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In December 2010, anti-government protests began in Tunisia when Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself following the confiscation of his fruit cart by the authorities. The protests quickly grew in intensity and spread across North Africa and the Middle East, creating the so-called “Arab Spring.” In short order, the long-standing dictators of Tunisia and Egypt had been toppled, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya had been killed with the help of a restrained Anglo-French intervention, and a civil war had broken out in Syria between pro-democracy rebels and the forces of the authoritarian government under Bashar al-Assad.
As of 2015, it seems that only in its birthplace, Tunisia, has the Arab Spring been successful in the establishment of something which vaguely resembles a Western style democratic system. Egypt saw its first-ever democratically-elected president, the pro-Islamist Mohammed Morsi, overthrown in a military coup in 2013 led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Libya has descended into a civil war of its own, with four factions vying for supremacy: the democratically elected Council of Deputies, Libya Dawn (an Islamist organisation backed by Qatar, Sudan and Turkey), the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (again an Islamist organisation) and Islamic State. Syria meanwhile presents a most complicated picture: Assad and the Free Syrian Army are still fighting against one another; both are fighting against Islamic State; an American-Arab League air force is bombing ISIS bases in eastern Syria; and the Kurds are busy establishing an independent state in the north. The Syrian civil war has become something of a proxy war, with behind the scenes Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran all manoeuvring for advantage.
How did the Arab Spring, which called for secularism and democracy, give way to an Islamic caliphate in Iraq, Syria and Libya and a de facto military dictatorship in Egypt? It is partly because, as European and indeed American history shows, the transition from authoritarianism to democracy is never peaceful (the 1989 revolutions being the exception). Democracy did not properly come to Western Europe until the interwar period, and remained on shaky ground until the conclusion of the Second World War. Therefore, if the Arab Spring had created stable democratic governments in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya, it would indeed have been a more surprising situation than the one we now confront. Furthermore, historically speaking democracy is a companion to industrial revolution – wherever the latter advanced, the former was usually not far behind. The Middle East has experienced nothing akin to an industrial revolution – it still remains, in many ways, a predominately agrarian geopolitical entity, or at least lagging far behind the technological sophistication of the West. In other words, the Middle East is simply not in an economic position to support a secular democracy.
It may not well want to, either. Democratic elections since the Arab Spring have returned a secular government in only one country, Tunisia. Elections in Egypt and Libya saw the victory of Islamist parties; most dramatic was the success in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, a party which seeks to translate the theocratic teachings of Islam into government policy.
Secondly, there has been little help from the West with these movements. Despite his famous speech in Cairo in 2009, President Obama neither opposed nor supported the 2012 election of Morsi or his 2013 overthrow by al-Sisi. In Libya, once Gaddafi had been deposed and killed the limited number of Anglo-French personnel deployed there were swiftly withdrawn. Plans by Obama for military intervention in Syria in 2013 after evidence emerged of President Assad using chemical weapons on his own citizens were quickly shelved when the Cameron administration lost a vote calling for military action in Syria in the British House of Commons. Only belatedly has support been given to the Free Syrian Army.
The rise of Isis was in direct response to the power vacuum created by the Syrian civil war and the contemporaneous withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in December 2011. In April 2013 Islamic State was created by a fusion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (although not all members of Jabhat al-Nusra support this). Islamic State has risen quickly because of the lack of “secular strongmen” (or at least of strong government), large financial support from the Gulf area, intelligent use of social media and an all-controlling bureaucracy. The Arab Spring protests were partly caused by the rise on food prices across the region: one of the first actions by Islamic State in any new territory it takes control of is to lower the price of bread. As is often the case, people will submit to any kind of regime if their personal safety is assured.
In 2011 as the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and North Africa, the West was confronted with a choice: to support the pro-West “secular strongmen” or oppose them in favour of these new mass pro-democracy movements. Neither was really achieved, and where it was (for example, Libya) the follow-up was conspicuous by its absence. The result of this policy, certainly in Syria and Iraq, has been to create a power vacuum in which the authoritarian Islamic State has taken control of vast swathes of both countries, and is currently pushing into Libya. The movement for democracy has ended up creating authoritarian extremism. As George Orwell observed, the meaning of the word revolution is that everything turns full cycle.
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