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The Arab Spring at Five: Updates On Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey

With Fareed Zakaria, Brian Klaas, Marina Ottoway, Nathan Brown, and Merve Tahiroglu

Was the Arab Spring a mirage? Did it mean anything? Five years on, we’re looking at how the revolutions panned out in Tunisia and Egypt, and why Turkey lost the Arab Spring. Featuring interviews with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, Brian Klaas, Marina Ottoway, Nathan Brown, and Merve Tahiroglu.   

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To learn more on the subject, check out these related links:

Egypt’s Durable Arab Spring By Marina Ottaway and David Ottaway

Tumult in Tunisia by Brian Klaas

Did Sisi Save Egypt? By Nathan Brown and Yasser El-Shimy

Ankara's Failure by Jonathan Schanzer and Merve Tahiroglu

This podcast has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below. Music credit: FreeMusicArchive.org / The Stealing Orchestra & Rafael Dionisio, Jurica Jelić, Podington Bear

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Allawala: Someone visiting Egypt after ten years away and with no access to the news might be shocked to learn that, five years earlier, a popular democratic revolution had toppled the longstanding military dictatorship and voted in a raucous period of Muslim Brotherhood rule. Egypt today is just as much of a police state as it was a decade ago with the same constellation of ruling forces and the same suppression of dissidents. So was the Arab Spring a mirage? Did it mean anything? Five years on, we’re looking at how the revolutions panned out in Tunisia and Egypt, and why Turkey lost the Arab Spring. First up, Foreign Affairs’ Gideon Rose talks to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

Gideon Rose: So one of the advantages of Davos is you bump into impressive people here. I'm here with Fareed Zakaria. Fareed, five years on, what's your take on the Arab Spring?

Fareed Zakaria: I think it's fair to say that it's a disaster, to put it bluntly. By which I mean the promise of the Arab Spring, which was meant to be a more open democratic politics and economics in Arab societies, particularly politics, has not really worked out any well. But one would have to say if you look at it historically, you know there were the Revolutions of 1848 and people did point out during the Arab Spring that by 1851, three years after the Revolutions of 1848, which were these great liberal democratic revolutions in Europe, by 1851, almost every country had regressed back toward a traditional monarchy with the army in charge in some way.

Well, basically that's what's happened in the Arab world. The only hope I suppose one can have, and it's a real hope, is that in the long run in Europe, even though there was a regression, in the short term, in the long run, the forces of liberalism and democracy did win out. But I think you'd have to look 20 years out to have much hope in the Arab world right now.

Rose: I agree with that entirely, that if you look from 1789 to the 1950s, it took France over a century and a half to get a full liberal democracy. So with the 1848 episode in retro respect, looks like a step, one step forward, one step... Or two steps forward, one step back. The autocracy was less stable afterward than it had been before, and I think that's true in a place like Egypt. But I guess my question to you is, did it have to end this way? Was it inevitable or could you have seen this playing out even better in the short term so that we didn't have to put our hopes just in the very long term? 

Zakaria: I think at the time I was more... I was hopeful and I was more optimistic than maybe the facts warranted. By which I mean to say I don't know if it was inevitable, but when you look at most Arab societies, what you see is very little in the way of civic society and civic organizations, guilds, associations, trade unions, and things like that. Very little in the way of strong traditions of the rule of law. So, in retrospect, many of the things that we look on as precursors to strong liberal democracy were not there, but they are being developed. So there is a middle class developing in some of these countries. The gulf states are a good example. Saudi Arabia is beginning to reform. So again, like you, I do think the 20-year horizon is probably not a bad one, but I don't know that I would argue that if we... If somebody had made a few more decisions here or there differently, Syria would not have collapsed, Egypt would not be in the situation it is. They had weak raw material.

Allawala: On January 16 this year, a young Tunisian man discovered that his name had been removed from a list of possible hires in Tunisia’s Ministry of Education. Unemployed, and at the end of a job search that always came up empty, he climbed to the top of an electrical pole and electrocuted himself. Just as they did five years ago, Tunisians have taken to the streets in protest. To find out more about the story, Foreign Affairs’ Rebecca Chao talked to Brian Klaas, a Fellow at the London School of Economics.

Rebecca Chao: There's a sense of deja-vu in Tunisia right now. The young man killed himself on January 17th out of frustration with the economic situation, and the people have taken to the streets again to protest. But at the same time, the international community has commended Tunisia and even awarded the country its first Nobel Prize. So why is there this divide?

Brian Klaas: The environment that happened before, where there was the uprising that was sparked by Mohammed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid in Central Tunisia is quite different because there was an authoritarian ruler in power who was backed by the West for security reasons. Now there's a democratically elected government in power, and there's a slow but steady transition towards liberal democracy in Tunisia. The difference, I think, is critical, because it means that even though the people are disappointed with the economic outcomes of the democratic government, there's a way to sort of redress those grievances through the legitimate process. There's going to be fits in democratic transitions. You can't expect a country to become democratic overnight, and assessing Tunisia five years after the Arab Spring would be akin to assessing Japan in 1950. It could be a success story long-term, but it may not be one that's perfect immediately. That's okay, I think.

Chao: You visited Tunisia in 2013, and it had just successfully written a new constitution, had a parliamentary election. Can you explain what the mood was like then?

Klaas: Sure. It was cautious optimism with cracks starting to show back in 2013. So the euphoria from the revolution had not yet worn off. People believed in democracy and they were excited about the direction the country was taking. Elections were being prepared at the time when I was there, and the elections went off very smoothly ultimately in late 2014, and there was a peaceful transition to Nidaa Tounes, which is the more secular party, away from Ennahda, which is the more Islamist party. I think what's happening now is that people have cooled on democracy because the euphoria's worn off, but the economic goods haven't shown up. So ultimately there's a problem with the longer this goes on with economic dislocation, the more people are going to start to blame democracy, when in fact the real culprit here is the structural economic deficiencies that were created by Ben Ali.

Chao: Do you have a sense of whether this political crisis has reached its pinnacle?

Klaas: I think people are aware of how damaging it is, but I don't know if it's reached its pinnacle. And the reason for that is because, for politicians of every stripe in any country around the world, it's very difficult to completely dissociate yourself from the battles that are happening internally. And Tunisia has been remarkable in this sense, they have risen above the fray, time and time again, but there's only so long that you can do that before the sort of normal political divisions in a country start to show themselves. This isn't something where I think it's time to just throw in the towel and believe that, okay, Tunisia is doomed. And I think that there will be problems with volatility in the future, but these are all part of the starts and stops of a democratic transition.

Chao: Do you think that Tunisia still stands as a lone success story in the Middle East?

Klaas: I think time will tell. Because obviously, if you'd asked me this question about Egypt in 2013, I might've had a different answer than I do now. But that being said, it's remarkable in the sense that it has been resilient. There's been a wave of crises crossing the Middle East, and none of them have toppled Tunisia's democratic transition.

Allawala: That was Rebecca Chao talking to Brian Klaas. If Tunisia stands as one of the Arab Spring’s partial success stories, Egypt might stand as one of its many failures. To learn more about how the anniversary of the Arab Spring was celebrated in Egypt, I talked to Marina Ottaway, from Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Marina Ottaway: The anniversary was really not celebrated because the government had taken extraordinary measures to make sure that there would not be any protest on that day. So that essentially you had literally a few individuals, particularly one woman who went out in Tahrir Square with a sign, but there was really no protest, and of course, there was very, very muted celebration on the part of el-Sisi supporters because the government does not like even demonstrations in its favor. It just does not like demonstrations.

Allawala: According to Ottaway, the one woman who did go to Tahrir Square to protest was largely left alone. As to how the level of repression in Egypt under Sisi, Egypt’s current president, compares to the repression under Mubarak, Ottaway says that Sisi is worse.

Ottaway: Mubarak, particularly in the last period of his presidency was somewhat complacent about the fact that Egyptians would not revolt. I remember talking to a high-ranking member or leader of the National Democratic Party that is Mubarak's party a few months before the uprising, and we were discussing whether people would revolt against Mubarak's attempt to install his son in the presidency and his reply was, "It does not matter because the Egyptian people are docile people. They will not revolt. And in case they would, the military is going to be there." Nobody takes such complacent attitude now.

Allawala: Part of Sisi’s strategy for preventing dissent is to turn to religion, which is somewhat ironic, given that he deposed the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President, Mohamed Morsi, who was elected after Mubarak’s government fell.

Ottaway: First of all, in trying to prevent the protest on the fifth anniversary, he has managed to get religious authorities to issue a Fatwa that is a religious edict, saying that the protest was not allowed, that it was not permissible under Islam. But more broadly, he has moved again to really tighten the control of the government, over the Imams, over the mosque preachers. They have been government employees for decades. But the government has moved to impose that the topic on which they preach every Friday be chosen by the government, and they are not allowed to stray to a different topic.

Allawala: With all the problems in Egypt—the economy is sinking, terrorism is increasing, and the Sisi government is becoming more repressive—it might seem like the country is headed for another uprising.

Ottaway: We as the scholar community, analyst community, we can tell which countries are in danger. That is, we can tell the danger signal in various countries. We recognize the indicators of possible trouble. What we don't know how to predict is exactly what is going to trigger, in other words... To trigger a crisis. Let me point out that under Mubarak, the danger signs, the signs that the regime might run into serious problem had been there for 20 years. In other words, and people had been saying for a long time, "something is going to break in this country." Well, it took 20 years before it did. And when it did, it caught everybody by surprise.

Allawala: Ottaway’s take on whether the Arab Spring was a good or bad thing for Egypt was mixed.

Ottaway: In the short run, you would say the situation is probably worse now than in the last years of Mubarak because it's more repressive. This regime is more repressive because it's scared, and because the economy is in worse conditions. What you have on the positive side is people who are... The fact that Egyptians are not necessarily going to wait for another 30 years while the government pushes them around.

Allawala: Of course, for all Egypt’s problems, it is certainly not the worst off post–Arab Spring country in the region. For that, our next guest says, Sisi and the Egyptian military thank themselves. They believe, in fact, that they saved Egypt from a fate like Libya’s or Syria’s. So did Sisi save Egypt?

Brown: I don't think so, but certainly that's what he thinks, and that's what an awful lot of the Egyptian political elite thinks as well.

Allawala: That is Nathan Brown who is a professor at George Washington University and author, with Yasser el-Shimy, of a recent Foreign Affairs article.

Brown: One of the reasons we wrote the piece was to communicate that there is this kind of coherent world view driving the new Egyptian regime that really has to be taken seriously, 'cause it explains a lot of what they've done. If you take a look at it from the perspective, say, of a senior army officer, like the one who is currently president of Egypt, the security apparatus, even parts of the judiciary or high officials within the Egyptian state, what they saw in 2011 was the threat of a complete breakdown of social and political order.

You had the jails being emptied, you had courtrooms being under attack, you had the police force disintegrating, you had a great rise in crime, you had within Egyptian society kind of an old spirit of deference towards those who were more powerful and older suddenly completely break down. So this was a very, very jarring moment, what was happening was not simply pressure for regime change, but really the possibility of complete social collapse of the kind that we're seeing now in Libya or Syria or Yemen.

Allawala: After the revolution, the military turned to state building.

Brown: Well, what they're clearly doing is rebuilding the Egyptian state under their leadership, and the military is simply out there much more in public, and military officers are influential in all different kinds of state institutions. I'd say the same thing for the security apparatus as well. The police, internal security, intelligence, and so on. And what they seem to be doing is, I think, edging aside rule for civilian politics. They essentially seem to be saying Egypt's leaders know what they're doing, they don't need political parties, politicians looking over their shoulder.

Allawala: Ultimately, though, the military likely wants to be responsible for ruling but not governing.

Brown: They want to defend the country's border, be ultimately responsible for guaranteeing the Egyptian state, but they don't want to be teaching school children or collecting the trash. They have taken, however, such a dominant role in reconstructing the political system and they seem to be taking a leading role in sketching out economic policy and so on, and the role seems to be so public that I think the generals right now must be asking themselves have they bitten off, perhaps, a little bit too much.

I think the current regime is essentially stable, but I think it's going to be able to deliver less in terms of good governance, in terms of security, in terms of economic reform, than the people who are behind it seem to think. So I think that Egypt is going to go into a fairly difficult period.

Allawala: That was Nathan Brown on Egypt. Also going through a difficult period in the post-Arab Spring world is the Turkish government, which saw the revolutions as an opportunity to realize its neo-Ottoman dream of positioning Turkey as a regional leader. To learn more about how Turkey’s ambitions played out, I talked to Merve Tahiroglu, author of the recent Foreign Affairs article “Ankara’s Failure: How Turkey Lost the Arab Spring.”

Allawala: You write that Turkey's leaders saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to realize their Neo-Ottoman dreams. Can you describe what those dreams are and why the Arab Spring was a good opportunity?

Tahiroglu: So, the leaders of Turkey and here, we specifically talk about current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. So, the AKP, the Justice and Development Party that these leaders are a part of, is an Islamist-rooted party, and they... Even when they came to power, they wanted to at least establish better ties with the Middle Eastern countries, which is something that Turkey didn't really do much before this party came to power in the early 2000s.

And because of the Islamic Student Party that they're part of, is that it's an ideology, that they used to look back at fondly and they see the current republic and this pivot away from the Middle East that happened in the last eight years or so as sort of a hindrance to Turkey's greatness. So, looking back at the Ottoman Empire, they want to revive Turkey as a regional actor, as a world actor. And to do that, they feel that Turkey should become a key regional player first in the Middle East.

Allawala: And so the Arab Spring comes along, the region is going through a lot of change anyway, and Turkey does what to reposition itself?

Tahiroglu: Well, the Arab Spring was a great opportunity for Turkey because, if you look at the Middle East before the Arab Spring and even now, it's filled with rather autocratic regimes and what... Turkey's experience is completely different. Turkey has been a democracy for the last 90 years or so. And the AKP, the Erdoğan and Davutoglu, they came to power democratically. They came to power with elections. And even though they're Islamist-rooted, they were able to position themselves within Turkey's democratic establishment, and this is how they projected their legitimacy both in Turkey and internationally. And so, they thought they could be a great model and lead these Islamist parties that would come to power in these countries, and offer them advice, offer them kind of a 'Big Brother' thing, some sort of leadership. And this is something that worked.

Allawala: Right. You wrote that Erdoğan even became a rock star of sorts in his travels throughout the region.

Tahiroglu: Yes. I remember, he arrived at the airport in Cairo and he was greeted with slogans, and chanting, and applauses in Egypt. And he was... A lot of journalists at the time described him as a sort of a rock star, and he indeed appeared as one.

Allawala: So we're five years out from the Arab Spring now, and, obviously, things didn't turn out quite how Turkey or the West or anyone really expected. Why did Turkey's foreign policy not work in the way most people thought it would?

Tahiroglu: So I think there are a couple of reasons for that. And one of the most important ones is that Erdoğan and the AKP really championed the Muslim Brotherhood and others Islamist parties. They sort of felt some sort of kinship with them. But I think they overestimated these groups', these parties' ability to govern and that has to do with the completely different experiences of Turkey and these countries that were going through the Arab Spring at the time. So when they championed these Islamist parties, they thought what they might deal with would be something like the AKP. But the AKP had gone through... I mean, the leaders of the AKP had gone through major transformations within themselves. Erdoğan had been part of three other Islamist parties before all of them were shut down by the Constitutional Court. And so they had gone through some sort of a reform themselves, but the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a really good example, they hadn't.

Allawala: Right, and it seems like Syria is another extreme example where you say that Turkey was getting involved in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood even before the violence there really took off.

Tahiroglu: The Syria case is, I think, very interesting because the Muslim Brotherhood, having been in exile for so many years from Syria since the 1980s, didn't really have that much popularity or backing among the Syrian opposition at the beginning of the revolution. But they mobilized in Turkey and somehow got up high up in groups, including the Free Syrian Army, but all sorts of umbrella organizations that the Syrian opposition was trying to get together inside Turkey. And this has to have some Turkish backing. I think with Syria, Turkey's biggest mistake, more so than promoting the Muslim Brotherhood was, in giving support for the Syrian opposition, they did something that the West didn't necessarily desire. Ankara didn't necessarily distinguish between the moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, and some of the Jihadi factions within the opposition, and that includes groups that are affiliated with al-Qaeda, such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

Allawala: Do think these failures have changed Turkey's perception of itself at all? Does it still look to revive the sort of Neo-Ottoman ideal?

Tahiroglu: Yes and no. Turkish leaders have been saying in the past two years that Turkey has its precious loneliness in the Middle East right now. And what that means is Turkey, effectively, has no diplomatic relations with many of the countries in its neighborhood. It has bad relations with the ones that it still continues to have diplomatic relations with, such as Iran and Iraq. And Turkey's leaders are aware of that. And I think this year we've been seeing some little bit of back-peddling in its foreign policy, in that sense. But the mere fact that they call it 'precious loneliness' also shows that they, the leaders of the AKP still see their ambitions in the region as righteous.

It means, "We are standing alone because we are righteous and we are the only ones promoting what's good for the region." And so, it just shows that they're not saying, "We're isolated because of our bad policies." They're saying, "We're isolated because the region has taken this awful turn, but how great would life be for everyone in the world and in the Middle East had our dreams had come true, and these people would be more prosperous, as well."

Allawala: That was Merve Tahiroglu on Turkey and the Arab Spring. For more on these topics, check out ForeignAffairs.com, and look out for our forthcoming eBook on the Arab Spring at Five.

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