Put the spring back in the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring is not a singular event with a beginning and an end.

Algeria protests
Demonstrators carry a national flag during an anti-government rally in Algiers on January 3, 2020 [Reuters/Ramzi Boudina]

Another year, another decade, another round of bad news in the Middle East.

Last week’s headlines featured: death in Egyptian prisons, clashes in Sudan, worsening humanitarian crises in Yemen and Syria, illegal Israeli settlement expansion in Palestine, political paralysis in Tunisia, failure of Libyan ceasefire talks, all in addition to the American-Iranian showdown in Iraq and the downing of a Ukrainian civilian airliner with 176 people onboard over Tehran – and the list goes on.

The situation has been so dire for so long, it is blurring the already fine line between realism and fatalism in the region.

The oppression, the violence, the sectarianism, the inequality, the insecurity and war are so pervasive, so persistent, that any optimism is sure to give way to pessimism.

Indeed, since the start of the Arab Spring nine years ago, the seasons have changed so dramatically they have left little if any of that precious optimism that defined and drove the popular uprisings in the early days.

Many Arabs have come to believe that good news is always pregnant with bad news and successes carry with them the seeds of failure. 

In that way, even those revolutions that succeeded in dismantling dictatorships were left with the burdens of the past haunting their future. 

That may explain the scepticism about the new wave of popular upheavals which spread over the past year from Sudan and Algeria to Iraq and Lebanon and increasingly, Iran.

But such scepticism should not obscure the sensibleness, prudence and magnificence of the new uprisings. 

Lessons learned

The waves of protests in these countries are moving down the path of the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt, embracing peacefulness, authenticity and reform, and rejecting violence and civil conflict as means to confront oppressive and corrupt regimes.

They seem to have learned the hard lessons from Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq, as they reject proxy wars and foreign military interventions that claim to bring security or democracy but produce chaos and devastation.

The new uprisings insist on democratic reforms free of sectarianism, fundamentalism and authoritarianism, rejecting the pointless shift from one form of authoritarianism to another.

These lessons may not guarantee success, but they are indispensable to achieving any political progress. They are already putting Arab regimes on the defensive, forcing leaders to resign and pressuring parliaments to reform, setting new precedents for peaceful change.

Such slow and frustrating processes are crucial for reforms to be truly democratic. Unlike totalitarian revolutions, democratic revolutions are evolutionary by nature and take a long time to change the political culture and transform society.

This is the only way to prepare for the exhaustive business of democratic governance. It is mundane, it is frustrating and it is open-ended.

Expect as many setbacks as breakthroughs.

The arc of history may bend towards justice but all too often it goes into regressive swings.

A spring by any other name

So, for all those who have long been frustrated with the Arab Spring after countless failures and defeats and have retired the term altogether, for all those who never accepted its import from the 1968 Prague Spring or the 1848 Spring of Nations, try to see the spring not as an equivalent of Czech or European movements, nor as an event with a beginning and an end, but rather as hope vanquishing despair, as courage overcoming fear and as change promising a better future.

You need not abandon pessimism about the short-term prospects of liberty to be hopeful about its long-term viability.

And you need not even abandon cynicism to embrace hope. A degree of cynicism is useful when looking at the ulterior motives of leaders, national and foreign, especially when they justify their use or misuse of power on benevolent grounds, such as “repression for the sake of security” and “bombing to stop a war”. 

A cynical attitude is helpful to guard against the rush to a premature celebration and to fortify against disappointments.

But while cynicism of the mind may at times be realistic in today’s Middle East, cynicism of the heart and will is not; it is lazy, it is dispiriting and it is fatalistic.

In fact, there is no room for such cynicism when countless brave men and women, young and old, are ready to sacrifice all for a better future.

So, as we embark on a new year, a new decade, let us remember all those who gave their lives for freedom, dignity and justice, and let us vow to do all we can to keep the hope alive.

Let us put the spring back in the Arab Spring.