The peaceful protests that started the Arab uprisings at the end of 2010 have succeeded in overthrowing governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. They have also been suppressed in some countries or escalated into outright warfare in others. In Syria, insurgents and government forces are waging a civil war that has begun to equal, in savagery and hate, the Lebanese civil war of 1975–90 and the Iraqi civil war of 2004–09. This past summer, rebels managed to assassinate senior Syrian security leaders and capture parts of Damascus and Aleppo, yet the regime, far from imploding (as Muammar el-Qaddafi’s did in Libya a year earlier under similar pressure), has recaptured part of what it lost. The ever more violent struggle continues with little sign of a clear winner emerging.
Even where the conflict appears to be over, as in Libya, the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi and the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens shows the fluidity of the political situation, the weakness of the state and the potential for violence. Are we witnessing a reprise of the 1950s and ’60s, when most of the Arab world was convulsed by struggles for power? As Arab states threw off colonial control, there were mass political movements as well as military coups, a combative media as well as attempts to stifle it. The introduction of the cheap transistor radio was as revolutionary as satellite television half a century later. But in the battle between revolution and counterrevolution, it was the latter that generally prevailed. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, military and monarchical dictatorships were triumphing everywhere, crushing their rivals and suppressing all independent centers of power. The idea in the West that ordinary Arabs—often referred to contemptuously by diplomats and journalists as “the Arab street”—were passive in the face of tyranny is wholly misleading. Autocracy was tested by popular protests, sometimes severely, but in the end proved too strong to overcome.
All revolutions pass through phases of exaggerated optimism and pessimism, confrontations between those who claim everything has changed and those who mutter plus ça change. At the heart of the so-called Arab Spring were the popular uprisings against police states that began on December 17, 2010. On that day, in a remote Tunisian town, a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death in protest against police corruption and brutality, an act that catalyzed widespread protests and riots throughout the country. In the following months, the Arab world enjoyed a short, euphoric period when expectations of change knew no bounds. Sclerotic but long-established police states from Tunisia to Bahrain to Yemen abruptly crumbled in the face of mass protests. Cynics who had mocked Arab unity as dead and buried were discredited—or should have been—as the new revolutionary mood and practice proved instantly contagious across the Arab world. Anti-government slogans, such as “the people want to overthrow the regime,” first used in the streets of Tunis and Cairo, were being shouted within hours in Shiite villages in Bahrain and hilltop towns in Yemen. As Lenin, no mean judge of revolutionary situations, once said, “The best government has only to be in power long enough for everybody to wish to remove it.” Most Arab governments that faced resistance during the Arab uprisings had been in power for a very long time—Qaddafi from 1969, and the current prime minister of Bahrain, Khalifa bin Sulman al-Khalifa, since 1971—and had been pretty bad from the outset. What was genuinely different in those early months of 2011 was not exactly, as the slogan had it, that “the people have lost their fear,” but rather the people’s realization that the old rotten regimes could be brought crashing down by popular protest.