Will the 2010s be the ‘wasted decade’ of Arab hopes?

Between the “Arab Spring”, “Islamist Winter” and “Zionist conspiracy”, Arabs may seem in despair, but all is not lost.

Tunisia protests 2
Protesters gesture in front of the headquarters of the RCD party of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during a demonstration in downtown Tunis, January 20, 2011 [Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters]

At the turn of the 20th century, three ageing intellectuals with extensive knowledge of the Middle East looked back at the previous hundred years and published their thoughts in a book entitled Un Siecle Pour Rien (A Wasted Century). Revolutionary ideas, hopes and sacrifices did not produce anything but despair.

Assessing the Arab world in the first decade following the Arab Spring, one is tempted to call it, similarly, the “wasted decade”. But is it?

In the early weeks of 2011, the “Jasmine Revolution” was reshaping Tunisia. Then when the revolutionary spirit spread to Egypt and Libya, the term “Arab Spring” was coined. The Jasmine Revolution quickly lost its momentum, being an orientalist concept more suitable for a Disney movie than street politics. The “Arab Spring”, as orientalist and cheerful as it sounded, survived a few more years. But today even that term has become embarrassing to use.

The failure of democratic states to emerge out of the tumult has allowed the most culturalist, racist and euro-centrist pundits to claim that Arabs are not fit for democracy. Then, as “terrorist” attacks multiplied, and as hundreds of thousands of refugees crossed land and sea borders into Europe, western journalists invented a new term to describe what was going on in the Arab world: the “Islamist Winter”.

The Arab Spring started with an act of self-immolation in December 2010. The violence of the genesis intensified over the years, and apocalypse slowly spread its wings. In the countries most affected by it, it was not the regime that collapsed or was about to, but the state. Moreover, the death of Mohamed Bouazizi did not transform the Arab state militiamen and mukhabarat (secret services) into peace activists, quite the contrary – it encouraged their repressive tactics.

“What spring?” Arabs started wondering.

Arab conspiracy theorists, as influential as ever, have warned since day one that the Arab Spring was an American-Zionist conspiracy. One of their tricks was to play on words, calling the Arab Spring (al-Rabi’ al-‘Arabi) the “Hebrew Spring” (al-Rabi’ al-‘Ibri). US President Donald Trump’s decision on Jerusalem was a vindication of their claims. “It is not even the Islamist Winter”, says the Arab subject about the Arab Spring, “but the Second Nakba (Catastrophe)”.

The Arab Spring represents, therefore, for western citizens, “terrorism” and mass migration. For Arab subjects, it is “terrorism”, economic collapse and an uncertain future. These thoughts, while partly accurate, hide several facts and lead to monumental misunderstandings and, consequently, wrong conclusions.

The events of 2010-11 did not destroy strong and autonomous states, as the Arab Spring’s opponents like to say. They wiped out weak, corrupt and dependent regimes. The chaos that followed is not necessarily rooted in Arab or Islamic culture. It is rather linked to a fight for survival by threatened or collapsing regimes, regional and foreign interventions, the inflexibility of extreme secular and Islamist politicians, the dysfunctional state-bureaucracies, etc.

The old Arab regimes which managed to survive and are consolidating their power in the region have only won a pyrrhic victory. They are led by authoritarian men disconnected from their youthful rebellious populations. They struggle to find a unifying national cause beyond anti-terrorism and now seem to elevate a forced form of secularism as state ideology. But are the likes of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Mohamed bin Salman able to pull off what visionary independence leaders such as Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk or Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba did?  

At the same time, the density of available information pushes observers and newly-found Middle East “experts” to believe that their hastily-formulated superficial judgements about the region are accurate, when, in fact, the regional dynamics are far beyond their grasp. The Arab Spring cannot be fully measured today; it will be the job of historians and political scientists in a few decades to judge what really happened in the past seven years. 

But things are not totally bleak. A year ago, the world was still trembling at the sight of ISIL’s black flags. The Islamist Winter metaphor was largely the result of the ascendency of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS). That threat seems to have vanished today, and the caliphate of the armed group crumbled like a house of cards when the international community decided to work together. ISIL was defeated by lethal means, but its propaganda was thwarted by door-to-door and online counter-propaganda. This shows that avoiding the worst is possible and that Arab youth are not “born terrorists”.

And amid all this babel, two quasi-democracies struggle to survive: Lebanon and Tunisia. Both are plagued by corruption and nepotism, have weak state institutions and face tremendous economic and security problems. However, they remain peaceful against all odds. In both countries, a certain resilience seems to hold. The population is angry, but anger is defused through dialogue and civilian protests.

In Lebanon, civil society activism, which mobilised the street for months during the waste disposal and the electricity and gas crises, has transcended all sects. During the 2016 elections, a non-sectarian, independent group, Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City), came second in the city of Beirut and was emulated in other Lebanese cities. In November 2017, when Prime Minister Saad Hariri was detained in Saudi Arabia, most of Lebanon’s political class and civil society united behind him, putting aside their divisions and personal interests.

In Tunisia, democracy has opened the way for public debates on all topics, ranging from the corruption or incapacity of political leaders to atheism and homosexuality, identity, etc. Unsurprisingly, the country has witnessed some of the largest anti-Trump demonstrations in December, when Egypt barely moved. The Tunisian national is perhaps the only Arab who can claim to be a full citizen – although unhappy and impoverished – and not a mere subject.

Tunisia has a largely homogenous society, a certain degree of women’s emancipation, and a strong public education system; it also faces limited foreign intervention. These attributes, along with the newly acquired freedoms, contributed to the drafting of a progressive, democratic and consensus-based constitution. Tunisia is now drafting an all-encompassing, bottom-up social contract. Foundations take time to build, but once established, they are difficult to destroy or upset.

The Arab region is part of a world in disarray. Like other parts of the globe, it is facing major transformations, and it has not yet found a way to get over them. The path towards democracy which started in Tunisia was crushed in many countries, but no convincing alternatives have emerged.

The worldwide wave of authoritarianism may be a blessing for most Arab despots. But ultimately, as Tunisia and Lebanon may prove, and as the Ancient Greeks found out, democracy remains the best form of government.

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