The Arab Spring: Call me a pessimist but…

By Ben Moles

(The below was originally posted by the Australian Institute of International Affairs in ‘Monthly Access’ issue 22, September 2011. I’ve republished it here to see if it might generate some thoughts on the Arab Spring- 3 years on)

“One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day;
similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.”- Aristotle

Thinking of spring evokes images of new beginnings and hope: a transition from the cold recesses and darkness of winter to an awakening and optimism before summer.

Bird

The transformations apparent in the seasonal change from winter to spring seem somewhat missing in retrospect from the so called Arab-Spring. One must remember the adage ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’ and ask what has really changed. Has the ‘Arab-Spring’ not just been a blindly optimistic term conjured up for a couple of warm days in July?

Tunisia held elections in October. However, controversy soon followed with troops having to disperse violent protests in Sidi Bouzid, where the Arab-Spring originated, and concerns remain, both inside and outside Tunisia, as to what can be expected long-term from the Islamist Ennahda party. Can the issues that initiated the original protests be addressed?

The emerging buds of discontent in Bahrain were quickly trampled, largely by Saudi military boots. Meanwhile Yemen, where Saudi funding has long-kept the Saleh regime buoyant, has been beset by tribal fighting, power struggles, civil-war and the emergence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for a number of years now, the current popular discontent  being linked to and heightened by the Arab-Spring, not initiated by it.

As Mubarak awaits trial in Egypt, power has been temporarily assumed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. They look increasingly unwilling to relinquish that power and have the military means at their disposal to attempt to hold onto it. Let’s not forget that Mubarak’s fall was caused in part due to his inability to muster the necessary backing of the military.

Syria, like Egypt, also witnessed an eruption in public demonstrations, which despite recent Arab-League efforts to mediate, continue. However, unlike Murbarak, al-Assad has maintained his monopoly on violence by securing the loyalty and support of the military and has been unflinching in his willingness to unleash it.

Libya minus Gaddafi, the rebel movement’s unifying cause, has the potential to spiral into a protracted civil-war, explaining both: why the National Transitional Council asked NATO to extend its mission in Libya, and why NATO declined. In a country where tribal allegiances are key and many factions are now extremely well armed, arguably the most difficult task lays ahead for the NTC: preventing another Gaddafi emerging to fill the power vacuum.

Finally, what about the D word? Is the international community seriously ready for Arab democracy and the myriad results that might eventuate from it? We should remember it was only in 2006 that the United States refused to acknowledge the results of the Palestinian elections due to Hamas being catapulted into the Palestinian driving seat over the pro-US Fatah. The Palestinians simply voted for, and elected, the wrong party!

Perhaps as the dust settles and we begin to realise the mistakes marked by our own initial hubris and enthusiasm for the Arab-Spring, the façade of democracy – the pledge of instituting change at some yet to be determined stage in the future – will be enough.

Spring is a seasonal change marking a transition from winter. As we examine the Arab-Spring and ask what has really changed, can it honestly be said that much? If there really has been change, has it really been for the better? Is the initial optimism, marked by those early warm days back at the beginning of the year, sustainable or is it starting to look like those might be dark clouds on the horizon?

Call me a pessimist, but I cannot help but think that whichever way I look at it, it still looks like winter to me.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security from the University of Sydney. He can be contacted at bwmoles@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bwmoles

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