The Arab Spring and the continuing failure of governance across the region

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The Economist reports: It has become fashionable in some circles to ape Russia and Iran in blaming this failure [of the Arab Spring] on supposedly “naive” Western policymakers. Had Western powers not abandoned old allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak; had they not intervened in support of Libyan rebels; had they not presumed that the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was just another domino waiting to topple; had they not turned a blind eye to the danger of Islamist fanatics: then all would be well.

This is tosh [nonsense]. To frame the uprisings of 2011 as a sequence of isolated events, each of which had a unique and optimal policy response, is to deny the historical reality of what happened. Such hindsight belies the actual experience of seeing an entire region — and the world’s most politically torpid region, at that — whirl into sudden, synchronised motion. It also denies agency to the actors themselves: to the crowds whose cries of “Enough!” reached critical mass; to the paranoid rulers whose responses exacerbated the protests.

This is not to say that the events of 2011 had no precursors. Algeria’s Islamist uprising in 1991, two intifadas in Palestine, the “Independence revolution” that ousted Lebanon’s government in 2005, even the short-lived “Green revolution” in non-Arab but nearby Iran, all signalled the region’s desire for change. But the world’s democracies were, by and large, correct in judging that what they were seeing in 2011 was something broader, more potent and more difficult to steer than a set of national crises that happened to coincide. Nor were they naive to think that an empowered “Arab street” would seek to move its countries closer to global norms of good governance. That was the demand the demonstrators made in protest after protest, from the Gulf to the Atlantic.

The West’s naivety, which was shared — and paid for — by those hopeful demonstrators, lay in underestimating two things. One was the fragility of many Arab states, too weak in their institutions to withstand such ructions in the way that, say, South Africa did when apartheid fell. The other was the vicious determination with which established regimes would seek to retain or recapture control. Who could believe that a soft-spoken leader such as Mr Assad would prefer to destroy his country rather than leave his palace? Those were the truths that brought hope to the ground.

Just as the spring itself was more than just a set of national events, so the current period of counter-revolution is an international matter. Conservatives across the region have received powerful backing from the Gulf. One early and stark example of this was Bahrain, where the ruling family called on fellow Sunni monarchs to help it crush a pro-democracy movement championed by its Shia majority. Last year’s intervention in Yemen by a Saudi-sponsored coalition can be seen in the same light. The Saudis are seeking not only to thwart Houthi rebels, whose Iranian backing they revile. They are trying to force a return to the status quo.

The most internationalised conflict is the bitter civil war in Syria, where powers from the region and beyond contend through proxies. The war has long since metastasised into a monumental free-for-all involving dozens of belligerents. But it remains at its core a fight between aggrieved citizens and a narrowly based — and in Syria’s case largely sectarian — elite intent on keeping its hold on power.

In Egypt, a nation-state of longer standing and greater stability, the ancien régime’s fight has — again with help from the Gulf — been won, for now. Egypt has long been seen as the region’s bellwether, and for good reason. Over the past five years it has provided the Arab spring’s most revealing story of failure; today it highlights the degree to which the tensions persist that brought about the uprisings. [Continue reading…]

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