The Arab Spring Five Years On: Counterrevolution and Fading Euphoria

by Emile Nakhleh

As Arab publics reminisce on the fifth anniversary of the 2011 upheavals against their dictatorial regimes, they must feel dismayed and angry at what has transpired since then. The unprecedented euphoria that accompanied the Arab Spring and its concomitant hopes for democratization have all but faded, leaving behind a region imperiled by resurgent autocracy, sectarianism, spreading terrorism, and a human tragedy of epic proportions.

The continued incarceration and torture of thousands of dissidents by Arab regimes in the name of fighting terrorism, the draconian dictatorial new measures against civil liberties, and the displacement of millions of citizens in the past five years have rendered the Arab Spring a distant memory. Although four dictators fell in response to popular protests, the “deep state” remained for the most part intact. Counter-revolutionary Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, for example, have rejected every pro-democracy demand raised in January 2011 and have implemented new decrees to ban popular demonstrations intended to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the uprisings.

The rallying cry of “irhal” (depart), which galvanized Arab youth and hastened the fall of the four dictators, was a unique moment in Arab history. But Western intelligence and policy analysts, decision makers, and many regional experts did not see it coming. Although this “moment” was perhaps another “intelligence failure,” it would be a tragedy if our policymakers in the Obama White House and in the next administration continue to ignore the serious grievances that underpinned the upheavals of 2011. The pro-democracy demands, as my intelligence colleagues and I assessed years earlier, were not a passing “moment” but the beginning of a new epoch destined to replace the old Sykes-Picot order.

A Collapsing Edifice

The future of the region looks increasingly ominous with the implosion of the century-old nation-state structure devised by the former colonial powers under the Sykes-Picot agreement and supported more recently by the United States, Russia, and Israel. Foreign powers and their Arab clients in the past century foolishly thought that the subservient Arab state architecture would be the foundation for order and stability in the Arab East for years to come. This post-World War I regional order, they imagined, would produce pliant rulers who—through cooptation, bribery, patronage, and coercion—would serve Western interests, regionally and globally, and keep Arab peoples under control.

Arab regimes—monarchies and presidential republics alike—and foreign powers perpetuated the myth of “Arab exceptionalism” that, in effect, unbridled authoritarianism would endure. Regimes have controlled their populations through a social contract that provided for the people’s well being but allowed the authorities the latitude to rule as they saw fit.

The oil countries, in particular, used their hydrocarbon wealth to provide their relatively small native populations free public services, medical care, education, and subsidized housing. Oil and non-oil “rent” states used the power of the purse and police brutality to buy off their citizens or threaten them into acquiescence. State-run propaganda (soft power) and the fear of retribution by the state security apparatus (hard power) kept potential dissidents silent or out of the country.

The unjustified Saudi execution last week of the top Shia cleric and human rights activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr signals the kingdom’s continued blood-shedding and manipulation of sectarianism to undercut the Arab Spring. The Saudi regime referred to those it executed with Nimr as “takfiris,” or unbelievers—the same descriptive that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State regularly use against their perceived enemies.

In the West, the myth of Arab exceptionalism—unaccountable strongmen and docile publics—was perpetuated by an army of lobbyists, think tanks, business organizations and major corporations, and dozens of former diplomats, retired senior military officers, and academics that Arab regimes pay to act as consultants on their behalf. Such “experts” peddle their “expertise” in the service of Arab autocracy with only the slightest regard for human rights violations and massive restrictions on freedoms of speech, assembly, and movement in Arab countries.

Some of the same academics that offered apologias in 2011 for missing the Arab Spring are now deriding the reformist eruptions five years ago and adopting a benign attitude toward the behavior of the counterrevolutionary regimes. Using realpolitik as a hook, they now argue that authoritarian regimes should be supported as good partners in the fight against terrorism and instability.

Some of them also argue that although the values of the Arab spring are good for our moral sensibilities, entrenched authoritarianism—before and since the Arab Spring—better serves our interests. Despite these consultants’ defense of pliant autocracy as the most efficient agent to serve our interests, the Arab Spring and its aftermath have shown the precariousness of the deep-state edifice that Arab regimes and their Western benefactors had promoted as a symbol of durable stability. Because of a lack of in-depth regional expertise, many of them failed to realize that the manufactured state system could not possibly withstand the widening ethnic, tribal, sectarian, and religious-cultural fissures. The fractured nature of Iraqi society after the fall of Saddam Hussein, engineered by the neocons in the George W. Bush administration, was just one example of the perils of despotism.

The atrocious violence that has swept the region since 2011 has left Arab citizens wondering whether they are destined to live in horror and condemned to tyranny. But it need not be so. In order to chart a reasonably promising trajectory for the region and help it extricate itself from this bloody morass, it is imperative to review what happened, identify a few key lessons, and assess what role different actors have played in creating the mess that has befallen the region in the past half decade.

What Happened?

The Arab revolts of 2011 and the calls for dignity, freedom, and human rights were the first time ever in the modern history of the Arab nation-state system that Arab masses rose up against their own autocratic regimes. Also, for the first time, these popular demonstrations were not directed against a foreign “enemy,” such as colonialism, imperialism, or Zionism.

The 2011 uprisings were not akin to the proverbial “Arab Street” per se, as was the case half a century ago. Then demagogic leaders would whip up urban masses into emotional frenzy against perceived enemies of the regime or in support of the deep state or Arab nationalism and Ba’athism.

Gamal Nasser of Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, could get hundreds of thousands of Egyptians on Cairo’s streets chanting in support of Arab unity “from the Roaring Ocean to the Rebellious Gulf.” The same “Arab Street” would simultaneously denounce Arab monarchies that opposed Nasser’s brand of Arab nationalism. The Arab Spring was not empowered by regimes or the state security apparatus. It was a peaceful gathering of young and old calling on governments to become more accountable to their peoples and urging dictators to “depart.”

The Way Forward: A Grand Design

Of course the immediate challenge for Western countries and Arab regimes is to contain and neutralize the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Syria and Iraq and minimize its threat to regional states and Western countries. Addressing this challenge, however, requires tactical strategies. But it is not a grand design for the region beyond IS.

If the Western powers are interested in addressing the factors that gave rise to IS in the first place and preventing the rise of another terrorist successor group, they should truly explore a grand design that would replace the old colonial order. Although so far there is no identifiable alternative to Sykes-Picot on the horizon, the old order has clearly run its course.

In order to get this long-term process on the right footing, American policymakers should reconcile the country’s values and strategic interests. The dichotomy between interests and values is arguably a false one because democratic governments could serve our interests over time much more efficiently and dependably than dictatorial regimes. The pursuit of the national interest in defense of the security of the United States and its citizens need not be inimical to American democratic values. Coddling dictators and illiberal regimes might serve American interests in the short run, but, as the Arab Spring has shown, it’s a losing proposition in the long term.

The envisioned grand design must include the following elements:

  1. Address the radical Salafi ideology spewing out of Saudi Arabia. The inconvenient truth is that much of the ideology that has defined al-Qaeda and IS are not alien to the Salafi Wahhabi belief system that dominates Saudi Arabia. It’s not surprise, then, that so many “jihadists” that have filled the ranks of both terror organizations have come from Saudi Arabia and that so much of their financing can be traced to Saudis and other Gulf Salafis.
  1. Promote political reform, democratic transition, and inclusion in Arab politics. Dictatorship, Arab and otherwise, belongs to the past, not to the future. Political inclusion of all mainstream centers of power that are committed to gradual, non-violent political reform, including Islamic political parties across the region is the best guarantee for long-term domestic stability. Autocratic regimes in Egypt and Bahrain have already discovered this truth.
  1. Devise well-funded entrepreneurial and job creation projects and start-ups. Unless the millions of unemployed youth across the region find jobs, they will remain alienated, angry, rudderless, and subject to recruitment by terrorist groups. An employed population, not tyranny, is the key driver of domestic stability.
  1. Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The on-going violence in Jerusalem, other Israeli towns, and the West Bank and Gaza underscores the long-term corrosive impact of this conflict on regional and world peace. The two-state paradigm has all but failed, and it’s time to search for new modalities to allow both peoples to live together in peace and dignity between the River and the Sea. The fact that successive American presidents have failed to resolve the conflict doesn’t mean the next president should stop trying.
  1. Engage Muslim communities in the US and other Western countries in the fight against radical ideology. Theological debates about “moderate” versus “radical” Islam should be the concern of Muslims, not Westerners. Non-Muslims should stay out of this debate. Let’s face it: the United States has never been good at this type of messaging. If mainstream Muslims expect to develop a more hopeful future for their children and grandchildren, they should address the ideological source of their problem as communities in Muslim-minority countries. Similarly, Western governments should view their Muslim communities not as a problem but as part of the solution to radicalism. Critically important policies, such as closing Guantanamo, that empower mainstream Muslims against their radical co-religionists must be adopted.

Pursuing and implementing this grand design would empower the Arab world to seriously define its future rather than succumbing to endless conflict that would continue to threaten American and global security.

Photo: Demonstration in Al Bayda, Libya, in 2011.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


One Comment

  1. “Education, Education …
    It’s unrealistic to expect any real revolution in the Arab world (and elsewhere in what is considered Third World countries) unless their population is properly educated. It took more than a century for the French to recover from their botched up revolution; only when they became more educated, were they capable to recover from their despotic rulers and take part in their own destiny. As long as these countries have to rely on Foreign powers to manage their own path of freedom from their brutal rulers, no one should expect any real revolution or anything called “Arab Spring”. Sykes-Picot agreement was created for one purpose, and any switch to a different agreement by the Western powers will not lead to any better solution.
    Let’s pray for a better world not run by special interests who are obviously oblivious to the fact that the world population is exploding and the divide between the rich and the poor is expanding. When half a million of the Egyptian population live in the cemeteries, and another half live in the garbage dump, how can anyone expect any real Arab spring? Solutions to the world problems are to take into account the plight of those who are denied the basic human rights to a decent standard of living. Until then… talk is cheap.”

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