‘Arab Spring was really a spring for al-Qaeda’

The Obama administration erred in wrongly assuming that what worked on Main Street would also work on the Arab Street.

Egyptian soldiers stand in front of a graffiti on the walls of the Presidential Palace in Cairo [AFP]
Egyptian soldiers stand in front of graffiti on the walls of the Presidential Palace in Cairo [AFP]

You can always tell that the dying days of a US presidency are approaching when numerous tell-all memoirs by former administration officials start appearing on the shelves. 

During a recent television interview promoting his new book, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell admitted something that most of us already knew: The US misjudged the so-called Arab Spring and, as a consequence, the “Arab Spring was really a spring for al-Qaeda”.

This sort of after-the-fact analysis by former Obama administration officials has become commonplace. Frankly, beyond helping with book sales and ensuring a top spot on the lucrative speaking circuit, admissions of this kind have very little practical value.

To many, the obvious question is: Why weren’t these observations or critiques made while these officials were still holding office and able to change or influence policy?

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In the case of Morell, this question is particularly pertinent. He was CIA deputy director for the duration of the Arab Spring and even served five months as acting CIA director (after the shock resignation of David Petraeus).

The Arab Generation, not the Arab Spring  

Morell’s comments should not be a surprise.

The fact that decision-makers in the West were willing to accept the term “Arab Spring” to describe the popular uprisings showed how little the policymakers understood about what was actually happening on the ground.

Instead of the Arab Spring, what the world was witnessing should have been called the Arab Generation. Those who took to the streets demanding change were from a generation of young Arabs who saw little future for themselves, but thanks to advancements in global communications, the internet, and social media knew that there is an alternative to stale autocratic rule.

The White House failed to see that any democratisation resulting from the popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa was going to be a long term affair, probably requiring a whole generation to see through to completion. This was something that could not be rushed in days or weeks.

The fact that decision-makers in the West were willing to accept the term ‘Arab Spring’ to describe the popular uprisings showed how little the policy makers understood about what was actually happening on the ground.


Instead of taking the time to understand what was really happening on the streets of Cairo, Tripoli, or Damascus, there were a series of knee-jerk reactions by Western leaders, led by US President Barack Obama, calling for many of the region’s secular dictators to step down.

All of this was naively done with the hope that democracy would quickly become the natural replacement for autocratic rule.

The ultimate hijacking

The harsh truth is that the popular uprisings which filled our television screens for months in 2011, did not even come close to ushering in a new era of democracy and liberal rule in the region.

Instead, the outcome has been instability where there was once stability, economic problems made seemingly worse, and increased influence and power for groups like al-Qaeda.

The young Arabs who took to the streets knew what they wanted. They shared the ultimate goal of ushering in political reform and creating economic opportunity. Sadly, they did not have the time to create an agenda to achieve this goal.

This was because the fall of regional leaders, one right after the other, created a vacuum that was quickly filled by fundamentalists and terrorist groups.

In the case of Syria, the security vacuum facilitated the rise of ISIL. Not only did these nefarious groups have goals, unlike the street protesters, they also had an agenda to achieve their goals. Terrorism stole the moment away from the legitimate protesters. What the world witnessed was the ultimate terrorist hijacking.

When regime oppression against the protesters turned violent, only the fundamentalists were willing to fight, and even die, for their cause – not the middle-class teachers, doctors, or taxi drivers marching peacefully for change on the streets.

The fundamentalists and terrorist groups saw an opportunity to oust secular autocrats in the region, not as a way to bring in pluralistic democracy, but as a way to implement their perverse interpretations of Islam, and in the case of ISIL, to establish an extremist caliphate. 

Hope is not a policy

Describing something as a “spring” denotes it is seasonal, predictable, and short in duration. In reality, the uprisings across the Arab world were anything but this – and the Obama administration failed to grasp this fact.

The political advisers around the president were so caught up in the idealistic rhetoric of “hope and change” that brought Obama into power only a couple of years prior, they wrongly assumed that what worked on Main Street would also work on the Arab Street.

More importantly, they failed to see what was really happening. Behind the facade of the street demonstrations and calls for democracy lurked tribal politics, century’s old sectarian divisions, and groups like al-Qaeda waiting in the wings. Calling on regional secular autocrats to step down often meant getting rid of the one unifying force that kept these nasty skeletons in the closet.

Pandora’s Box is open and it will unlikely get closed anytime soon. In the meantime, the Middle East and North Africa will continue to burn.

The last thing the US or the Arab world needs now is another former Obama administration official admitting they got it wrong, when they had the opportunity to get to right in the first place.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.