On December 17, 2010, the actions of one man changed the world forever. A Tunisian fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire outside Sidi Bouzid’s provincial headquarters in protest against local police officers who had confiscated his fruit cart.
Just 28 days later, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia had ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fueled by the righteous anger of a population who had seen enough, a reaction not just to the desperation and submission of a 26-year-old street vendor. but for the routine humiliation and oppression of many decades.
A question that was asked frequently in the early days of the Arab Spring was whether the Arab world was ready for democracy. After 10 years it is clear that it was always the wrong question. The Arab public has systematically broken down decades of oppressive silence over night. The question was always whether the rest of the world was ready to support them. The answer to this question should be clear from the decade of bloodshed in the Middle East to the almost total indifference of world powers.
For generations, dictatorships in the Middle East had become bloated and complacent, consoled by the false belief that their security apparatus could permanently intimidate their people.
By 2010, however, these dictatorships no longer had an information monopoly. Better access to the Internet in the Middle East brought social media and with it access to platforms for ideas and debates that had so effectively banned, repressed and criminalized many of these dictatorships over the past decades.
Under these new conditions, the suicide of a young Tunisian in the small town of Sidi Bouzid was no longer a local story reduced to a footnote dismissed in a state-controlled newspaper. It was a tragedy that sparked widespread outrage and a civil uprising would lead to the overthrow of a 23-year-old dictatorship in just 28 days.
Tunisians weren’t alone. Events in Tunisia sparked civil protests in the Middle East in a series of uprisings known as the Arab Spring. The Middle East had previously lived in a culture of fear and silence for generations, where even mild public criticism of political authorities resulted in arbitrary arrest, torture, and even death. For the first time in the lives of many that silence had finally been broken, and now the tyrants trembled with fear.
After Ben Ali fell Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and finally Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi. The uprisings spread to Bahrain and Syria, where the Assad regime had been in power for four decades.
However, the Arab Spring and the political movements it created were linked less by collective democratic goals than by the rejection of decades of failed governments. The uprising in Syria, for example, began as small regional protests demanding political reform, not the overthrow of the dictatorship. It was only after the first calls were received with overwhelming force that those calls eventually changed.
Aside from their geographic proximity and a shared history of life under dictatorship, the uprisings in the Middle East had very little in common, apart from the common chant that spread across the region: “The people want the regime to overthrow.”
That sense of optimism, that palpable feeling that democratic freedoms might finally be attainable for the people of the Middle East, was so dangerous to the hereditary dictatorships and monarchies that ruled them that they spent the next nine years at war with their own people spent and salted the earth to ensure that the democratic movements that terrified them could never again take root.
Hundreds of protesters were killed by security forces in Bahrain and Libya in the first few weeks of the riot. Bahrain’s protests were put down, the death toll in Libya spiraled out of control, sparking a UN Security Council response mandating a NATO no-fly zone and ultimately leading to Gaddafi’s overthrow and extrajudicial execution by Libyan rebels on the streets of Sirte in October . 20, 2011.
By December 2011, the Assad regime had murdered more than 5,000 civilians, including many demonstrators who were gunned down or arrested and tortured to death on the streets of Syria. By 2020, Syria will be the worst war of the 21st century. The United Nations officially gave up counting the death toll in 2014. The last estimate was in April 2016 at more than 400,000 dead, with the actual number expected to have risen substantially since then.
There is no way to properly package the ramifications of the Arab uprisings into comforting lessons for the future. Although the death toll and infrastructure damage in Libya have remained several orders of magnitude below the bloodshed in Syria, it is still not a success story. While the no-fly zone imposed by the West reduced the suffering of civilians and was never intended as a state-building, the civil war, the slave markets for migrants and the deteriorating human rights situation remain a shameful legacy for the international community, which intervened but did not follow through.
It doesn’t look much better elsewhere. Revolutions were put down or fell under the weight of nationalist or Islamist counter-revolutions.
In many cases, particularly in Syria, the uprising was suppressed not from within but from without and fell only after extensive military intervention by Iran and Russia. The revolutionary interests of Syria have also been further destabilized, co-opted and corrupted by Qatar and Turkey.
The dictatorships in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain continue to be legitimized and supported by the Gulf monarchies, just as the Gulf states continue to give the embattled Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar legitimacy and support to take control of the country from the barely functioning ones supported by Turkey, Government of the National Convention recognized by the United Nations.
The Gulf States are not the only culprit. The grotesque embrace by the United States government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s junta, which began under former President Obama, even after 1,000 civilians were killed during the Rabaa Square massacre, was given by the outgoing President Donald Trump, who called Sisi his “favorite dictator” at an international summit late last year. France, which alongside its allies in the Gulf played a crucial role in legitimizing Libya’s detention, has also joined the Sisi regime. French President Emmanuel Macron presented the dictator France with the highest honor, the Legion of Honor, last week.
This cycle of conflict is far from over. The protests and the ongoing economic difficulties in Lebanon and Iraq show that the public appetite for democratic change is still burning after a decade of crushed regional protests, mass evictions and Western indifference. Iran’s regional Shiite paramilitary organizations and their brutal techniques continue to escalate tensions, and Sunni nongovernmental fundamentalist organizations find fertile soil in the chaos. The economic and sociopolitical factors that sparked the Arab Spring riots are significantly worse than in 2011, and that’s before the region fully realizes the financial ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Arab Spring may be over, but the Middle East civil uprisings have barely started. The Middle East is now in what Karl Marx called a permanent revolution. The aspirations of his people changed constantly, but were never fulfilled. Dictatorships cannot turn the clock back to 2011, and there is no desire on the part of the population to accept a status quo that permanently disenfranchises them. The powder is drier than ever; Now only the next spark is missing.