February 6, 2013: The “Arab Spring” of 2011 is still not finished, with fighting continuing in most of the countries that had uprisings. There was a lot of optimism when the rebellions began. Here was clear evidence that many Arabs had become fed up with decades of post-colonial tyranny and bad government. The rebels made no secret of their desire to escape being subjects of some foreign or local ruler. People wanted a better life and they wanted a say in what this new life would be. The Arab Spring also made clear how effectively the Internet had bypassed government control of traditional mass media to provide the people with a way to link up, discuss matters, and organize uprisings to overthrow their tyrants. It was mostly downhill after that.
While Arabs wanted freedom and prosperity, they could not agree on how to achieve it. While many of the Internet users wanted democracy, a large minority still called for a religious dictatorship. The Islamic conservatives were not as powerful as they thought they were. The result has been a lot of stalemate and threats of more violence. Escaping tyranny is difficult when so many of the oppressed just want to be the new tyrant.
Another problem was that many of the old bad habits remained. The rebels still blamed foreigners (various Western nations and Israel) for the mess they were trying to get free of. It was not popular to say things like, “the enemy is within us.” It’s so much easier to blame some foreigner. Decades of anti-Israel propaganda, and centuries of anti-Semitism, has created the myth that Israel is behind all Arab misfortune. Then there is the growing animosity towards Iran, a country full of non-Arabs (Iranians are distant cousins of Europeans) and people who practice a form of Islam (Shiasm) that most Islamic conservatives consider heretical.
The enemy within is often painfully obvious. Even during the rebellion ethnic, religious, political, and class divisions became an issue and after revolutions were won the divisions remained and often became more troublesome and demoralizing. These continuing disputes and the inability to fix what was broken are still being blamed on Israel. This pernicious myth is getting old for some Arabs but not enough to stop demagogues from easily firing up a mob with some anti-Israel rhetoric.
And then there is the money issue. The wealthiest Arab states (the ones with oil in Arabia) were not hit with uprisings. That was because the oil-rich Arab states are run by families or clans that long ago realized that beneficent dictatorship (or monarchy) was the way to go. These countries tend to be police states (usually in the name of Islam) but the wealth was spread around. It was difficult for these well-off Arabs to risk so much to overthrow their unelected rulers. Note that some were willing to rise up, there were just not enough of them to make it work. In Bahrain the less-affluent Shia Arabs did rise up but they have been rebelling for decades. That’s what Shia Arabs do when ruled by Sunni Arabs.
The Arab Spring did shake things up. But for many Arabs it was a false dawn.