The Arab Spring is not dead

The spirit of the uprising lives on in the hearts and minds of millions of Arabs.

Tunisians demonstrate against Tunisian President Kais Saied during the Tunisian Republic Day in Tunis, Tunisia, Tuesday, July 25, 2023. The sign reads in Arabic: "Freedom for all political prisoners". (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)
Tunisians demonstrate against Tunisian President Kais Saied during the Tunisian Republic Day in Tunis, Tunisia, Tuesday, July 25, 2023. The sign reads in Arabic: "Freedom for all political prisoners" [Hassene Dridi/AP Photo]

“The Arab Spring is dead,” analysts and commentators have proclaimed repeatedly since the period immediately following the successful overthrow of long-term dictators in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

Over the past decade, the mainstream conversation on the Arab Spring has continuously shifted between questioning why the Arab world “resists” democracy, declaring Arabs are “unprepared for democratic governance” and claiming Arabs do not really desire democracy “due to economic concerns and social norms”.

These shallow arguments and false perceptions, which gloss over the ongoing, determined struggles for democracy in many Arab countries and the diaspora, have been enthusiastically repeated after every single democratic setback in the region.

The return to authoritarianism in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, was especially seized upon by many observers of the region as confirmation of the demise of Arab aspirations for democracy – everywhere, for good.

It is true that not too long after the revolutions, dictatorships made a brutal and bloody return in both Tunisia and Egypt.

Tunisia, once hailed as the symbol of the Arab Spring, descended back into dictatorship with President Saied’s power grab in 2021. Since then, gains made during a decade of political experimentation and economic reforms have been erased, leaving the country in a state of chronic economic, social and political crisis.

In Egypt, the initial optimism surrounding the Arab Spring swiftly turned into a spectacle of oppression and brutality following the military’s ousting of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi just two years later, in 2013.

More recently, the incident that led to a flurry of gloomy and condescending op-eds on “what became of the Arab Spring” was the warm welcome Syria’s once-derided dictator, Bashar al-Assad, received at the recent Arab League Summit.

Al-Assad, responsible for a bloody civil war in which he employed chemical weapons against his own people, not only got to publicly rub shoulders with other Arab leaders, but also delivered a speech in which he called the summit “a historic opportunity” to address the many crises and increase “solidarity” in the region.

Looking at the state of the region, from Tunisia to Syria, it is impossible to deny the path to democracy for many Arab nations is still full of obstacles and threats.

And yet, the spirit of the 2011 Arab Spring protests is still very much alive.

Those who took to the streets for a better future over a decade ago, and many democratically minded Arabs who have come of age since then, continue to resist the new dictators and their regimes across the Arab world.

The Arab Spring, with all its complexities, was neither an absolute success nor an absolute failure. The post-revolution context in the Arab world exists on a spectrum, with varying degrees of success and failure. And the economic, sociopolitical and cultural factors that paved the way for those uprisings are still very much influencing the masses, keeping alive the possibility of yet another “spring”, against old and brand new dictators alike.

Indeed, the very same Arab populations that successfully challenged and toppled dictators in 2011 are now bravely resisting the counter-revolutions.

Despite all the repression, threats and the impossible-to-ignore pessimism of the international community, Arabs within their countries and the diaspora continue to gather in public spaces and organise albeit considerably small demonstrations, expressing their discontent and demanding political change.

In Tunisia, for example, people are bravely resisting Saied’s oppression through boycotts, strikes and sit-ins. Tunisian judges are routinely suspending work in courts and staging sit-ins to protest against the regime’s attacks on the judiciary. Some judges are also known to be taking continuous sick leave to avoid participating in human rights abuses under Saied’s rule.

Meanwhile, anti-dictatorship journalists, cartoonists and activists determined to circumvent censoring of the press are using social media, online platforms and other means to disseminate critical news and analysis, exposing government abuses. Tunisians are also working hard to garner support from the international community, lobbying governments, international institutions and human rights organisations to take action against the new regime.

As a result of their efforts, the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many other organisations have publicly rebuked Saied’s authoritarian drive and his numerous attacks on Tunisia’s democracy and human rights.

These efforts have already made an impact. An increasing number of Tunisians are loudly and publicly voicing their frustration with high unemployment rates, police repression, and pervasive corruption within the government. Similar to the final days of former dictator Ben Ali, Saied’s support is dwindling, forcing his regime to resort to heavy-handed crackdowns on political opposition and protesters, further fuelling public outrage.

Despite what Western media might argue, in the hearts and minds of democratically minded, anti-Saied Tunisians, the Arab Spring is most certainly not “dead”.

And Tunisia is only one example. From Egypt to Syria and Lebanon, the flame of revolution is not out, and hopes for a better, more democratic and egalitarian future are still very much alive.

Of course, this is not to deny the many setbacks, disappointments and failures experienced on the revolutionary path. But these should be perceived not as irrefutable proof of Arab peoples’ so-called “resistance to democracy”, but as valuable lessons that could help speed up the region’s journey towards democratic governance.

The early waves of democratic experimentation and subsequent failures during the first decade of the Arab Spring, for example, have underscored the importance of community-based political education for the long-term success of a democratic transition.

Working classes, who spearheaded the early Arab Spring uprisings, did not get involved in the post-revolution experimentations with democracy in many countries, and their absence from the public sphere contributed to the easy return of police and military states. Lacking sufficient political education, and excluded from decision-making processes, they have been disillusioned by the empty discourse of NGO activism that became dominant in the revolutionary sphere, and in turn, became increasingly accepting of authoritarian ideologies promising real order and prosperity.

Expanding political education to the Arab masses would equip them with knowledge about their rights and freedoms, enabling them to analyse and challenge narratives enabling oppression. Furthermore, it would allow people to recognise neoliberal ideologies propagated by their own dictators and Western NGOs alike that would achieve nothing other than trapping them in poverty and oppression.

A political education would also empower the populations to participate in the political process actively,  countering the passivity and fear being instilled by dictatorial regimes. It could help working classes to remain involved in the democratic process well beyond the street, ensuring that a future revolution would not be NGO-ised and its demands watered down.

And, perhaps most importantly, the introduction of universal, comprehensive political education in these states could help Arabs see through Western discourses about the “failed Arab Spring”, and realise that the West, despite its many claims, could never be a true supporter of democracy in their region.

After all, far from being temporary or accidental, the West’s support for Arab dictators is a fundamental pillar of their longstanding regional foreign policy. Despite positioning themselves as promoters of democracy and human rights, the European Union and the United States have never backed democratic forces of change in the Middle East when it mattered most.

After Saied’s coup in Tunisia, for example, European powers have found the authoritarian president to be a convenient ally in pursuing xenophobic and racist policies. They even empowered his authoritarianism and bankrolled his regime by striking a migration deal with him to prevent refugees from reaching Europe.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has continued to bolster Saied’s authoritarian regime through financial aid, diplomatic backing and military assistance despite his regime’s well-documented human rights abuses and dictatorial policies.

So, let’s repeat: regardless of what the neoliberal West, its institutions, analysts and experts say, the Arab Spring is not dead. Arabs are still resisting their oppressors in varied ways and keeping the spirit of the Arab Spring alive.

And as long as democratically minded Arabs learn from their past mistakes, make expanding political literacy and participation a priority, and stop believing the West’s lies about supporting democracy, revolution will return to Arab streets – sooner or later.

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