A decade after the Arab Spring has seen little improvement for those who opposed Middle Eastern autocrats and called for a better life. Most of the countries that have erupted in protests and then violence are still ruled by despotic regimes where repression and corruption are routine, while economic hardship continues unabated.
However, Europe is a different continent than it was before 2011 – and for reasons that are directly related to the failed revolutions next door. For one thing, Europe is divided. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was in part a response to the refugee crisis sparked by the uprising in Syria and the civil war that followed. Populist political parties across Europe, capitalizing on growing fears of Islam and extremism, have been on the rise for years.
European foreign policy has already changed noticeably, and countries are increasingly embracing the new dictators who have appeared on the continent’s southern borders, without even the fig leaf of liberal moralism they once evoked. Overall, the events of the Arab Spring not only did not make the Arab countries more stable, they also made the European countries far less stable.
In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel found it reprehensible to refuse protection to Syrians whose houses and entire cities had been pulverized in a mad bomb attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It opened the doors of Germany to the refugees and almost a million came in. This decision was considered the right one by many. The impact, however, was far-reaching.
Emma Sky, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, said limiting immigration was a major driver of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and she recalled how populists fueled uncertainty to their advantage. “Nigel Farage, the leader of the far-right British Independence Party, was filmed in front of a huge poster of Syrian refugees on the Slovenian-Croatian border. The implication was clear: if Britain did not leave the European Union and regain control of its borders, the refugees would flood into Britain, ”Sky said. “There has been continuous media coverage of clashes in the ‘jungle’ – the makeshift camp in Calais – between French police and migrants desperate for the UK.”
When hundreds of thousands of boat trips went on, marched and spent months and years in cramped camps to get to safety, the populists – previously marginalized in European politics – saw their opportunity. They took advantage of the fears of many Europeans that their work could be transferred to refugees or that the presence of people from distinctly different cultures – and predominantly one religion, Islam – could change their way of life. The antagonism towards refugees was based on a deeply rooted Islamophobia in the minds of many Europeans. However, the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and a spate of terrorist attacks by members or supporters of the group in Europe helped the populists further. Immigration heightened fear of extremist attacks and changed the face of European politics, perhaps forever.
Daily conversations at coffee tables in Europe, even in cities that are considered centers of liberal ideas like Paris and Berlin, are often xenophobic. The community is largely divided between those who feel morally inclined to help the refugees and those who see them as a burden. between those who vigorously differentiate between Islam and Islamic extremism and those who are openly Islamophobic.
The past decade has also put Europe’s self-proclaimed foreign policy values to the test. She is committed to freedom and democracy, but increasingly lacks the will to promote them abroad. Many young Arabs who looked up to Europe are disappointed and increasingly see European governments as selfish.
The European giants of France and Germany are doing business with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, an autocrat who simply replaced the Islamist president who formed a government after the overthrow of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak. Earlier this month, France rolled out a red carpet for Sisi and embellished it with its highest national award, the Legion d’Honneur. Sisi’s brutal repression of the political opposition, Islamists and liberals had little influence on France’s decision. Activists say 60,000 political prisoners languish in Egypt’s prisons, the press is regularly silenced and civil society activists are fearful.
Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the Arab Spring offered an opportunity to reshape developments on the ground, but Europe had failed. “The European focus has tightened on security and migration challenges as there has been a decline in confidence in the ability to steer the region’s political order in a more positive direction,” he said. “Ten years after the uprisings, some Europeans are reviving the notion of authoritarian stability, which is symbolized by the increasing embrace of President Sisi in Egypt.”
In Libya, France and the British-led NATO intervention overthrew Muammar al-Qaddafi. But when the power vacuum led to wars between various interest groups – Islamists, extremists, tribes, Gaddafi’s son Saif Gaddafi and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar – Libya was catapulted into chaos. After Gaddafi, Europe should deal with the effects and lead Libya to a democratic political transition. It remained ineffective mainly because it had neither interest nor plans to stabilize the country; it just looked away. The conflict now shows broader regional rivalries between Turkey and Qatar, who back the internationally recognized government, which is also backed by political Islamists, and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who see political Islamists as their enemy and Haftar as the man see who can give it A fight.
Europeans supposedly support a United Nations-brokered peace process, but some of their policies prolong the civil war. Germany, for example, has reportedly sold arms to both warring parties in the Libyan conflict, but like Italy, it does not give political support either. However, France is accused of tacitly armed Haftar’s forces. French President Emmanuel Macron relies on the strong Haftar to keep immigrants and extremists among them trying to get to Europe. French analysts have said that internal instability in France is related to Islamist militancy in certain African countries in the Sahara-Sahel belt that were former French colonies.
Europe had a similar transactional relationship with Gaddafi as it is now with Sisi and Haftar. In 2010, Gaddafi demanded 5 billion euros a year from European countries if he were to stop illegal African immigration and allegedly avoid a “black Europe”. But it was his suppression that eventually led to rebellion, civil war, and mass immigration to Europe.
Dictators across the Mediterranean repeatedly used the threat to open the floodgates for economic migrants and extremists as blackmail for Europe and presented themselves as indispensable to secure its borders. The Arab Spring showed that it was a defeatist policy for Europe to continue with dictatorial regimes as usual. And it is precisely this approach that many European countries seem to be following again.
Joost Hiltermann is Program Director of the International Crisis Group for the Middle East. He said Europe misunderstood the nature of the Arab Spring as a movement for democracy from the start. “The people in the squares weren’t primarily committed to democracy, but the Europeans wanted them to be. The protesters wanted dramatically better governance and, if not, the overthrow of unresponsive and corrupt regimes. When the protests had violent and chaotic results, Europeans became more cautious, blaming Islam for the lack of democratic progress and tightening border controls against refugees and migrants who they suspected were jihadists trying to get into Europe ” said Hiltermann.
“In the end, European governments resumed the paradigm of stability (support for autocratic regimes – the devil you know) that led to the popular uprisings.”
With regard to Syria, Europe is officially united and has allocated funds for reconstruction that are dependent on political transformation as defined in UN Resolution 2254, which includes rebels in Syrian politics, the release of political prisoners and accountability for War crimes are claimed. But behind closed doors, populists in Italy and several other countries are pleading for relations with the Assad regime to be resumed. While Italy wants to connect with Assad’s intelligence services via extremists who may have crossed its borders, Germany’s largest opposition party Alternative for Germany claims that Syrians are safe under Assad and that it is time for refugees to leave. Instead of regime change, Europe has weakened its expectations of a change in regime behavior.
Olivier Guitta, the head of a security firm advising governments in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, said Europe’s refusal to intervene militarily in Syria was the main sin that pushed Muslim Westerners into the arms of the Islamic state. “The reason to convince young westerners [to join the Islamic State] was simple: your government supposedly defends human rights, but when it comes to saving Muslim lives, it doesn’t care. We need your help, come to us, ”said Guitta. “The European security services tell me that the threat level is greater today than it was when the Islamic State was in its heyday in 2015, when the largest attacks took place in Europe.”
However, other experts pointed to the collapse of Libya and disagreed that military action in Syria was the right course of action. The Syrian battlefield was also full of groups, including the jihadists and not just the moderates of the Free Syrian Army. In addition, democratic and liberal protesters were a disorganized force. The Ba’ath regime ruled with an iron fist and did not create any significant political opposition. Ground realities made it difficult for Europe and the United States to carry out a final military operation against the Assad regime.
For all its shortcomings, Europe has sent billions of dollars in aid and steadfastly kept some of the civil society movements that emerged from the Arab Spring alive, even when the torchbearers are in exile.
“The real lesson seems to be that meaningful reform requires a longer-term vision of change,” said Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations at the feet of the acting orders. “