The News
Saturday 22 of June 2024

The Spring that Turned to Winter

Protests in Yemen, April 4, 2011,photo: Wikipedia
Protests in Yemen, April 4, 2011,photo: Wikipedia
The so-called Arab Spring collapsed into a bleak and treacherous frost of bloodshed and brutality for most of the region

It will have been a full six years tomorrow since the start of the Tunisian Revolution of civil uprisings that would spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East and come to be known as the Arab Spring.

The revolutionary wave of violent and nonviolent protests began on Dec. 17, 2010, with a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid setting himself on fire in an act of desperation after having been intimidated by a policewoman who tried to expropriate his cart.

The anger soon spread throughout the volatile Arab World, with rife demonstrations, protests, riots, coups and civil wars.

In Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, major insurgencies and civil wars broke out, and uprisings in Bahrain and Egypt led to regime change.

There were also massive street demonstrations in Algeria, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Sudan, as well as smaller protests in Djibouti, Mauritania, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and the Western Sahara.

But in the end, the so-called Arab Spring collapsed into a bleak and treacherous frost of bloodshed and brutality for most of the region.

The contentious battles for the consolidation of power between authoritarian tyrants, extremist religious elites and idealistic democracy-seekers in many Muslim-majority states ultimately resulted in a return to the status quo or, worse yet, the buttressing of even more extremist regimes.

Terrorism and other acts of intimidation became the daily fare throughout the Arab World.

Yes, the Arab Spring, which came with promises to sow the seeds of real democracy and greater civil rights in the Middle East and North Africa, left instead a burnt-earth wasteland of fundamental terrorism, gang violence and anarchical bedlam.

After six long years of turbulent revolutions, violent protests, public elections marred by corrupt polling procedures and even military coups, it seems the Arab Spring did not quite blossom into the glorious summer of democratic values, pluralism, individual freedoms, social tolerance and respect for opposition views that so many in the international community had anticipated.

Instead, those fragile seeds of democracy and freedom withered on the vine in a cold and unforgiving winter of discontent, where the weeds of repressive policies now limit freedom of the press and dissension and the old roots of totalitarianism and state abuse are again taking hold.

In Turkey, for example, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — who when he came to power in 2003 spurred fears that his Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party might alter a nation accustomed to nearly a century of official secularism — has shown his true dictatorial colors by imposing laws to limit the power of the prime minister and media expression.

Last summer, Erdoğan jumped on an attempted coup against his government to rev up his abuse of his people’s human rights even further, jailing thousands and imposing sharia-like legislation.

And in Egypt, while there can be no doubt that, once in power, Mohamed Morsi and his band of Muslim Brotherhood cohorts were not particularly concerned with respecting the rights of the less-observant Sunnis, women, intellectuals or the “infidel” Christian community (who make up a full 10 percent of the country’s population), there is no getting around the fact that — albeit apparently with an impressive majority support — a military-led coup ended up ousting the country’s first freely elected president.

The general who led the putsch against Morsi, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, would later be elected president, and to this day, he continues to rule that country with an iron hand.

The list goes on: Militias now have the run of Libya, where the fall of the brutal dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi was supposed to open the door to individual freedoms and democracy.

Syria’s gory civil war has entered its sixth year, and thousands of civilians are paying the price for what seems like an endless struggle between splintered external factions that mow down children and behead prisoners with no regard for human life.

And then there are Lebanon (now ruled by a pro-Hezbollah president) … Iraq (a tumultuous anarchy of tribal clashes and sectarian divisions) … Yemen (Ground Zero for a land-grab proxy between Saudi Arabia and Iran).

So what went wrong?

Why did the Arab Spring never bear fruits, or at least not the cornucopia of democracy and civil rights that is was expected to produce?

To begin with, a large part of the problem rests in the fact that too many of the architects of the Arab Spring tried to borrow from a Western model of democracy that had been tweaked and perfected over centuries and adapted to a Judeo-Christian template.

There is no denying that the contagion of the Arab Spring is clear evidence that the vast majority of the people in the Middle East and North Africa want to vote for their leaders and to have a voice in decision-making on issues that affect their daily lives and social identities.

But they also want that to happen in the context of an explicitly Islamic framework, not in an entirely secular, liberal and imposed context that is divorced from their fundamental identities and beliefs.

They are looking for a marriage between their hometown girl Islam and an ingratiating Westerner democracy who will respect her traditional creeds while helping her to assimilate to a global reality.

For democracy to work in the Arab world, Arab values must be incorporated, and that means basing political practices and policies on the Quran.

That does not mean that these states should be theocracies — Iran is the classic example of how not to mix politics and religion — but they should have Muslim tenets as a foundation on which modernity, democracy and plurality can be structured.

They must incorporate Islamic values and mold them to adapt to modern principles of inclusive integration and respect, protect and fulfill the right of others to disagree.

They must be based on Islam, but not dogmatic.

The Arab Spring was a first step, bringing with it the hope of democracy and a hesitant promise of the realization of civil rights.

It precipitated the overthrow of three dictators by predominantly nonviolent means.

It has, to date, reshaped the sociopolitical landscape of 18 nations.

And despite the dismaying consequences that it has rendered in many of the countries were it first took shape, there are a few Arab Spring success stories.

Tunisia — the birthplace of the Arab Spring and the first country to undergo the awakening of democratic longings — is the quintessential example.

After a lot of bitter rivalry and the assassination of two leftwing politicians, the Tunisians finally managed to transcend their ideological differences and forge the first democratic constitution since the Arab Spring began.

(Still, even in Tunisia, social instability and political uncertainty are now threatening to deracinate the tender sprigs of democracy.)

Notwithstanding, in the space of just six years, the entire terrain of the Islamic world has been uprooted and sown with a new political prototype that, while not necessarily suited to the social topography of the region, has left a permanent impression.

Now that new prototype must be remodeled to incorporate the soil of local history and traditions so that true democracy can take root.

It can be done.

Tunisia is proof of that.

There is still hope for a glorious summer in the Arab World.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].