Today in Middle Eastern history: the Arab Spring makes its mark (2011)

The Arab Spring began on December 17, 2010, when a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on the streets of Sidi Bouzid to protest his perceived mistreatment at the hands of a city inspector. The city inspector was probably just doing her job, but Bouazizi’s self-immolation set off a national protest movement targeting the very real corruption and repression of the government of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. These protests galvanized similar movements in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Lebanon…well, it’s a long list.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Wikimedia)

Today is the fifth anniversary of Ben Ali’s resignation and flight from the country., so it marks the Arab Spring’s first major success before a string of minor successes, major successes that were later overturned, and just plain failures. I kind of cheated when I gave this post a “today in history” title, because while the Arab Spring is undoubtedly a part of the history of the region now, it’s also still very much a part of its present condition, and five years hasn’t nearly been enough time to assess what it all means. Four years ago people were celebrating the Arab Spring movement’s toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and now…not so much. Two years ago you might have thought the Arab Spring was ushering in a new age of Arab democracy, but then Egypt became a military dictatorship again. Last year you might have thought that at least Bashar al-Assad was finally about to answer for his myriad crimes against the Syrian people, but, uh, Vladimir Putin had other ideas. Tunisia remains a success, but a tenuous one; rising youth radicalization and the instability in neighboring Libya are constant threats. The situation is too unsettled to allow for some kind of bird’s eye view of things in a historical context.

In 50 years, we may look back on the Arab Spring as the spark that led, after a lot of struggling, pain, and suffering, to a new Middle East full of governments ruling by popular mandate rather than dictatorial repression. In 150 years (or less, maybe less) we might see it as analogous to the 1848 revolutions in Europe, which largely failed in the short term but spurred meaningful change on a much longer timeframe. On the other hand, we may look back and see it as the first step of a years-long breakdown of social and political order that cost millions of people their lives and livelihoods for no good reason. I see no reason to think that either one of those outcomes is any more likely than the other at this point.

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