A year and a half since it occurred, it might make sense to describe the hopefully labelled “Arab Spring” of December 2010 as little more than a brief winter of discontent. From Tunisia, where it all started with the suicide of a fruit seller, through Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Syria and the Emirates, it would be difficult to find a civil rights protestor satisfied with the outcome of those globally televised protests. If anything, the region has become even more radicalised and minorities more vulnerable than ever before. North Africa and West Asia remain a long way from the civil rights and prosperity for which people took to the streets.
True, people have had the satisfaction of seeing dictators overthrown in a host of countries — Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. But the alternatives cannot be considered wholly desirable. As worryingly, hopes that moderate Islam would triumph the extremism that has convulsed global security for over a decade have been dampened. Tunisia has seen the deepest of the changes, with citizens voting for a constituent assembly to prepare a new constitution. The fact that the Assembly is dominated by a moderate Islamist party has not helped; the country has been convulsed by riots by Salafist fundamentalists for the past six months. In Egypt, popular unrest may have ended the ailing Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years in power. But Cairo’s Tahrir Square is filling up again as the country awaits the results of its first freely contested elections. Those results stand postponed amid a welter of protests from a now moderate Muslim Brotherhood and a former prime minister alleging foul play. Their suspicions may not be ill-founded, given the interim military council’s attempts to strengthen its hold on power. Oil-rich Libya may have celebrated the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi with Nato help. But the fierce infighting between competing militia has done little to achieve the aims of democracy and peace for which they ostensibly overthrew the dictator. National elections have been postponed. In Syria, the Arab Spring uncorked old Shia-Sunni rivalries and the Bashar Al-Assad government has shown little compunction in using state force against its own people — children included.
The disillusionment with the Arab Spring suggests that few lessons have been learnt from history. Popular protests in the region are not new — a similar contagion occurred in 1919 inspired by then US President Woodrow Wilson’s famous 14-point programme for world peace. With similar results. Scarred by Cold War and resource politics and ceaseless foreign meddling, many former colonial properties in West Asia and North Africa have not developed vibrant civil societies and democratic institutions that can serve as supporting structures for the rules and governance that form the bedrock of a stable polity. The region’s experience contrasts sharply with the manner in which the former European colonies of East Asia metamorphosed from oppressed, divided polities into today’s tigers. Their governments may have been authoritarian (and corrupt) but it was the delivery of progress to their people, by way of health, education and economic growth, that kept them in power. So Tahrir Square may have become the symbol of the Arab Spring. But the similarities to the outcomes of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the Prague Spring in 1968 are hard to ignore.