August 22, 2019

Arab Spring fatigue or American fatigue?

Arab Spring fatigue is spreading across the board in the United States. One year after Tunisia triggered a wave of Arab demonstrations and revolutions, Americans are discovering that Tunisia is not in great shape, Egypt hasn’t changed much, the monarch is still in power in Morocco, and there’s violence in Syria with no end in sight.

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No wonder that “Arabs are beginning to wonder whether they would soon start missing the corrupt dictators who ruled them for the past few decades.” A Gallup poll recently found that residents of many Arab countries feel less safe today than they did a year ago. And such feelings have implications: “[S]upport for transitions or reforms may wane if the broader population perceives them as undermining community safety and stability. This is particularly the case where such demands fall along ethnic lines”.

It is not surprising then, that there’s a growing sense among American (and other world) leaders that “developments in the region signal a protracted crisis that could threaten Arab-Israeli peace, world oil supplies and the U.S. fight against terrorism”. Look at recent events in the region:

Tunisia’s moderate Islamic government is muzzling the press. Bahrain has cracked down violently on demonstrators. Libya’s restive east, which holds much of the nation’s oil, is proposing self-rule. In Egypt, where a new Islamic-majority government is poised to take power by July 1, pro-democracy workers face trial and the new Parliament voted unanimously to expel Israel’s ambassador to Egypt. Across the region, economies are staggering and structures needed for political transition don’t even exist.

Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) just published a collection of articles marking the one-year anniversary of the Spring. And in his introductory overview of this collection General Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel’s military intelligence, counts the winners and the losers of this past year:

The biggest winner of the past year is political Islam – in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and (perhaps soon) in Syria. It seems that the rise of the Shia in the Middle East has been curbed and that the Sunnis are the big winners of the Arab awakening. Turkey is also seen as a winner, even though it has paid a political price for hesitating over Libya, has lost economic investments worth billions in Libya and Syria, and is itself facing significant challenges because of the drawn-out repression in Syria and the Kurdish revolt at home.

The US, according to Yadlin, is also on the losing side: “They lost important allies in Egypt and Tunisia, their Saudi and Israeli allies find it hard to forgive them for abandoning Mubarak, and the instability in Libya and Yemen could strengthen al-Qaeda.” This doesn’t mean that America will always be on the losing side. Thomas Henriksen of Stanford University told NPR that “overall, I think it’s good [for America]. People really want to be free, and in the long term, democracy and a greater freedom will come about in the Middle East. In the interim, there may be some difficult days”. The question, though, is how long the US (or Israel for that matter) would have to wait until the “long term” becomes contemporary reality. In other words, does the US have the patience to stomach many more possible setbacks for the promise of a better future? 

Giving up on Arab reform and democracy is premature, writes Marc Lynch: “We are still in the early stages of a profound structural transformation in the Arab world, and there’s no going back to the old status quo. The Arab uprisings are far from over, no matter how much the Arab regimes would like them to be.”

I tend to agree with Lynch, and also with Greg Gause of the University of Vermont, who told NPR that asking whether the Arab Spring is good or bad for the US is “almost like saying, ‘Is a natural disaster good or bad for America?’ It just happened. I mean, there’s not that much… there’s nothing that we can do about it.” Nothing that is, unless someone still believes that the US has real influence in the Middle East, which both many Americans and Arabs seem to doubt these days – until proven otherwise.