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Arab spring, European winter



H.A. Hellyer, a Cambridge University fellow, is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He tweets at @hahellyer.

Ten years after the beginning of the revolutionary uprisings of the “Arab Spring,” many in the region are wondering if things haven’t simply come full circle. Egypt, where protests erupted on January 25, 2011, saw its democratic experiment fall less than two years later. And while Tunisia, where the uprisings first started, may have inched toward democracy, next door Libya has tumbled into civil war — as have Syria and Yemen. 

Some might be tempted to dismiss this as “typical of the Middle East.” But there’s another way of looking at what happened — one that’s inextricably linked to Europe, its colonial history and its foreign policy today. 

As an insider-outsider to the uprisings — someone who is both a European on his father’s side for many generations, and an Arab on his mother’s for even longer — the fight for democracy struck close to both of my ancestral homes. Specifically, the Arab uprisings were the inevitable consequence of the basic failure by the region’s post-colonial elites to dismantle the state structures that the Europeans left behind after their colonial enterprise. 

The state structures of the colonial nation state were explicitly made to serve the interests of European elites to govern over disempowered populations. When the colonists departed, however, the systems were not dismantled — nor reshaped to serve the newly liberated people. As a result, the state structures, the ways in which they govern, many of the laws and systems of control, remain as they were designed to be during colonial times: to ensure control, not empowerment.  

Many in the West dismiss the relationship between the Arab world’s leaders and its people as somehow foreign authoritarianism. In truth, they are inheritances of colonial rules — and thus very much European. 

In addition to the Arab world’s decrepit state structures, there was another important factor driving the uprisings: demographics. The colonial systems were designed to govern — badly —over a specific set of demographics. They were not established to keep up with demographic changes at all, and in the last 20 years the region has seen a demographic transformation on a grand scale — one that even the most robust state system would have struggled to keep up with. 

The colonial system was structurally set up to ensure that wealth distribution remains lopsided in favor of the top layer of society. And it worked. Even as the population ballooned, the elite got richer — mega rich — will the rapidly growing majority got poorer. Combine that with the continued autocratic bargain of the post-colonial elites — don’t push for political freedom, because we are your protectors against terrorism and disorder — and you have a recipe for disaster.  

* * *

The Arab uprisings were, to a great extent, a safety valve being used. Pressure was building —and these uprisings could have, very easily, been a relatively painless way of hitting, at least partially, the reset button. Even the most modest of serious reforms could have meant history recording these autocrats as heroes of their nations. But, instead, autocrats and dictators chose another path.  

When we consider the outcome of the uprisings, we shouldn’t blame the revolutionary protesters for the turmoil. They were never placed in positions of authority that could decisively move the outcome one way or the other. The blame lies with the likes of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Of all those who could have made critical decisions, they had the greatest potential impact. 

In a country where colonial state structures are suppressing the will of a growing majority, rulers have two options. One is to open up, slowly or not, and to begin the long, arduous task of building states that are sustainable in the 21st century, which includes comprehensive security (and fundamental rights) for their populations. 

The second option is to decide that opening up a little means that disorder will ensue, and that the wider population will demand more of the post-colonial pie. And since that is considered a non-option, the prescription is simple: Increase all control as much as possible and stamp out dissent.  

The trouble for the dictators is that the second option only delays the inevitable. The only possible outcomes are slow, continuous degradation or more upheaval in the future.   

* * *

As the 10th anniversary comes around, it’s time to ask: What’s the best way forward? The region is a geopolitically critical one, especially for its European neighbors. And intertwined with its various civil wars, it is home to at least two ongoing international competitions, with deadly and destabilizing impact. 

The regional feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a long-running one, one that does not benefit the people of Yemen, Iraq or Lebanon — the countries in which the conflict is predominantly being waged. 

The other struggle is a newer one. On one side, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are generally seeking to maintain the status quo, keep the forces of Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism at bay, and further their own regional sway. Arrayed against them is a Turkish-Qatari alliance aiming to further its own influence in the region. The contest between the two does little to strengthen good governance or the upholding of fundamental rights, as activists right across the region will attest to — neither of those things are priorities in this rivalry. 

So, what’s to be done? The answer lies in another bit of recent European history: the establishment of a fledgling rule-based international order. To be sure, Syrians, Yemenis and Palestinians, to name a few, will note wryly they’ve never benefited from that “rule-based” order before. But it is nonetheless in that system — rooted in the upholding of treaties these states have signed up to — that continues to provide the best, if imperfect, hope for averting further catastrophe in the region. 

Sadly, the main constituents of the Western bloc have been perfectly content to ignore international law when it suits, including in their own relationships with the region. That’s true not least in places like Yemen, even if the incoming Biden administration has signaled that the U.S.’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is about to change. It’s also true in European relations with countries like Syria and Iraq, as well as Libya, where France and Italy are players in the conflict.

It’s easy for us in Europe, and in the West more generally, to bemoan the state of the Arab world. But if we do not uphold international law ourselves in our relations and engagements with the region’s political elites, we only have ourselves to blame. 



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