Even in its early glory days, many had doubts whether there ever was an Arab Spring. Others waited for a year to issue it the premature death certificate. Lately, the phrase Arab Spring has nearly disappeared from public discourse. Nowadays, there is hardly anyone who dares to speak positively about the Arab Spring any more. “What Arab Spring”, fumed a senior comparative scholar at a ‘Post Arab Spring’ workshop in Istanbul last week.
Four years later, the question often asked is: Has the Arab Spring failed? My short answer is a qualified ‘no’. The Arab Spring is an ongoing historical process and it is too early to declare it a failure and pronounce it dead. Despite the widespread scepticism, legitimate pessimism and the many obvious setbacks, the glass is still at least one quarter full. I have always spoken positively about the Arab Spring and will continue to do so now. Since day one I viewed the Arab Spring as a giant step forward in Arab history. It was inspirational for the Arabs and impressed the world with its suddenness and youthfulness. It injected some badly needed sense of hope in the terminally hopeless Arab world. The Arab Spring brought freedom to nearly 150 million Arabs in five Arab states which had enough of the highly corrupt one-man and one-party regimes. It also ended six long decades of political stagnation responsible for the vicious episodes in Arab history that were going from bad to worse to worst.
Conceptually, there was no better phrase to describe the revolutionary events of the year 2011 than “Arab spring”. All the other terms such as ‘Arab awakening’, ‘Arab renaissance’, ‘Arab uprising’ or ‘Arab revolt’ were not convincing. The term Arab Spring persisted for the past four years. Most likely, Arab Spring will stay with us for many years to come. It will surely go through phases of ups and downs, breakthroughs and setbacks, but the fact of the matter is that Arab Spring has already made its impact and has changed Arab politics beyond recognition.
All along, there was plenty of reason to make an optimistic argument for Arab Spring. It is only once in a while that four entrenched dictators get overthrown by the people in relatively peaceful revolutions.
Regardless of the pains and the gains associated with such a unique historical event, that fact alone was enough to speak positively of Arab Spring for eternity. It was finally time to celebrate the power of the people and the rebirth of the ‘Arab street’. There were free elections in four Arab states that had never had free polls. This was a spring that many had been waiting for. The youngest democracies in the world were born in the Arab world and the moment of Arab freedom was finally here. Arabs have reconciled with global history that emphasises democracy and freedom.
But even when Arab Spring lost its initial inspirational power, it was still credible to argue for the case of the glass being half full. Certainly, in its first year, the Arab Spring was fully blossomed and there was enough spring in the Arab Spring to feel optimistic. It was time to feel good and hopeful about the future. The moment called for optimism not pessimism. The Arabs, especially the young generation, were mighty proud to be Arabs.
Needlessly, as the Arab Spring went into its second and third year, it was time to reconcile with the hard truth that transition to democracy was proving to be much more difficult than originally expected. It is elementary to expect rough rides, difficult times and unexpected turns in transition to democracy. This is consistent with the historical record of universal transition to democracy. These should not have come as a surprise from an Arab Spring that has been so full of surprises.
In Tunisia — where the big bang of the Arab uprising started with Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation on December 17, 2010 — the transition to democracy is moving one step forward and then getting half a step backward. Tunisia is the brightest case of the Arab Spring so far. It has been three long years of tedious and meticulous political bargaining between Islamists and secularists who can hardly trust each other. But the political result, though not yet conclusive, can be graded as satisfactory.
It has been three years of a rough roller coaster for the Egyptian Spring. Egyptians of all walks of life were proud of their January 25, 2011, revolution, but many are rightly bewildered as to what to call the July 3, 2013, event: A second revolution or does it look like a full-fledged military coup? Some have been generous enough to call it a “democratic/popular coup”.
Yet, Egypt and Tunisia have fared much better than neighbouring oil-rich Libya. The Libyans accomplished nearly the impossible mission of toppling the 40-year-old Muammar Gaddafi regime. In less than a year, they had a euphoric historical election in July 2012. It was the first free election in more than 52 years of Libyan history. Since then, the promising new democratic Libya has started to fall apart. Suddenly, the third Arab Spring state is looking very confused — much to the dismay of most observers.
The revolution in the relatively poor, fragile and tribal Yemen was amazingly graceful and tenacious. Yemen has emerged as the unlikely Arab Spring role model. It had a successful national dialogue
that had just concluded what seems to be a peaceful and broad-based transition from despotism to democracy. They only drawback is that the new constitution calls for breaking up the once unified country into two or possibly six autonomous regions.
Syria, of course, is a heart-breaking case of the Arab Spring. It keeps drifting deeper and deeper into a full-fledged jihadists-turned-against-jihadists scenario. Syria is a tragic case of civil war within a civil war with no end in sight. The ruthless regime of President Bashar Al Assad is even ready for a comeback. The original fight for the noblest cause of freedom and dignity is not over yet, but unfortunately, by 2014, doom and gloom are writ large all over Syria.
Objectively, the scoreboard for the Arab Spring is a mixed one, but it does not call for a total-failure verdict. We may be in for more sweet-and-sour surprises as the Arab Spring goes into its fourth year. Arab Spring came as a sweet surprise, but is going through sour moments. It has been four full years of surprises and surprise indeed is the most constant feature of Arab Spring.
I have always maintained that we are still in the first 15 minutes of the hour and we should not give up on Arab Spring. There is still a tiny bit of spring left in Arab Spring.
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is professor of Political Science. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE