Democracy was the key word during the Arab Spring demonstrations of 2011. Rather than violent uprisings, they were protests calling for free elections, parliaments and, more generally, a stake in society for millions kept alienated and impoverished. Young people were at the forefront of this largely peaceful movement, which wanted those governing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to adapt to a changing world; in most cases this meant stepping down from power. So it was that the aspirations of ordinary people were placed on the global agenda, and dictators fell.
The primary lesson we have learned in the three years since is that, once challenged, autocracy does not yield quietly to justice and representative government. Burgeoning pro-democracy movements have been usurped by the kind of authoritarians who have oppressed Arabs for generations. Democracy has, in most cases, evaporated as quickly as it emerged.
At the extreme end of the violence curve are bloodbaths in countries like Syria and Libya. The civil war in the former is an absolute catastrophe. Restrained demonstrations against President Bashar Al-Assad’s government early in 2011 were met with a military response by the regime and progressed into an armed rebellion and then into a conflict characterised by the use of chemical weapons. To date the war has claimed up to 200,000 lives, with tens of thousands more made homeless, creating the worst refugee crisis this century. ISIS, the self-styled “Islamic State”, now controls large swathes of Syria, just as it is enforcing its medieval barbarism on Iraq, beheading and crucifying people with apparent impunity.
ISIS now threatens to provoke all-out war in the region, as Western states and their Arab allies launch bombing raids on the Islamic extremists’ formidable forces. Those taking part in the aerial assaults include countries which just three years ago helped to blast Colonel Muammar Gaddafi out of oil-rich Libya. Now the natural resources of Libya are being fought over by armed vigilantes, as a once burgeoning economy is decimated by constant violence. Those in charge in Tripoli are at present far closer to ISIS than to countries like France, Britain and America.
Egypt, historically the anchor of the Arab World, and a country which was viewed widely as the epicentre of the Arab Spring, is also wracked by in-fighting. For those of us who stood in Tahrir Square at the height of the Arab Spring and followed the progress of the revolution at first hand, it is now a hugely sinister country.
It was just over a year ago, on 3 July 2013, that a military coup toppled Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically-elected president. There has since been an unprecedented crackdown on political dissent. Beyond mass murder, thousands of pro-democracy protesters have been arrested and tortured, and the figures are rising all the time. Dissidents have disappeared without trace.
More women have been arrested since the coup than at any other point in Egypt’s modern history. In one incident alone, 37 female students from Al-Azhar University were imprisoned after they boycotted final exams in protest at the military takeover. Many have been subjected to torture while in custody, in addition to being sexually harassed and assaulted.
For any journalist who has worked in Egypt, it is particularly shocking to see the authorities clamping down on those trying to expose the truth. Some 166 people working in the media have been arrested by the coup government; newspapers and satellite TV channels have been shut-down without legal justification.
Economically, there has been no improvement at all. More than a quarter of the Egyptian population is now officially living below the poverty line, as the prices of basics such as food and petrol get ever higher. As Morsi languishes in a prison awaiting trial, his successor, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, continues to deliver his own form of “democracy” at gunpoint.
These economic problems are replicated in many MENA states. Oil production in Libya is down almost 90 per cent, while countries like Tunisia are dependent on international aid and poverty rates are spiralling across the region.
Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator toppled in 2011 and now in prison, was, like Al-Sisi, a former military man. Both personify the brute force which continues to hold so much of MENA together in 2014.
Violent extremists have taken advantage of the chaos everywhere. Tunisia, at the centre of the civil resistance known as the “Jasmine Revolution” which saw Zine El Abedine Ben Ali deposed in 2011, has suffered numerous terror attacks by Al-Qaeda affiliated groups. The north of Yemen, which has been as turbulent as ever despite its pro-democracy movement, has been the scene of fierce fighting between government troops and Iran-backed Houthi rebels. American drones “police” the country day and night, the surest sign of a state which the West cannot trust.
Colonialism persists in all but name, with the Western-backed occupation of Palestine remaining as brutal as ever. Illegal settlements continue to grow on the West Bank, while this summer saw another murderous campaign launched by Israel against the civilians of the Gaza Strip. More than 2,100 people, most of them civilians and including hundreds of women and children, were slaughtered while a largely ineffective defensive campaign was carried out by Hamas and other resistance groups. The Islamic Resistance Movement was using unreliable, often home-made rockets, most of which were neutralised by Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defence system. The thousands of innocents killed, maimed and made homeless by Israel’s army, navy and air force assaults were mainly unarmed.
There is no democracy in oppression, and the continuing injustice in Palestine sums up the lot of millions of Arabs in the world. Powerful Western leaders have been, for years, prepared to back any “strong man” who ensured stability in the region and thus protected Western interests, the most important of which is the state of Israel. When such despots were threatened during the Arab Spring, America and major European powers switched allegiances in line with whoever looked likely to win power. Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Gaddafi in Libya; all were, at one stage or another, viewed as useful to the West and were embraced as allies. Even Al-Assad, who last year was considered an international pariah for the way he was murdering his own people, is now a crucial power player in the coalition against ISIS.
The narrative is always the same: support a compliant dictator for as long as possible, allow him to be replaced if necessary, and then stand back and do nothing when the new autocracy emerges. America and its powerful allies currently see the biggest threat to their interests to be radical Islam, and yet they pour weapons into Saudi Arabia, the most extreme, radical Islamist state which is spreading its Wahhabi-Salafist doctrines throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
The Arab Spring was crucial because it highlighted the cynicism and inconsistency of the West, while also drawing attention to the problems of an area blighted by a range of endemic problems including economic inequality and human rights violations. The pro-democracy movements were never going to solve these issues, but at least the global community is now talking about them. What we have learned beyond doubt over the past three years, however, is that the ruthless pragmatism of power politics and economic self-interest has, in the short term at least, triumphed over the people’s revolutions.
Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist, columnist, and broadcaster who specialises in French politics, Islamic affairs, and the Arab World.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.