TEL AVIV – When troubled street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, on December 17, 2010, he could not have imagined how devastating his protest would be. By triggering a wave of civil unrest across the Arab world, it touched on the region’s most profound transformation since de-colonization.
First, Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution exploded, resulting in the ouster of the country’s longtime president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Protests swiftly attacked other Arab countries, and more autocrats were dropped – namely Hosni Mubarak from Egypt, Muammar el-Qaddafi from Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh from Yemen.
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad managed to hold on to power – at the cost of plunging his country into a brutal civil war that has killed more than half a million people, forced millions to flee the country, and left millions more internally displaced. The Syrian conflict returned to Russian fold, turning its territory into a battlefield between Iran and Israel.
Most of those who succeeded in overthrowing their autocrats in the Arab Spring did not see their democratic hopes blossom. Yemen’s “Coffee Revolution” quickly evolved into a civil war between the central government and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Although Saleh eventually resigned, the Yemeni people received no relief. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia led a brutal intervention against the Houthis, turning Yemen into the site of a vicious proxy war with Iran. The result has been the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
For Libya – already an artificial colonial creation – its regime change, brought about by Western humanitarian intervention, was chaotic. Since 2011, the country has since been torn to pieces by fighting among forces supported by a variety of outside actors, including Egypt, Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the renegotiation of generals and local warriors.
The dominoes continued to decline for years, with the Algerian Hirak Movement exploding in February 2019 – six days after Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his candidacy for a fifth presidential term. The protests prompted Bouteflika to resign, and led to a large-scale boycott of the presidential election in December 2019. The winner of that election, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, is but a new civil face for an eternal military rule.
The Arab Spring revealed the inherent fragility of many of the affected provinces. While some leaders have been able to hold on to power, and some oppressive military equipment remains weak, solid legitimacy, often based on rigid elections, leaving them very vulnerable, especially in the face of sentiment tribal and Islamic. (It’s no coincidence that the Arab monarchy – Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – which derive their legitimacy largely from religious sources, far outperformed the pseudo-presidential republics.)
By exposing the weakness of the state, the Arab Spring opened the way for the rise of the Islamic State, a Sunni terrorist group, in parts of Syria, Iraq, and the Sinai Peninsula where central governments had no control. Although local and international forces eventually dismantled the ISIS “caliphate”, the group still has contacts in Egypt, Syria and Libya. As long as the problem of state weakness goes unnoticed, Sunni princes will continue to emerge.
People seem to be realizing their electoral hopes on political Islam, which has emerged as the main alternative to secular autocracy over the last decade. Wherever free elections were held, Islamist parties gained power. Tunisia’s moderate Ennahda party, for example, was integral to making the country the only true success story of the Arab Spring, with the three elections since 2011 leading to a peaceful transfer of power.
In Egypt, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood won the presidency in 2012. But, after just over a year in power, the army, led by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, overthrew him and set up an even larger regime oppressive than Mubarak.
No story of the recent Middle East transformation can be complete without the United States. In his recently published biography, Barack Obama admitted that if he were a young Egyptian, he would have joined the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011. Instead, as president of the United States, he sacrificed America’s two closest regional allies, Mubarak and Ben Ali, opening the way for a reshaping of the Middle East strategic map.
As Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of the Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Chief Superintendent of the United Arab Emirates, made clear to Obama, allowing ouster Mubarak and accepting Morsi’s electoral victory reliable. Conditioning this sense of betrayal among Arab American partners, Obama discussed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, and rebalanced US strategic priorities toward Asia, thus opening the way for Russia to expand its influence in the Middle East.
Non-Arab regional powers – Iran, Turkey, and Israel – have also been quick to exploit Arab woe. While America was busy fighting ISIS, Iran helped to save the Syrian regime that had become engrossed in it and deployed its own forces along the Israeli border. Its reach now extends from Syria and Iraq to the Mediterranean shores in Lebanon.
Turkey, meanwhile, has become a dominant force in northern Syria, where it claims to prevent the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish state on its doorstep, and has consolidated its military presence in Qatar. Even the influx of refugees from Syria to Turkey has become a powerful bargaining chip for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has threatened to send millions to Europe if his dictatorships are criticized by his leaders.
But perhaps the most shocking result of the recent upheaval in the Arab world relates to Israel. Viewing the country as a necessary power broker in America, and now a trusted ally in the fight against Iran, several Arab states – Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan – have normalized bilateral relations. Once Saudi Arabia pursues the same, the Arab-Israeli conflict will effectively end, though the Palestinian question remains unresolved. This is a dramatic paradigm shift in Middle Eastern politics.
As 2021 begins, the geopolitical ground in the Arab world will continue to shift. The outcome will depend on a number of factors, not least whether the goal of democracy is once again stimulating Arab populations – or when.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s former foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Peace Center. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.