Editor’s Note: Three years ago this month, mass protest movements overthrew autocratic, pro-Western regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, igniting further protests across the Middle East. Dubbed the “Arab Spring,” this series of popular uprisings raised great expectations for the future of the region’s 400 million inhabitants. These days hope is in scarce supply, according to veteran Middle East correspondent David Enders.
The first time I heard the term “spring” used to invoke hope for change in the Arab world was when Bashar Assad ascended the Syrian throne in 2000 upon the death of his father, Hafez. A few years later it was well established the younger Assad’s expected reforms had succeeded only in turning Syria into an even less socially and economically equitable state — the powder keg that has now exploded so violently. So you’ll excuse me for being less than optimistic when the term “Arab Spring” gained widespread usage in 2011. Rather than being his country’s savior, Bashar Assad has killed more people in less time than his father and pursued a zero-sum strategy that may well leave the country fragmented. His manipulation of both a peaceful protest movement and extremist fighters who eventually became major players within the opposition has been brutal, but nothing short of a full-on endorsement of the politics that have ruled Syria for decades. The moment people began to demand the end of the regime, it was hard to imagine an outcome that didn’t involve violence. But while Syria is the bloodiest example of a movement that was initially built around peaceful protest, it’s hard to call much of what has happened a success.
The debate over Syria — and much of the Arab Spring — has been clouded by a lack of understanding of the countries in question from the beginning.
Egypt has now turned a full 360 degrees, from the overthrow of a dictator to the creation of one. Along the way the police state that was modern Egypt never actually disappeared, and when threatened, it quietly outflanked the country’s newly elected leaders, staged a coup and killed more people in a single day than any government in the country’s history. They remain full-fledged allies of the United States. The military coup that deposed the elected Muslim Brotherhood government was indeed supported by many Egyptians, in large part because of the rhetoric and actions of the Muslim Brotherhood once they were in power. But the crackdown that has followed the military coup, whether tacitly or loudly supported by many of the same activists who were once darlings of the West, has been expanding to include not just the Brotherhood but journalists and the very same pro-democracy activists who helped organize against Mubarak.
If there is any doubt about what has taken place, it is now likely that the general who led the coup will run for president, after Egyptians approved a referendum on a new constitution — one that guarantees the country’s military rulers protection. After elections in which outcomes were anything but assured, the new constitutional referendum (the country’s third since former president Hosni Mubarak was deposed in 2011) was written off by observers as a foregone conclusion. The government had already arrested opponents who urged a “no” vote on the documents.
Many of the more patient among us are fond of saying things like “revolutions take time” and pointing out that the people of France or the United States, for example, did not overthrow their oppressors in a fortnight. But Egypt’s pro-democracy revolution is not a work in progress. It looks like a movement that has been stopped dead — in many cases, quite literally — in its tracks.
Libya, despite early pledges of strong international support for rebuilding the country, suffers from a power vacuum in which ordinary people are exposed to the whims of vigilantes and criminals while those with federalist ambitions have gone so far as to shut down much of the country’s oil production, crippling the government.
Across the Middle East there is a common element of these countries’ current elites struggling to maintain control of the machinery of states, militaries and economies. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood also represented a long-struggling middle class and underclass that has long been forcibly silenced or co-opted by Egypt’s military rulers.
Glimmer of Hope
There is reason to hope — Tunisia’s new constitution, unlike Egypt’s, is being hailed as the most progressive in the region. But even that country is still struggling to address the root causes of its revolution. The neighborhood of Sidi Bouzeid, where a fruit vendor set himself on fire after one too many shakedowns by local police and launched a revolution, remains as impoverished as it was three years ago.
From an international standpoint, such events can be vexing and confusing. It also lays bare what the United States considers core interests in the region — Egypt’s military rulers did not face a serious threat of the cutoff of military aid, and in fact continued to receive such aid from the United States despite the crackdown. Proponents of intervention in Syria claim that the United States could have significantly affected events there, though it is uncertain whether that is the case. What is certain is that we are not meeting the demand for humanitarian aid.
For me, the entirety of the “Arab Spring” has come to be summed up in a few moments. One was in northern Syria, in May of last year. I was traveling with a group of fighters I had spent time with periodically over the course of a year during which they moved from having an arsenal of rifles and homemade bombs to being a highly organized and mobile fighting force with dozens of vehicles, including tanks and rocket batteries, fully capable of coordinated offensives against Syrian military installations. On my last trip in Syria I accompanied them on one such operation against a military airport. The operation itself had been declared in retribution for the slaughter of Sunni co-religionists by government forces in another province a few days prior.
One of the young fighters — he hadn’t yet graduated from high school — manned an anti-aircraft rifle as a Syrian air force jet dove and fired, targeting him directly. From the house where I had taken cover with other fighters I watched as the young man spun round to face the jet, turned the gun toward the sky and returned fire. If he was scared, it didn’t show.
Was he a liberated man? Certainly. But he was also fighting for his life. It had long since ceased to be about democracy, now it was about communities under siege and grievances that spanned generations. The nonviolent activists I knew had long since fled the country.
David Enders is a producer at Al Jazeera America’s Fault Lines. He was previously McClatchy Newspapers’ Syria bureau chief and is the author of Baghdad Bulletin, available from University of Michigan Press.
Fault Lines airs on Al Jazeera America Fridays at 9:30pm, Sundays at 7pm and online here.