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The Arab Spring at Five

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Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters Protesters gather at Tahrir square in Cairo, Egypt, November 23, 2012.
Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: The Arab Spring at Five
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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

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