The Arab Spring has been misunderstood

A decade after the Arab Spring, Westerners’ perceptions of events and Arabs’ perceptions of themselves remain muddled.

Protesters demonstrate against Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis on January 14, 2011 [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

Ten years ago, anti-government protests in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain fostered hope, within the region and without, that a pro-democratic, pan-Arab movement was finally in bloom. But with the exception of Tunisia, the Arab Spring uprisings failed. And even Tunisia’s success is a qualified one: The nation’s economy is in a shambles and its democratic experiment is fragile.

In 2011, many Western observers misunderstood the nature of the protests. Ten years later, sadly, too many still do.

The principal myth to be dispelled is the notion that the Arab Spring was a unified, sweeping protest movement when in fact it was a collection of discrete uprisings. Economic and political grievances overlapped across borders, but these were organic, local protests against local regimes.

Beyond inspiration that what could happen in one place could perhaps succeed in another, there was nothing that linked protesters in Tunis, where the first demonstrations occurred, with those in Cairo, Damascus, or elsewhere. There was no common thread, as there was in the protest wave that swept across Eastern Europe two decades earlier.

Further, there was nothing distinctly “Arab” about the protests, either. The notion that the uprisings were informed by some shared sense of “Arabism” is misguided. Frustratingly, many Westerners – as well as many Arabs and Arab regimes – continue to view the region through the wrong end of the telescope, regarding its inhabitants as a homogeneous “Arab bloc”, when it is precisely the opposite.

The so-called “Arab world” is in fact a 22-state region inhabited by approximately 400 million strikingly diverse individuals, whose nations and identities have been forged by sharply contrasting genealogical, political, social, cultural, commercial, religious, and linguistic traditions.

A final misperception to be overcome: the notion that the Arab Spring had – or will ever have – a firm end date. The demands for greater economic and social justice represent moments along a continuum. Breaking free from the grip of authoritarians will require a series of forward steps, followed by retreat or repression, followed by steps forward. This struggle is – and actually should be – a messy, iterative process.

Yet there is still cause for cautious optimism. The good news is that the genie, as the saying goes, is out of the bottle. Yes, authoritarian regimes within the region, most notably Egypt, succeeded in stuffing it back for now, but the genie, slightly transmuted after each confrontation, continues to pop out, as evidenced by the so-called second wave of Arab Spring protests that began in 2018 in Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, and Algeria.

While Algeria replaced its ruler but failed to change its regime, and Lebanon’s corrupt power-sharing arrangements stubbornly persist, protesters have shown no sign of relenting in their quest for justice.

But it is not only the West that must reassess its perceptions about the uprisings. When and if the inhabitants of the region issue further demands for democratisation, they must reckon with their own internal contradictions. How, for example, are protestors who demand expanded political and economic freedoms for all to reconcile why they continue to support restrictions of individual freedoms for some – notably women, religious minorities, and LGBTQ citizens?

The region’s inhabitants must view removal of an oppressor as merely the first step of a long journey – not the destination. The harder work, as Tunisians well know, will be to transition to, and maintain, democracy afterwards. And this will require transforming societies from within – not from above. An emerging generation of young, more globally-minded Arabs must take it upon themselves to both challenge calcified orthodoxy and increase civil society participation to advocate for change.

This will not be easy, because in the postcolonial Arab world, dictators consciously set about to numb the minds of their citizens, indoctrinating them with hyper-nationalist propaganda, exclusionary rhetoric, and dogmatic religious discourse. This form of intellectual despotism has resulted in generations of Arabs not only deprived of a good education, but taught to be intolerant, deferential to authority, and ill-equipped to thrive in a globalised, democratic world.

If democracy is ever to take root, the region’s citizens must begin deprogramming and re-programming their minds and learn to coexist with different points of view and ways of life, lest they turn against each other, thus paving the way for the return of authoritarians.

Ten years after the first uprisings, many in both the East and West want to believe there is still hope for democratisation. But if that is to succeed, Westerners’ perceptions of Arabs, and Arabs’ perceptions of themselves, must evolve.

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