In a matter of weeks, long-ruling autocrat Hosni Mubarak stepped down and Tahrir Square erupted in ecstasy. Pro-democracy uprisings then flared in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. The Arab Spring was in full bloom.
Then came the fall. Ruinous conflicts triggered humanitarian disasters in Yemen, Syria and Libya and continue to smolder a decade later. Autocrats and political elites squelched dissent from Morocco to Bahrain. In Egypt, the brutal strongman regime of general-turned-President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi swept out the country’s fledgling, if flawed, democratically-elected government in 2013, ushering in a political climate even more hostile to dissent than under Mubarak. Tunisia remains the only country where democracy has consolidated and persevered after 2011, but the road has been bumpy.
“On the face of it, the Arab Spring failed, and spectacularly so — not only by failing to deliver political freedom but by further entrenching the rule of corrupt leaders more intent on their own survival than delivering reforms,” wrote my colleague Liz Sly. (Her piece, which also examines how poverty and inequity in many Arab countries have only deepened since, is the first in a series of Washington Post stories charting the aftermath of the uprisings.)
Analysts recall the optimistic days of 2011 as if peering back at a vanished world. “It’s been a lost decade,” said Tarik Yousef, director of the Brookings Doha Center, to Sly. “Now, we have the return of fear and intimidation. The region has experienced setbacks at every turn.”
The uprisings were waged in the streets and also streamed on Facebook and Twitter. They seemed to represent a dramatic turning point in history, the sudden collapse of regimes and political systems few expected to be so fragile. But the years since showed how much of the prevailing order endured.
“It appeared that decades happened in a few weeks in Tunisia and Egypt, and later in other countries when the tip of the ancient tyrannical pyramid was blown away,” wrote Hisham Melhem, a veteran Washington-based analyst of Middle East politics. “[Former Tunisian leader Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali, Mubarak, and others have gone, but the pyramid — more broadly the political, economic, and security structure and the cultural superstructures that supported these modern-day pharaohs and allowed them to torment their societies — is still intact.”
“After the despots fell, it became clear that decades of despotism had salted the earth,” wrote Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik. “There were no opposition parties to harness and guide political energy, no charismatic figures who had returned from exile or escaped imprisonment to galvanize political movements, and no room for political discourse because there was no media ecosystem or intellectual space that was healthy enough to resist capture by conspiracies and sectarianism.”
Outside actors played a role, too. The Obama administration is faulted for its inadequate support for the Arab world’s pro-democracy movements — be it in Syria, where they gave encouragement but limited support to the now-battered and mostly subdued opposition, or in Egypt, where they swiftly found accommodation with Sissi’s counterrevolution, or in Libya, where after militarily enabling the overthrow of the dictator Moammar Gaddafi, they could do little to guarantee the peace.
The leading agents of the Arab winter sat in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi: the monarchical Saudi and Emirati regimes loathed what the uprisings represented, feared potential threats to their own rule and viewed the political Islamism of some in the pro-democracy camp as an existential menace. They bankrolled Sissi’s putsch and lobbied hard in Washington. Former president Donald Trump was an eager ally, parroting the royals’ position that “stability” in the Middle East was paramount and democratic upheavals were a potential Trojan horse for Islamist takeovers.
Such logic often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “By destroying civil society, coopting institutions, repressing dissent, and blocking even incremental reform, authoritarians in the Arab World have created a trap in which political ruptures are the only path for change,” tweeted Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.
“It’s time to rethink the traditional approach to the Middle East, where it is believed that it’s either stability with a dictator or chaos if we allow democratic forces to try to undo a system,” Kim Ghattas, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told PRI’s The World. “It isn’t this terrible binary choice.”
There are signs that officials in Washington may want to work past that binary. On Monday, in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the democratic uprising that began in Tahrir Square, a handful of U.S. lawmakers launched what they dubbed the “Egypt Human Rights Caucus,” with the aim of galvanizing support in Washington to pressure the Sissi regime.
Top national security aides to President Biden have already publicly criticized Sissi’s government for its abuses; it’s difficult to imagine the Egyptian strongman winning multiple invitations to the White House as he did under Trump. But Biden has a full plate when it comes to Middle East policy and, while working to shore up Arab support in new negotiations with Iran, probably won’t want to rock the boat on other fronts.
All the while, the purported “stability” offered by Arab authoritarians is hardly that. In recent years, new uprisings in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq toppled governments and triggered processes toward political reform whose outcomes are far from certain.
What’s more clear are the root causes for the simmering discontent — massive youth unemployment, stagnating economies, endemic corruption and feckless political elites. “The status quo is untenable, and the next explosion will be catastrophic,” Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, told my colleagues. “We’re talking about starvation, we’re talking about state collapse, we’re talking about civil strife.”
But an exhaustion and disillusionment has also set in among would-be revolutionaries, hammered home by unflinching state repression. “The first time was a kind of miracle. People were fearless and the regime was weak,” a 26-year-old Egyptian photographer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear, told my colleagues. “But now everyone has lost hope.”