Paul Pillar

The Arabs' Spring and Our Mindset

Lately there has been a lot of Western disillusionment with the Arab Spring. The cover of the current issue of The Economist poses the question, “Has the Arab Spring failed?” The usually insightful Patrick Cockburn starts a recent commentary with even stronger wording: “Has the Arab spring turned into a complete debacle?” The sources within the Middle East of such dismay are numerous, but it is not hard to see the main triggers for these questions to be asked at this time. The course of the Syrian war, in terms of both bloodiness and setbacks to the rebels, is one. The military coup and surge of unrest in Egypt constitute another.

There is plenty of analysis yet to be done, on events in the Middle East yet to unfold, that can take the form of a balance sheet on the Arab Spring. But the fact that observers in the West are coming close to writing requiems on the Arab Spring also says some things about our own habits in looking at, and thinking about, this set of regional upheavals.

We tend to impose a short time frame on those events—too short to understand their significance fully. We like revolts and revolutions to be short and snappy. This is partly a matter of limited attention span and partly a yearning to wrap up a story and feel we understand its conclusion, without the bother of having to follow it and to keep reinterpreting it for years and years. Of course, some of the Arab Spring events really have moved fast. But that is different from the time it takes to see all of the effects and implications. The Economist's Max Rodenbeck, in the feature article in the same issue, correctly notes that revolutionary upheavals sometimes take not just years but decades for all of the reverberations to be felt, and this might prove to be the case with the Arab revolts as well. Apparently unsuccessful attempts at political change may loosen things up for more successful and long-lasting change to take root later.

We have imputed too much uniformity to the revolts in Arab countries. The use of the singular term “Arab Spring” misleadingly blurs the differences between what are very different situations in different Arab countries. There certainly has been a contagion effect; it otherwise would be too much of a coincidence for this many revolts to break out in a single region within this short a span of time. But each country presents a different assortment of things that can go wrong. With many different things that can go wrong, many different things have gone wrong. This probably has contributed to the perception that the whole phenomenon is a failure if not a debacle.

We in the West naturally tend to use as a reference point past region-wide upheaval that is closer, physically and otherwise, to our own regions and own experience. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s is probably the most influential such reference point, whether or not it is referred to specifically as such. The critical differences between that change and what is going on in Arab countries gets overlooked too often—especially the fact that Eastern Europe had a political culture that was largely shared with the Western half of the continent and that included past experiences with liberalism and democracy. There never was good reason to expect a comparably smooth and quick transition in the Middle East.

The very fact that we ask questions about whether the Arab Spring is a failure assumes that there are identifiable standards for success and failure in such things and that those standards are ones that make sense to us. The prime standard applied seems to be democracy. And clearly many people in Arab countries favor something that they call democracy. Exactly what they mean by that term is a different question. What is meant varies from Arab to Arab, and what most Arabs mean by it is not necessarily what most Westerners mean by it. Moreover, standards of success and failure for Middle Easterners are likely to involve other values besides democracy. The most important values for many Arabs are not necessarily either democracy per se or the liberalism that most Westerns cherish. We have seen evidence of this in the most recent events in Egypt.

We certainly are entitled to ask—indeed, should ask—whether the events in the region are good or bad from the standpoint of our own interests and objectives, regardless of how differently people within the region may assess what is good or bad. But we are apt to disagree among ourselves on what those interests and objectives are. Even if we could agree, it is again far too early to compile a final balance sheet.

Image: Flickr/Hussein Alazaat. CC BY 2.0.