failures in Syria, Sudan, and Tunisia. They have repeatedly made shortsighted policy choices that have contributed to the region’s return to authoritarianism and made it a more receptive place for both human-rights abusers and the West’s strategic adversaries. In Sudan, the U.S. and other countries focused their efforts on mediating between the two warring generals, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. As the former State Department official Jeffrey Feltman wrote in a scathing opinion piece in The Washington Post: “We reflexively appeased and accommodated the two warlords. We considered ourselves pragmatic. Hindsight suggests wishful thinking to be a more accurate description.”
The same could be said of Washington’s dealings with other strongmen in the region, including Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who has reportedly explored the possibility of supplying Russia with military hardware), or of the European Union’s dealings with Saied in Tunisia. European leaders tiptoed around Saied, counting on him to help stem the flow of refugees from Africa to Europe. Instead, he has pushed more people to flee across the Mediterranean with his far-right, xenophobic positions on migrants and Africans, even while his economic policies are leading Tunisia into crisis.
The stability such leaders provide has always been illusory and temporary. The eruption of mass protests around the Middle East in 2011, deposing such friends of the West as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, proved as much: The oppression required to keep the lid on disaffected populations was unsustainable then and remains so today. In Egypt, Sisi’s reckless spending on fanciful megalomaniac cities in the desert and other vanity projects, combined with corruption and inefficiency, have brought the country close to default. Government officials glibly advise Egyptian people to eat chicken feet if they can’t afford chicken, while the regime holds some 60,000 political detainees in prison. Even in the Gulf, which is enjoying an oil boom, discontent can’t be silenced forever: Youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia has come down but still sits just below 30 percent, and unemployment in the UAE has also become a major concern.
So what now for the aspirations of millions of Arabs, who once demanded the fall of their regimes? Even just two years ago, they still had some momentum—in Sudan, but also in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, where a new cohort of activists applied the lessons of 2011 and got organized to run for elections. Their efforts amounted to little or were violently quashed, leaving no clear path forward for a renewed push for democracy in the Arab world.
Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian diplomat and a longtime champion of pluralism and reform in the region, refuses to accept that the journey has come to an end. “You cannot judge the process by the first or second wave of failure,” he told me.
Muasher likened the Arab revolutions to other revolutions, including the French one of 1789, which went through several stages: the restoration of the monarchy, more revolution, a first unstable version of a parliamentary republic, and the ultimate establishment of the Fourth Republic after World War II. The interregnum may be messy in the contemporary Middle East, Muasher suggests, but transformation will not take a century in these rapidly changing societies: “The old Arab order that relies solely on brute force is dead, and the riches from the oil surge are a short-term remedy.” Most important, he says, people are no longer afraid.
In Tunisia, Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, Tunisia’s largest political party, and one of the region’s most influential and progressive thinkers on political Islam, has also been taking the long view. He spent years in prison in Tunis during the 1980s, followed by decades in exile in the United Kingdom. After the 2011 revolution, Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia and entered politics. In 2016, he wrote a landmark essay in Foreign Affairs in which he argued that democracy was the best, or the least bad, system available and was compatible with Islam. He urged fellow Muslims to reject the term Islamist and adopt Muslim democrat instead.
“The cure for failed democracy is more democracy,” Ghannouchi told The New Yorker in 2013, when hundreds of people were killed for protesting a coup in Egypt. In a video recorded just before his arrest, he urged patience: “Trust in yourselves, trust in God, trust the principles of your revolution; democracy is not a passing thing in Tunis, it is a transformation that will also bring light to the rest of the Arab world.”
The demands of the Arab Spring are also not a passing thing. Millions of young people across the Middle East still yearn for justice, dignity, the rule of law, good governance, and jobs. When Washington sounds the themes of democratic struggle against autocratic forces around the globe while mostly ignoring the abuses in the region, not only do its words sound hollow but the contradiction undermines the whole effort. No one wants a return to the bombastic freedom agenda of the George W. Bush administration, but the Biden administration should rethink how the Middle East fits into the broader struggle to counter authoritarianism. The Middle East’s new autocratic order may seem convenient for the U.S. right now, but the people’s silence is only temporary.
Source: The Atlantic
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