The spirit of the Arab Spring laid to rest

The spirit of the Arab Spring laid to rest
Comment: Bouazizi's self-immolation is widely recognised as sparking the Arab Spring. On the anniversary of the Tunisian's death, James Snell asks what has happened to the movement's hope and optimism.
6 min read
03 Jan, 2017
An army helicopter hovers over Tahrir Square on the anniversary of the Arab Spring [AFP]

It is widely held that 2016 was a depressing year.

Much of this collective feeling can be attributed to less substantial events such as the deaths of many famous people, and the pall this seemed to cast over the year as a whole.

But there are more serious reasons for believing that what happened in 2016 leaves the world darker than it was before, and less optimistic when thinking about the future.

More specifically, so many of the advances of the past half-decade have been swept away.

This can perhaps be summarised as the "spirit of 2011", the year in which citizens suffering under repressive governments rose up and sought to better their lives and to reform their countries, and the year in which these efforts were looked on admiringly by the rest of the world.

This spirit of 2011 - optimistic, forward-looking, internationalist, democratic - has been largely repudiated by events in 2016, and now the future no longer looks so bright.

The past year has served to repudiate the Whig idea of history as a continuous progression, a process in which and by which humanity betters itself and moves forward.

2011 was exciting; it seemed that things were going to happen – great, noble things – and it seemed that positive political change was both possible and deeply desired by so many.

In the Arab Spring such values found their expression in opposition to the Mukhabarat state, tyranny and repression. In favour instead, of freedom, self-government and modernity in the face of the ossified and coagulating regimes which had dominated the Middle East for far too long.

Protest movements, first set upon with organised, horrific brutality, had taken up arms

These ideas and values were noble and they were decent, but they were also effective; they were useful. Oppressive governments fell. Reforms were passed and instituted. This was no small achievement. It seemed as if this tide of humanity, and it was a humane tide, would sweep away the obstructions to prosperity and freedom and happiness which such regimes represent.

And the world was listening and watching, and it was following with rapt, breathless attention the work of the protestors in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and Bahrain and Syria. It seemed as though the world was willing them on.

But this optimism barely lasted a year. Half a decade on, the optimism of the Arab Spring is actively repudiated and sincerely opposed.

This rot began to spread early on; western politicians began to benefit from traducing its proponents as either mistaken idealists or covert future jihadists.

  Read More: Aleppo: The end of Syria's revolution?

Things were to get worse, however. The ideas of the Arab Spring, while they were embraced by so many across the globe, have been denigrated and largely abandoned in the course of the last year.

Protest movements, first set upon with organised, horrific brutality, had taken up arms. Then the revolutions were betrayed. But more than that, it seems that the fundamental tenets of the movements which repudiated the Mukhabarat states are now either denigrated or forgotten.

In 2011, there was a widespread positive view in the West of those who wanted to democratise their countries and remove repressive regimes. They were explicable; their aims could be empathised with and respected. And, it was suggested, such people deserved support, practical and moral, for what they are attempting to achieve.

This is why the footage of the protests against Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad were so thrilling: They were a crystallisation of so much of what is good about humanity, and a testament to the innate desire to live freely and to escape and defeat those political forces which attempt to prevent us from doing so.

Perhaps we are tired of the business of empathy. Perhaps we reject the emotional labour

But now it seems this understanding, and the implied belief in the universality of human nature, has worn down. Perhaps we are tired of the business of empathy. Perhaps we reject the emotional labour. Perhaps we tire of accepting the validity of what those in other countries desired to change about the ways they were governed – echoing thoughts we think of our own lives and own countries.

Many in the West now do not give credit to those Syrians who wish to remove the Assad regime, just as many retrospectively consider the Libyan struggle against Gaddafi illegitimate. Democracy is not for them, it is suggested. It is not good for them; they do not want it and they do not need it. The world is a better place if their political rights are trampled upon and murderous dictators are excused of their barbaric actions.

So many people I speak to talk unguardedly in these terms. So many journalists and analysts increasingly echo them. And so many politicians, eager as ever to capture the support associated with these changes in the collective consciousness, appeal to similar impulses.

Democracy is not for them, it is suggested. It is not good for them; they do not want it and they do not need it

In President Obama's phrase, many in the West would prefer the Middle East and North Africa to be run by 'a few smart autocrats' rather than democratically elected leaders.

British politicians speculate, even as they mourn the dead of Aleppo, about whether they were wrong to defeat the government's attempt to sanction the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons.

In a recent debate in Parliament, there was much emotional ostentation – stopping just short of weeping, the gnashing of teeth and the rending of garments – but no contrition, and not even a hint of it.

This situation is unlikely to change, as ex post facto humanitarianism becomes acceptable and more widely imitated.

This week brings the sixth anniversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose extraordinary act of self-immolation, a final, desperate gesture, is considered one of the sparks which lit the flame of the Tunisian revolution.

In the year following his death he was lauded and commemorated, his actions taken on their own terms, his story told and transmitted – and people all over the world made the effort to understand what drove him to do what he did.

Now there is no such impulse. The course of 2016 repudiates the very ideas of progress and optimism which once made the future look so much brighter, and so much more hopeful than it now seems.

James Snell is a writer and blogger whose work has appeared in National Review, Prospect, CapX, NOW News, Middle East Eye, History Today and Left Foot Forward - among others. 

Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.