The fallen leaves of the Arab Spring
High hopes of 2011 replaced by self-searching as Middle East and North Africa reel from conflicts’ devastating effects.
Doha, Qatar – The fourth anniversary of the birth of the Syrian revolt may be an opportune moment for Middle East mavens to take stock of the Arab Spring phenomenon and examine its competing narratives with the benefit of hindsight.
However, for millions of Syrians trapped in a grinding conflict, the month of March can have little practical significance other than as a reminder that nothing can bring back the lives lost, the livelihoods shattered, the innocence robbed, the historical treasures looted and the community ties fractured by four years of violence.
Indeed, by several accounts, the immediate goals of the citizens of the Arab Spring countries, particularly Syrians, are no longer as lofty as choosing between continued tyranny and freedom or between dictatorship and democracy.
Political rights, dignity and economic opportunity – universal themes that were the key drivers of the revolutions that erupted in 2010 and 2011 – have ceased to be pressing demands, analysts say, as large expanses of the Middle East and North Africa welter in bloodshed and turmoil.
No matter what the current state of different Arab uprisings, this much is certain: That where the people once loudly demanded the downfall of certain regimes, many now want order and security before anything else.
Hassan Hassan, an Abu Dhabi-based Middle East analyst and a co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, says there are no visible gains for the people so far as conflicts and insurgencies in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Egypt continue to cut a swathe of destruction through the region.
“All that ordinary people are looking forward to is an end to the violence, and stability at some point,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They have lowered their expectations and are ready for outcomes that will alleviate their suffering.”
In what now seems almost light years ago, with the formation of coalition governments in Iraq through legislative elections post-2005, it did appear for a while that the Arab world and Iran were overdue for a better model of representative democracy and rule of law.
For all the withering criticism that greeted US President George W Bush’s democracy-building efforts after the 2003 Iraq invasion, political reforms were regarded even by many Arab intellectuals as a matter of urgency in a vast region blighted by human development deficits that stretched from Morocco in the west to Yemen in the east.
The powder keg exploded in December 2010 when tens of thousands of people risked their lives and their livelihoods to launch protests, first against Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, then against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, followed by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki and, more sporadically, against the rulers of Jordan, Bahrain and Oman.
Four years on, however, nothing sums up the unintended consequences of the Arab uprisings like the black flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL/ISIS, whose branches keep popping up in one failing state after another despite the ongoing US-led coalition campaign to “degrade, and ultimately destroy”, the group.
Indeed, the trajectory of the Arab Spring has been so worrisome to all but the most die-hard non-state actors that the term – once used to describe the series of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that started with the overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali in January 2011 – has become meaningless, says Hassan, the Middle East analyst.
With Tunisia emerging as the sole country with something to show for the price extracted by democratic transition, many liberal Arab revolutionaries are now looking back in anger at their political naivete, wondering how they could have even imagined overthrowing the established ruling orders of such fragile entities as Libya, Syria and Yemen without inviting calamity.
Through essays, interviews, documentaries, blogs and artworks, they appear to admit that what initially spurred them into challenging the clenched fist of authoritarian regimes was, above all, hope and idealism. But that combination, it turned out, was no match for the countervailing power of ancient animosities and modern geopolitics.
Together with Iraq, it is undoubtedly Syria which is the bloodiest conflict zone in the Middle East. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the death toll since 2011 at upwards of 210,000, nearly half of them civilians.
As for the Syrian economy, International Monetary Fund figures indicate that it may be back to the size it was in the 1980s: GDP has contracted by 40 percent, imports and exports have both dropped by more than 90 percent and unemployment is higher than 50 percent.
“I knew from day one that this will take a very long time and it will not be a smooth road to transition,” a retired Syrian physician displaced by fighting in Homs, who did not want to be identified, told Al Jazeera over the phone from Damascus.
“We all feared that the revolt would turn into a sectarian and civil war, that this was bound to happen.”
The confrontation and destruction into which a peaceful uprising inexorably descended is the subject of a documentary, Our Terrible Country, made by Mohammad Ali Atassi, which is making waves at film festivals.
Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts, a Syrian non-profit organisation which supports and produces Syrian experimental films, describes Our Terrible Country and the fate of its characters as “representative of the stages of the Syrian revolution, from its pacifist beginnings to its militarisation …”
Our Terrible Country follows the journey of Yassin Haj Saleh, a well-known Syrian leftist dissident, and Ziad Homsi, a young photographer and former rebel, from the Damascus suburb of Douma to temporary exile in Turkey.
Reviewing Our Terrible Country, Anne Barnard wrote in the New York Times: “The film suggests Syria’s revolt is itself on a parallel journey: diverted by extremists in the wrong direction, yet unable, or unwilling, to turn back.”
Barnard says the documentary’s “emotional climax” comes not in Syria but in Istanbul when Homsi, released from captivity and torture by ISIL, and Saleh “ask themselves if their revolution is to blame for the Islamists’ rise, and their country’s destruction”.
It would come as no surprise if Libyan revolutionaries who overthrew Gaddafi in 2011 were to start asking themselves the same question – amid a conflict that has killed thousands and forced an estimated 400,000 people from their homes.
At the diplomatic level, negotiations brokered by the UN are under way between the internationally recognised government based in eastern Libya and powerful factions in control of the capital Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata, Derna and Sirte.
On the ground, though, nobody is quite sure whether to give peace talks or war a chance.
The government, which enjoys the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, has just declared a secular-aligned former general, Khalifa Haftar, who launched his own military offensive against conservative groups, as the commander of the national army.
But branches of ISIL have sprouted in Derna in the east and Sirte in the north, raising the spectre of a Syria-like situation where they fill the vacuum created by a prolonged war of attrition between government forces and heavily armed opposition groups.
“Many … ordinary Libyans are echoing this nostalgic sentiment about the ‘secure and stable’ Libya under the Qaddafi regime,” Mohammed Eljarh, a Libyan blogger and a nonresident fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, wrote in a Foreign Policy report in January, while pointing out that “the killings of army officers, security personnel, judges, journalists, and activists started in 2011 …”
The killings that Eljarh refers to grabbed the world’s attention dramatically if briefly on June 25, 2014, when Salwa Bughaighis, a 50-year-old Libyan lawyer, women’s rights activist and “a leading light of the February 17 revolution”, was shot to death in her home in Benghazi, shortly after she had cast her ballot in parliamentary elections.
In a Facebook post that appeared to speak for Libyans stunned by Bughaighis’ killing, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director, lamented in despair: “What now? Does she become just another poster to carry? Another name lost? Another death that we owe a debt to?”
Sahraoui’s words have proved sadly prophetic.
Since June, the grim roster of slain Libyan activists has grown only longer with the inclusion of Mohamed al-Mesmari, Siraj Ghatish and Mohamed Battu – three social-media users whose headless bodies were found outside Derna in November after they had been kidnapped – and Intissar al-Hasaari, who organised protests against armed groups and was killed in her car in Tripoli on February 24.
Bughaighis, who had visited Tunisia to observe the October 2011 election, was under no illusions herself about the task at hand.
“Getting freedom doesn’t mean reaching democracy,” she told Channel 4 News’ international editor Lindsey Hilsum in an interview in 2012. “We haven’t even started to prepare people, and time is so short.”
While the identity of the killers of the Libyan activists will probably not be known for a long time, widely shared images and witness accounts left little doubt that masked police officers were responsible for the birdshot that claimed the life of 31-year-old Shaimaa al-Sabbagh in neighbouring Egypt on January 24.
Killed in broad daylight while laying a wreath at a memorial in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Sabbagh, the mother of a five-year-old son, became the face of the victims of the heavy hand that security forces have been wielding since 2011, and especially since the May 2013 overthrow of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, to keep protests under control.
A day before Sabbagh’s death, Sondos Reda Abu Bakr, a 17-year-old woman, was killed by the police at a rally in Alexandria.
Sabbagh – an accomplished poet and activist of a leftist party that supported the military’s removal of Morsi – and Abu Bakr – a pro-Muslim Brotherhood activist – joined a lengthening list of Egyptians from across the ideological spectrum killed or arrested since the revolution that toppled Mubarak in 2011.
However, those who predicted that Sabbagh’s death would turn her into a unifying symbol for anti-government protests, in the manner that the killing of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan by Iranian security forces did in 2009, had underestimated the sense of insecurity induced by four years of political and economic turmoil.
If surveys of Egyptian public opinion are any guide, many liberal citizens who cheered the toppling of Mubarak and welcomed the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in politics in 2011, have now chosen to ignore allegations of human-rights abuses and bet on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military-backed government to tackle a daunting array of challenges.
These include an ISIL-led campaign in the Sinai Peninsula targeting security personnel and conscripts; ISIL fighters in Libya conducting attacks on the western border and kidnapping and beheading Egyptian Coptic Christians; random bomb attacks on police and civilians in Cairo and other cities; near-daily protest rallies by Morsi supporters; and, not least, an economy on life support.
The tensions roiling Egyptian society have been vividly captured in an essay by Leila Zaki Chakravarti in the online journal Open Democracy, where she writes of a typical Cairo family: “Hassan and his younger brother Hussein, the family’s two sons, are both currently lawyers – and both are, within the walls of Hassan’s flat, openly critical of the reluctance of the Egyptian military to embrace a civilian and more democratic rule.
“Yet Hassan’s wife and mother are staunch Sisi supporters, and see Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising as a ‘waste of life and resources’.”
The fact that groups of individuals within the same family hold differing views on the upheaval of the Arab Spring, is of course not something peculiar to Egyptians.
At the regional level, too, opinions are known to vary widely given that different communities and sects have experienced different levels of violence, repression, deprivation and, in some cases, empowerment since the uprisings of 2011.
For example, in Yemen, a regime change, achieved through the blood, sweat and tears of pro-democracy activists in February 2012, has had the unexpected consequence three years down the line of the minority Houthi fighters emerging as the country’s dominant political force.
Similarly in Iraq, protests by moderate Sunnis in Anbar province against the perceived sectarian bias of Nouri al-Maliki’s government and the ensuing heavy-handed security crackdown, are thought to have facilitated ISIL’s emergence as the region’s most feared non-state group.
Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer in security studies at the University of Exeter and a fellow at Chatham House in London, says the transformation of the nature of the uprisings in Libya and Syria and the regional developments in Iraq and in Egypt have led to the conclusion that soft power and civil-resistance tactics have their limits.
“To pursue real change, hard power is necessary – this conclusion drawn by many youth activists has been capitalised upon by groups such the Islamic State [ISIL], al-Nusra and other like-minded organisations,” he told Al Jazeera.
Trouble is, from Tunisia to Bahrain and from Algeria to Jordan, many governments too appear to have reached the conclusion that tolerance for dissent has its limits at a time of unprecedented regional tensions and instability.
Worse still, crucial issues such as political reforms, human rights and justice have been given a back seat once again, if not abandoned outright.
Clearly, in the best-case scenario, a lot more suffering and privation is in store for the survivors of the Arab Spring revolts before the phenomenon’s fifth anniversary comes around.
The worst-case scenario is another story altogether.
Follow Arnab Neil Sengupta on Twitter: @arnabnsg