Nadav Tamir, Senior Advisor for Governmental and International Affairs
How is The Arab Spring Remembered, and How can It Effect The Middle East in the Long Run
Much has been written lately about the failure of the ‘Arab Spring,’ which burst to life ten years ago after a well-known Tunisian market trader called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, in protest at the actions of his own government. The protests in Tunisia led to the fall of Ben Ali and subsequently many other dictators in Arab countries. Israel treated the protests with great apprehension, partly due to our tendency to see any change and development as an existential threat and also due to a more specific fear that Egypt’s President Mubarak would be toppled, having maintained peaceful arrangements with Israel, despite having failed to criticize or confront the Egyptian anti-Israel tendency.
Many explained that what was perceived in the West as an ‘Arab Spring’ of young people demanding their rights and prosperity, very quickly turned into an ‘Islamist Winter’ of extremists who took advantage of the chaos to fill the vacuum left by dictators. The Islamists were indeed more organized than the liberal protesters and thus came to power in post-protest elections - In Egypt, in the form of Mohammed Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and in Tunisia, the Islamist al-Nahda movement.
In other countries, the ‘Arab Spring’ brought total chaos and brutal civil wars, as happened in Syria, Yemen and Libya. The countries in which governments managed to survive were monarchies where public legitimacy remained despite the protests. The chaos also led to the rise of the barbaric phenomena of ISIS, which massacred so many Arabs throughout the Middle East who did not conform to their ‘pure’ Muslim ideals.
We have established a narrative that the ‘Arab Spring’ was the result of the Obama administration's policy, even though in reality the Obama administration was as surprised by the developments, as were the intelligence organizations and indeed the entire world. Obama was modest in his assessment of America’s ability to influence the internal processes of other countries and therefore contented himself with expressing moral support for democratization in accordance with American values. He did not seek to promote democracy by force, unlike President Bush Jr. on the advice of neo-conservatives who believed that democracy could be forced upon the Middle East. Obama called for Mubarak's retirement in order to prevent bloodshed, on the recommendation of the Egyptian military, which maintained close ties with the Pentagon. The ‘Arab Spring’ was caused not by Obama's policies, but by the social media phenomenon which enabled Arab citizens to better understand the gravity of their situation in terms of civil liberties, while empowering them to organize in a way which had not previously existed.
In my opinion, with the benefit of time and historical perspective, we will judge the change brought about by the ‘Arab Spring’ differently. Former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai famously said in 1972, that it was too early to judge the significance of the French Revolution (1789), owing to the Chinese tendency towards historical patience. Indeed, the comparison to the French Revolution is relevant, although the positive significance of the ‘Arab Spring’ can already be identified. Those who saw France a few years after the revolution were not witnessing the fulfillment of the vision “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Instead, they witnessed dictatorship and the Jacobin terrorism of Robespierre, who beheaded as many Frenchmen at the guillotine, as ISIS beheaded with the sword.
Many changes in history which are considered positive changes today, have endured difficult and bloody periods. The transition from one state of historic equilibrium to another, naturally passes through a chaotic stage of instability. This was the case after the Reformation led by Martin Luther, which eventually resulted in progress for Christianity. However, in the process of change, many Christians in Europe were killed due to deadly conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
There are already several signs that the ‘Arab Spring’ will turn out to be a positive development in the end, despite the atrocities that have taken place along the way. It is already evident that in many Arab countries, the leaders are paying greater attention to the public even if they are not yet exactly ‘Jeffersonian democracies’ (in retrospect, Jefferson himself did not believe that black citizens or women should enjoy the same rights given to white men). In Tunisia for example, a unity government has replaced Islamist rule and a process of democratization is taking place.
For us, the ‘Arab Spring’ has created greater openness towards Israel. Social networks and the Internet have allowed many in Arab countries to understand Israeli success and to see our potential for innovation for the region. In addition, many Arab leaders have realized that they are on the same side of the barricades as Israel, against the murderous extremism of al-Qaeda and ISIS on the Sunni side and the Ayatollahs’ regime and its proxies on the Shiite side.
To a large extent, the vision of the “new Middle East,” which Shimon Peres coined after the Oslo Accords is only now being realized due to the fact that in 1993, people in the region did not yet have access to the Internet and therefore lacked understanding of the possibilities of cooperation with Israel. Today, dictators are unable to prevent their citizens from accessing and internalizing what Israel has achieved.
Ultimately, we have an interest in democratization in the region even if means dropping the proud Israeli statement of being the "only democracy" in the Middle East. It is to be hoped that the Abraham Accords will make it clear to Israelis that our region is saturated with opportunities and not just threats. Abandoning the sense of threat from our neighbors will eventually lead to a recognition that the opportunities created in the region must be leveraged in favor of a settlement with the Palestinians. Such an arrangement would dramatically change the region and indeed the world and would end the toxic moral and demographic status quo of the occupation.
Nadav Tamir is The Peres Center's senior advisor for governmental and international affairs and former personal adviser of Shimon Peres for diplomatic affairs.