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The Arab Spring at Five

Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters Protesters gather at Tahrir square in Cairo, Egypt, November 23, 2012.
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Introduction

In the fall of 2010, the Arab world continued its authoritarian slumber. Then many of its people woke up with a start, and within a year the political landscape of the Middle East had changed beyond recognition. Seemingly stable tyrannies in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria were toppled or contested; widespread protests emerged elsewhere; and popular governments sprang up out of the blue. A few years further on, with the protests suppressed, Egypt returned to tyranny, and Syria and Libya in chaos, it all seems like a dream—or a nightmare.

How will history look back on what came to be known as the Arab Spring? Certainly, the early hopes it raised of successful democratic revolutions were quickly and cruelly dashed—everywhere except Tunisia, whose new regime continues to limp forward. And the skeptics who warned about the uprising’s risks have had their pessimism confirmed. A recent report by Dubai’s Arab Strategy Forum, for example, reckoned the total costs at more than 1.3 million casualties, 14 million refugees, and $830 billion.

But however bad things look now, such a bleak net assessment is both unfair and premature. It is unfair, because the costs and failures have stemmed as much from the regional old guard’s implacable opposition to change as they have from the protesters’ demands for a new order. Charging the full bill of the last half decade’s turmoil to the people who revolted involves blaming the victims more than the victimizers. And it is premature, because in the long run history is unlikely to be on the side of the authoritarians, whether entrenched or reestablished.

After all, in 1847 Europe, too, slept in political darkness, only to be swept by an extraordinary wave of democratic upheavals the following year. The “Springtime of the Peoples,” as the Revolutions of 1848 became known, ushered in popular regimes across the continent—all of which collapsed back into tyranny within a couple of years. There, too, hopes were raised wildly high, only to be dashed, with the uprisings considered a failure and a historical dead end. Yet in retrospect, 1848 was clearly not just a self-contained story but one chapter in a long and turbulent process of European democratic development, one that began in the late eighteenth century and did not fully succeed until the mid-twentieth.

All countries and regions have their unique characteristics, of course, but there is little reason to believe that in the long run, economic, social, and political development in the Middle East will not eventually follow similar courses to those of other regions. And should that happen, the Arab Spring will appear not as a mistake and a failure but as an important battle in a lengthy war. Speaking in 1857 on his “philosophy of reform,” the former slave Frederick Douglass noted:

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. . . . If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

It took a long, hard struggle—much too long and too hard—for Douglass’ own cause to triumph. But in the end it did, and history provides cause for optimism as well as sober reflection. It is in that spirit that we offer this collection as a record of the Arab Spring and its course over the past half decade, as recorded in the pages and pixels of Foreign Affairs and ForeignAffairs.com.

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