We were too quick to declare the ‘failure’ of the Arab Spring. Recent uprisings in Sudan and Algeria show that Arab demands for basic human dignity won’t go away anytime soon.
As the military dictator seized power, his country’s streets ran red with blood. It wasn’t just hundreds of thousands of citizens that had been murdered, but the revolution’s values, too.
This is not Abdel Fattah el Sisi. This is not the Arab Spring. This is Napoleon and the French Revolution.
We often hear how the Arab Spring has ‘failed’. In recent years, Egypt slipped into a military dictatorship and arrested as many 60,000 people on political grounds. The massacres in Syria and Yemen continue with outside intervention and with Libya in political chaos with rival governments vying for control of the country. It seemed indisputable, the Arab Spring had failed.
Then out of nowhere, the Arab Spring seemed to gasp back to life as first Sudan, and then Algeria rose up in revolt. While the events in both countries are far from over, both demonstrate that not only are the Arab revolts still capable of spreading but even more importantly, evolving, as the protesters in Sudan and Algeria are much savvier and wary than their predecessors.
Both Westerners and Arabs, prematurely declared the Arab Spring’s death not only because they underestimated the amount of time this process will take, but also because they accepted the popular Western narrative of its revolutions.
However, a closer comparison of Western revolutions and the Arab Spring tells a very different story.
The textbook version and popular understanding of the French Revolution usually highlight how its values of liberte and egalite paved the way for Western liberalism and democracy. What it does not highlight, however, is the revolution’s shocking amount of violence and sheer brutality.
In just the one year known as the ‘Reign of Terror’, 17,000 people were officially executed by guillotine. These, mind you are only the official numbers. Thousands more died in prison and even more in the revolutionary wars—in which Napoleon emerged to protect the revolution’s values— which soon engulfed the continent.
What then of the American Revolution?
After its successful revolt against the British monarchy, the young republic found itself mired in crippling overinflation. Many of the revolutionary war veterans not only went through the entire war unpaid but faced difficulty collecting their dues after the fact.
The months of unanswered petitions and protests eventually erupted into an outright revolt as Daniel Shays, and 4,000 armed veterans attempted to seize the United States’ Armory and overthrow the government.
The revolt was eventually put down, but it took months to do so.
Furthermore, America’s financial woes were so bad that the revolt was put down not by a federal army, but a militia that was mostly privately funded by the leaders of Massachusetts who had convinced wealthy merchants of the revolt’s danger.
This incident highlighted the need for a stronger federal government and arguably led to the Constitutional Convention that gave America the constitution and system it knows today.
The West’s narrative of itself is that democracy and human rights are intrinsically Western. The West was always destined for this. This narrative had led many of us to speak as if the West woke up one day, demanded democracy and received it the next.
Rather, it too went through a long and painful process
The Arab Spring seems to be doing quite well in comparison.
In the Arab world's case, for the most part, it has not been revolutionaries who have unleashed violence, like that of the French Revolution, but rather the counter-revolutionaries, desperate to keep the status quo by any means necessary.
Furthermore, America, an ocean away from the major players of its day, had something the Middle East has not had for the past century: a lack of foreign invention.
Needless to say, if a young revolutionary republic in today’s world had half the financial woes America did during its revolution, it would never be allowed to succeed. It would immediately be subjected to an IMF loan that would cripple it for years, if not decades.
The Arab Spring was never going to be easy
The domestic dictators, regional counter-revolutionary coalition and global players form an intersection of power that simply does not see Arab dignity and self-autonomy as in their interest.
To top it all off, the Arab Spring further has to overcome the negative cultural effects that decades of tyranny and negligent governance have produced.
Indeed, one of the most damaging of tyranny’s cultural effects has been an acceptance of a Neo-‘Oriental despot theory’. Dictators rule us because we must be. We are not ready for democracy.
However, even a cursory glance at Western history will show that Westerners too, once upon a time, were not ‘ready’.
Another glance will show that it is currently impossible to know if the Arab Spring has ‘succeeded’ or ‘failed’ because it is still in motion. And it probably will be, for years to come, possibly even decades.
In those years, we will see both progress and regress, successes and failures.
What we are witnessing is not a historical event, but a process, and perhaps even a period of history.
Though we now talk of the French Revolution and the American Revolution as if they were single events, it is more accurate to view them both as part of a larger century-long ‘Age of Revolutions’, as coined by the famous Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm.
It is hard in a rapidly-changing and ever-evolving world to be sure of anything. But history can tell us one thing for certain: do not expect the Arab demands for basic human dignity to go away anytime soon.
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