This week is the second anniversary of the resignation of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, an event that in many ways turned unrest in Tunisia from a purely national affair to what the media dubbed the Arab Spring. That Arab Spring was seen as a broad rising of the Arab masses against aging and corrupt regimes, in favor of greater democratization and liberalization. This is a good time to consider the fate of the Arab Spring.
At the time we framed our view this way: Not all unrest is a revolution, not all revolutions are democratic, and not all democracies are liberal. We tended to be cautious about the more extravagant claims made for the unrest that swept the Arab world. These three concepts were the framework of our caution.
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There was certainly unrest in the Arab world. Sometimes the unrest was far less powerful than how it appeared on television. In many cases, the governments managed to contain the turmoil. In other cases, the leader personally could not be saved, but the regime itself — the institutions under which the leader ruled — could be. Where regimes fell, the result was sometimes chaos, as in Libya, and sometimes a new sort of democracy appeared in some tentative or robust form, as in Egypt. In that case you had a democratic regime, but not necessarily a liberal regime. Egyptian democracy currently favors the Muslim Brotherhood. That might result in a democratic but illiberal regime. To put it more simply, nothing was as obvious as the Arab Spring implied.
In many ways the Egyptian case is the most important, simply because Egypt is the largest Arab country. It is still not clear what happened in Egypt. The extent to which the army has actually surrendered power is not always clear, and the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood wants a liberal regime is even less obvious. Much of the Arab Spring's focus was on Egypt, which is a perfect example of the ambiguity of the Arab Spring and its legacy. What happened exactly, and what will happen, is still unclear.
The only regime that was truly obliterated by the Arab Spring was Libya's. But that had much more to do with NATO's intervention than the popular uprising. Indeed, the argument for the intervention was that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was about to slaughter his opponents in Benghazi. In Bahrain, the regime was saved by a Saudi intervention that was simply too powerful for the regime's opponents to overcome. In Yemen, President Ali Abudllah Saleh relinquished power after months of sustained protests, but the regime remained largely intact, including the oppression, chaos and conflict that existed before. And in Syria, the regime of President Bashar al Assad has survived more than a year of conflict, confounding predictions that it would shortly fall.
Whether al Assad is still governing Syria is open to question. He may simply be the most powerful warlord in a Syria that has turned into Lebanon, a state with a weak or nonexistent government with powerful militias. If so, the one thing that is certain is that his opponents are not of one mind, and it is not clear that they wish to create a liberal democracy. On the contrary, the strongest factions appear to want to replace al Assad with an Islamist regime.
Many in the West confused people demonstrating in the street with their societies. Not nearly as many regimes fell as might have been expected. Westerners certainly confused the demonstrators, many whom were in fact advocating liberalization, with the real powers that were being unleashed, which were primarily Islamist, a far more powerful tendency in the Arab world than liberalization.
Two years on, the change that has occurred in the Arab world has been in two directions. Some countries, like Libya and Syria, have deteriorated into chaos or occupation. In other countries, like Egypt, what democracy there is does not embrace liberalism. The idea that the Arab world was emulating the uprisings of Eastern Europe in 1989 turned out to be an error. The unrest in the Arab world may have superficially resembled the unrest of Europe in 1989, but the apparent similarity was misleading.
This isn't to say that the Arab Spring didn't achieve things. It is simply our view, and was at the time, that it did not achieve the things that Western supporters hoped for. The region has not liberalized in any meaningful sense, nor is that likely. If that was the goal of the Arab Spring — and some would cite other goals, particularly after the fact — then the Arab Spring failed, and the departure of Ben Ali did not mark the beginning of a liberal rising but the start of repression, war and chaos.