A Bleak Anniversary for the Arab Spring
The riots and deaths in Egypt signal another grim turn in a story once filled with hope.
By THANE ROSENBAUM
The Arab Spring has reached its second anniversary, but in the swath of countries upended by continuing populist revolts, it is getting hard to find a safe place to throw a party.
Egypt on Friday began a long weekend of violence as dozens of people were killed and hundreds injured in demonstrations—many of them directed at government buildings—in Cairo, Suez, Alexandria and elsewhere. A court decision in Port Said on Saturday sparked a riot that left at least 27 dead. Cairo's Tahrir Square has been a scene of frequent protests by Egyptians unhappy with the consolidation of power by President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. On Friday, tens of thousands descended on the square less intent on celebrating the anniversary of their revolution against the autocratic Hosni Mubarak than on raging against what replaced him. The protest descended into a chaotic street battle between demonstrators and police.
Frustration and violence in post-Arab Spring Egypt is nothing new: Last month protesters gathered at the presidential palace after Mr. Morsi granted himself broad powers beyond the reach of judicial oversight. Islamist supporters of the president detained about 50 demonstrators (including four minors), bound their hands and beat them in an apparent effort to extract confessions of a conspiracy to undermine Mr. Morsi's fragile government. Such tactics haven't been seen in Egypt since the days of . . . well, Hosni Mubarak.
A protester outside a burning school building near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Jan. 26.
In North Africa, the successful uprising against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi has had the effect of spreading violence elsewhere. Unsecured armaments have fallen into the hands of insurgents in Mali. French troops rushed in this month to save Mali's government from jihadist fighters who now control a Texas-size portion of the country in which they have imposed a brutal version of Shariah law, stoning adulterers and dismembering thieves.
In Algeria, an Islamic warlord allied with al Qaeda attacked a gas-production facility—purportedly to denounce the French aid to Mali—and took hostage scores of Americans and Europeans. At least 38 of the hostages died when the Algerian military launched an operation to end the siege. Meanwhile, in Libya itself, jihadists operate with such impunity that they could launch September's sustained, murderous attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
Violence in Syria is growing more murderous, and the hope that rebel forces will soon topple dictator Bashar Assad is beginning to fade. If Assad does fall, what is most likely to replace him is Islamic rule, given the strong presence of jihadist fighters among the insurgents.
Iraq's liberation preceded the Arab Spring, but despite holding parliamentary elections and enacting a new constitution, the country is a shambles of sectarian violence, instability and corruption.
President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi of Yemen somehow can't persuade the leader of his Republican Guards, who just happens to be the son of ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, to surrender his control over the nation's scud missiles. Meanwhile, democratic elections aren't expected in the country until 2014.
In Tunisia—where the December 2010 self-immolation of a street vendor protesting unjust treatment by the government sparked what became the wildfire of the Arab Spring—the Islamist Nahda Party captured a 41% plurality of the total vote for the Constituent Assembly in October 2011. Islamists achieved similar victories in Morocco, Libya and beyond. Now that a new configuration of regional leadership has emerged, who knows whether free elections will continue at all.
Welcome to democracy in the Middle East, North Africa and Persian Gulf.
While the Arab Spring may have mercifully ended the regimes of longtime secular strongmen, the revolution hasn't brought about the core features of a democratic society: religious tolerance and pluralism, the rule of law, freedom of press and expression, respect for human rights, and equality for women, minorities and gays.
The Arab Spring isn't turning out like Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution of 1989, when democracy bloomed in Europe where totalitarianism once oppressed. Perhaps the will of newly freed peoples will yet prevail in Egypt or Yemen or Tunisia. The promise of democratic change might make real those dreams from two years ago, when brutal dictators surrendered not in the face of armies but of ordinary men and women and students armed with Facebook FB +1.48% pages and iPhone cameras.
How tragic that a mere two years later the revolution is starting to resemble old times—autocratic rule, only now with an Islamic agenda. Are we witnessing the growing pains of nations adjusting to the unfamiliar burdens of democracy, or are they replacing one form of tyranny and instability with another?
A far more delicate subject is whether democratic governments are even sustainable in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. In the West, it is common to preach the moral urgency and curative powers of democracy. But not all people around the world attach the same levels of importance to democracy, and dethroning a dictator isn't necessarily a bid for democracy. It is a bid to be free—of the oppressor du jour.
It is one thing to wish to see corrupt leaders deposed. It is quite another to reject dialing up a new round of despots. After all, a majority of Egyptians spoke by way of the ballot box, and what they voted for was political Islam, not the Bill of Rights. The courageous kids tweeting live from Tahrir Square two years ago weren't elected to anything, even though many Westerners dreamed that they, and not Islamists, were representative of Egypt's larger democratic aspirations.
It may be that this part of the world is simply resistant to transformative democratic change. Democracy can be a medication that simply won't take. It is too early to despair that the lives lost in Tunisia and Tahrir Square won't, in the end, reshape the region in an ennobling way, but the headlines of late are hardly inspiring.
There is a reason why realpolitik, with its practical considerations, malleable values and more predictable results, has so often guided American foreign policy in the past. Democracy in some countries won't make America any new friends, nor is it likely even to last.