A ‘War and Peace’ for today would be set in the Middle East, perhaps in the Arab world. – Niall Ferguson, Professor of History at Harvard (The Sunday Times, 10 January 2016)
The spring of 2011 began in hope; in a span of five years, the season has metaphorically suffered a dire level of environmental degradation, seemingly beyond hope, beyond despair. The heady euphoria that was once inherent in the geopolitical epithet of “Arab Spring” has turned out to be a thoroughly misleading expression of putative change. The hope aroused in January-February 2011 and the waves of popular protest against repressive regimes have given way to bloody strife as almost every country in the region – with the pre-eminent exception of Tunisia – has over the past five years been floundering in search of its moorings. More accurately, the Arab Spring can be said to have begun on 17 December 2010 with the street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi&’s self-immolation in Tunisia in protest against his treatment by the police. In the wider perspective, it ignited a gut-churning upheaval against state repression.
To the Western world&’s self-professed practitioners of geopolitics and the champions of freedom, democracy, and an impartial judiciary, the region has defied even a tentative solution at best, a patchwork quilt at worst. Nobody has as yet found a solution to this crisis and the failure has been spectacular. In a sense, the countries plagued by tyranny and dissent have come to showcase the failure of the world. Together and alone, these countries exemplify the contradiction in terms – elusive democracy. The UN, theoretically the voice of the comity of nations, has made itself vulnerable to the charge of dithering in the face of impediments placed notably by China and Russia, that have tacitly condoned the repressive narrative as permanent members of the Security Council.
From 2011-16, the movement offers a scintilla of hope only in Tunisia in terms of the avowed objectives of the Jasmine Revolution – democracy, justice, and tolerance. Having lent the spark and the surge towards radical change, the people who spearheaded the upheaval can now boast greater rights than they did before. In the other countries of the region, however, the heady movement has been reduced to a fizzle, even discord between Russia and the West as in Syria. Of course, Egypt has got rid of Hosni Mubarak, but the country oscillates between Islamist fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood variety and a quasi-military dispensation of a Field-Marshal-turned President. Indeed, the structure of governance, such as exists in Cairo today, is but a legacy of the Mubarak era, sustained by a pliant judiciary and a fraudulent election that masqueraded as a tryst with democracy. Tahrir Square has lapsed in the limbo of history.
The crisis, almost across the region, has deepened with the surge of ISIS. A brutal civil war in Syria has scarcely been able to eject the repressive regime of Bashr al-Assad. The orchestrated truce of 12 February has fizzled out even before it was scheduled to come into effect a week after. At another remove, the almost relentless strife has brought anarchy to that country and to neighbouring Iraq. This has been the principal factor behind the exodus of desperate migrants to Europe in 2015, as often as not turned away from one port to another. In point of fact, the Arab Spring and Europe&’s migrant crisis have been two of the defining themes of a period of world history – 2011-16. Symbols and personification are important. Although the haunting image of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore on a Turkish beach has shocked the world, the child&’s death is sadly one of the thousands thrown up by the Syrian conflict The biggest displacement of people since 1945 is a test of European values and of the ability of member-states to work together. The libertarian continent needs to open its heart as well as its doors.
The surge of ISIS, taking off as it were from Iraq and Syria, has made the waters murkier, and mortally so. The Caliphate survives because its defeat is nobody&’s business. Having stalled UN intervention in Syria, the Kremlin is now engaged in nuanced military adventurism. While the bombing from the skies targets ISIS, the repressive presidential palace in Damascus remains unscathed. The intervention therefore has been suitably calibrated to ensure that Bashr al-Assad can entrench himself further still. While Vladimir Putin dares, Barack Obama dithers. From Ukraine to Syria, the Russian President rules from the skies. In typical Cold War fashion, Russia has struck to prevent a client state from collapsing. The intervention in Syria, most recently the surgical strike on a health facility run by Medicin Sans Frontiers, and the resultant bloodbath and displacement have prompted a new wave of refugees to flee. The country exemplifies a dichotomy in terms of Russian intervention, with Putin assuming the role of leader of a new global war on terrorism – a geostrategy that scarcely addresses the fundamental issues thrown up by the Arab Spring.
Post-Gaddafi Libya is a failed state that both imports and exports terror. In retrospect, the crisis of stability has been the net result of the “humanitarian intervention” by the West. The transition has merely added to the murk as the country has been held to ransom by a multiplicity of tribes and sectarian groups, militias and fanatics – the bane of Yemen no less. Ever since the battered body of Muammar Gaddafi was recovered from a ditch, the struggle for the mastery of Libya has been an awesome phase of Arab history.
The Arab Spring has failed to bring about good governance, but its ideals richly deserve the support of the world, and not merely the democratic West, as dithering as it is indecisive. Most importantly, accountable governments; lasting peace; recognition of diversity and tolerance as human virtues. Five years ago, the watershed movement had unleashed the yearning for freedom and prosperity of people living under tyranny. The region remains ever so removed from the goals it had set in 2011. True it is that repressive rulers have been toppled, save the one in Damascus who soldiers on with the support of Moscow and Beijing. Saudi Arabia, as yet unscathed by the forces of change, is in ferment. The sectarian war has intensified between the traditional enemies – Saudi Arabia and Iran – with the flurry of executions, pre-eminently that of the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. On closer reflection, this is said to be the “largest mass execution” (46 in number) to be carried out, with the sanction of royalty, in 35 years. The House of Saud, if now relatively liberal by the country&’s theocratic standards, has fired the latest salvo in Islam&’s sectarian war, inflaming Iran and delaying any hope of major reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Shias.
On the fifth anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution, the Arab world showcases a bitter truth – a string of failed states, verily a cauldron of discontent and ignoble strife. Altogether a toxic maelstrom.
The writer is a Senior Editor, The Statesman.