On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. After spending more than two weeks in a hospital, he eventually succumbed to self-inflicted injuries. While he was dying, popular protests rolled towards the Tunisian capital and eventually overwhelmed Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s fearsome 24-year iron and corrupt reign when he flew to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011.
Ben Ali shouldn’t fall. The Egyptian Hosni Mubarak was not there either. Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi should not be expelled from Tripoli either. Ali Abdullah Saleh should master the art of dancing on the needle, which was / is Yemeni politics. The Assads should also have Syria wired. The events of late 2010 and 2011 were so extraordinary and unexpected – at least for most Westerners – that journalists, analysts and officials collectively referred to them as the Arab Spring. The name was poetic in some ways, but it implied an outcome that was far from certain in those early days, no matter how impressive the uprisings may have been.
What did the uprisings mean now, a decade later? There have been a multitude of articles on how the Arab Spring turned into winter, but maybe it’s too early to say. After all, the Prague Spring was mercilessly crushed, but two decades later the Czechs and Slovaks threw off communist rule. The idea that the Middle East riots set the stage for future success has been a relapse for activists and analysts alike. It may well be that the winter and spring of 2010-2011 were a prelude to changes that will slowly but inevitably overthrow the regional authoritarians and give way to democratic politics. But maybe not.
It is true that a lot has changed in the Middle East since Bouazizi’s self-immolation. The uprisings changed discourse in the region, showing that centers of power are not invulnerable, and inspired the promise of a better future. These are factors that activists can use when a new opportunity arises to challenge authority, but regime defenders have also undergone their own transformation. For them, the fighting conditions have changed. They see the events that took place a decade ago as a deviation, as a distortion of the natural order of things, and therefore seem determined never to turn public, private and virtual spaces into spheres of contradiction again.
It would be considerably more difficult for the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page to be a mass mobilization mechanism today, given how much the Egyptian security services have learned over the past decade. However, Egypt’s current number of officers and their colleagues in other parts of the region are no more omniscient than those who were responsible for the stability of their countries a decade ago. The result is a curious dynamic in which activists envisioning just and open societies face those responsible for restoring authoritarianism in Middle Eastern societies before their inevitable arrest.
The way observers think about what might come next in Arab countries depends on what they think happened 10 winters and springs ago. And there is less agreement on this than one might expect. Were the uprisings revolutions? At first glance, they seem like revolutions. The people rose and the leaders fell, but the revolutions are more complicated. They require the overthrow of both the political system and the mutually reinforcing social order. This happened in Iran in 1979, but not in Arab countries in 2010-2011.
Tunisia, which has made more progress than other countries, has not had a revolution. It has transitioned, if not through a pact, but through a series of negotiations and renegotiations between leaders to avoid or go beyond crises. All of this is evidence of Tunisia’s civic culture, but the old social order that underpinned Ben Ali’s rule remains.
In Egypt, only the romance of the January 25 uprising and Mubarak’s shameful overthrow 18 days later makes what happened a “revolution” rather than what really happened: a coup. If Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power through a coup d’état in July 2013, then it will certainly also be the case for Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in February 2011. There was a change in leadership in Egypt, but the political order and prevailing power patterns in society remained unchanged.
Libya was perhaps the closest thing to a revolution. Despite the best efforts of some political elites to find a peaceful and democratic way forward, the social order did not disintegrate and exerted fragmentary pressure on the country. After the chaotic aftermath of the February 15 uprising, people turned to the tribe and region for support and assistance. That was hardly surprising given the importance of both during the Gaddafi era, but tight political interests soon took over and broke Libya, resulting in a staggering number of militias, two governments, extremist groups, and a civil war that turned into a regional proxy struggle. Syria never got this far when Bashar al-Assad responded to peaceful protesters with bullets and torture. Ten years later, Syria was torn apart in such a cruel and devastating conflict that it is almost pointless to repeat the number of dead and displaced, if only because as numbers they seem to mean nothing.
How is any of this a “spring” and what can it tell anyone about the future? The nickname “Arab Spring” was based on the assumption that if the leaders were driven from their palaces, these good things would inevitably follow from the thundering demands for “bread, freedom and social justice”. However, looking back over the past decade, it is difficult to understand why anyone would dare to argue that the riots brought about much more than just grief. This does not mean that the uprisings were a mistake – as if such unforeseeable events could even be classified as such. Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians, Yemenis, Bahraines and others rose in response to their bitter circumstances to demand a better future. Most of them have been dejected.
Does this make the people of the Middle East extraordinary? No. Revolutions are rare and transitions to democracy fail more often than they are successful. And should activists somehow manage to recapture the lightning bolt and fill the public space of Arab cities with demands for the end of their regime, there is no guarantee that the result will be different. One can only hope.