Three years on the Arab Spring has turned into a disaster

Syria's brutal war has claimed up to 250,000 lives

The Arab Spring has turned so sour that if many Arabs were given the chance to turn back the clock three years they would take it in a heartbeat, writes Roshan Muhammed Salih.

Like many observers I was overjoyed when the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia and then spread to Egypt, overthrowing pro-Western dictators.

As a Muslim I hoped this would herald a new era that would meet the Islamic aspirations of much of the region’s peoples. And as an anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist I hoped it would signal the end of America’s Middle Eastern empire and the beginning of the end of the Apartheid state of Israel.

But three years on I have to admit that I was hopelessly naive, as were most Arabs. As we approach 2014 the Arab world is in unprecedented turmoil with the security, political and economic situation far worse than in the days of Mubarak, Gaddafi et al. Worst of all sectarianism has gone through the roof with the region’s people at each others’ throats.

During the days of dictatorship and political repression there was at least a sort of balance, a cold war which never became too hot. And we all knew who the enemy was – the West, Israel and the dictators.

Now the enemy is each other.

Libya and Bahrain

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There’s no doubt that it started rather well in Tunisia and Egypt with the legitimate aspirations of millions mirrored in the mass demonstrations that overthrew Ben Ali and Mubarak.

The events unfolded so quickly it took us all by surprise but of course they were entirely predictable and were predicted by many. Young, frustrated populations, rampant unemployment, political repression, ethnic and religious tensions. And all this amid a backdrop of international satellite stations such as Al Jazeera constantly reminding Arab audiences of their woes.

Something had to give, the lid had to come off, and it did.

Gaddafi was toppled by a NATO-led assault
Gaddafi was toppled by a NATO-led assault

But then things started to go wrong. In Bahrain the pro-Western Al Khalifa dictatorship called in Saudi troops to quell mass street demonstrations. The Al Khalifas survived as the West and the previously much-heralded Al Jazeera Arabic TV station looked the other way.

The Gulf monarchies would brook no challenge to their own authoritarian rule while they simultaneously encouraged revolts elsewhere. And Sunni Arabs were encouraged to view the Bahraini uprising as an Iranian-inspired Shia conspiracy.

Today Bahrain remains in a state of political and economic paralysis, although thankfully the revolt has not become militarised.

Meanwhile, Libya saw the unedifying sight of Arabs and Muslims cheering on Nato air strikes against the Gaddafi regime on the dubious pretext that he was about to commit genocide in Benghazi. The air strikes soon exceeded their “defensive” mandate and became an offensive operation to enact regime change against a leader who, on balance, the West was very glad to see the back of.

Two years after Gaddafi was lynched and sodomised with a metal bar, Libya is divided into militia fiefdoms, with weapons everywhere and security nowhere. What’s more, regime change in Libya has had knock-on effects in the region, destabalising Mali in particular.

Aside from the aforementioned countries, the Arab Spring touched most of the region’s nations to one extent or another but without managing to overturn the status quo. This was also the case in Yemen where despite the fact that President Ali Abdullah Saleh was eventually forced from office, mass street demonstrations and occasional bloody violence didn’t secure real political change.


But if the Arab Spring started well in Egypt and Tunisia, and stuttered in Bahrain and Libya, it was well and truly buried in Syria.

Again, legitimate protests broke out in 2011 and met a heavy handed-response by the security forces. Most of the world expressed sympathy with the protestors and urged the regime to be less brutal.

But it soon became very clear that foreign powers – namely the West, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – were intent on exploiting the protests to strike a devastating blow against the anti-Western Resistance Axis of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Turkey opened its borders to fighters and the CIA established a base in the south of the country; Saudi Arabia and Qatar financed the uprising while their satellite TV stations provided the propaganda and stoked the anti-Shia sectarianism.

The much less powerful Resistance Axis media responded with its own propaganda of course, but wasn’t much of a match at the beginning of the crisis with the narrative prevailing of an “evil dictator crushing his people.”

However, Assad’s staying power proved stubborn. Russia kept the arms supplies coming, Iran kept the economy going, and eventually Iranian military advisors and Hezbollah forces would join the battle.

While Assad was tottering in mid 2012 he now has all the momentum and is winning battle after battle. Many Syrians have concluded that they prefer him to the Islamist-dominated opposition. Moreover, the West has made it clear that it will not intervene militarily and rebel forces are disorganised and in disarray. On the other hand, the Syrian Arab Army and its political leadership seem quite cohesive.

A final battle for Aleppo looms in 2014. If Assad wins he will win the war and that looks increasingly likely.

Rapid change

The Arab Spring is complex and confusing and things change quickly. Yesterday’s wisdom is today’s folly.

Iran, for example, looked like a winner at the beginning of the Arab Spring as one pro-western dictator fell after another. Then it looked like a loser as it got bogged down in Syria and as anti-Iran and Shia incitement reached fever pitch levels.

But now Iran looks like a winner again after it secured a deal with the West over its nuclear programme and as its allies in Damascus and Lebanon assert themsleves. Even Hamas (which left the Resistance Axis during the Syrian war) is returning to the shade of the Iranian umbrella.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, looked like winners at the beginning of the Arab Spring as they took control in Tunisia and Egypt and made their influence tell across the region.

But now they look like losers, having overstretched themselves, failed to deliver while in power and shown extreme political naivety. They have now been ousted in Egypt. may well very soon be in Tunisia, and their Syria policy is in disarray.

The winners

This may be controversial but I think the West, Israel and Al Qaeda have emerged the winners in the Arab Spring so far.

The West did not spark the uprisings as certain conspiracy theorists claim, but it certainly did prepare for their inevitability. The West may have lost allies in Ben Ali, Mubarak and Saleh but none of the countries which they led have enacted real political change or have decisively orientated their policies away from Washington.

Yet the countries that did show decisive independence from the West – Libya and Syria – have all but been destroyed. So it seems that where the West cannot control anymore, it has chosen to destroy.

Saudi Arabia is a staunch ally of the West
Saudi Arabia is a staunch ally of the West

Meanwhile, Sunnis and Shias are fighting each other in Iraq and Syria and across the region’s airwaves. And as long as they are doing that they won’t be fighting the West or Israel.

Which brings me to the Zionist state. In my opinion, Israel is now enjoying an excellent strategic position. Its main enemies in the region – Iran, Hezbollah and Assad – are bogged down in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood has proven unable to unite the Arab world behind its agenda and Gaza is more isolated than ever.

As for Al Qaeda, it thrives on chaos and power vacuums so has had a field day in places like Syria, Libya, Mali, the Sinai and Yemen. But Al Qaeda can only destroy, not build, and its narrow violent sectarian agenda will inevitably alienate the majority.

It has no future in the Arab world as a positive force for change and increasingly, it seems, the Saudis and the West are using Al Qaeda to achieve short-term foreign policy goals, such as regime change in Libya and Syria.

But once that logistical support from powerful states like Saudi and Turkey ends, Al Qaeda will be mercilessly hunted once again and relegated to the fringes.

The losers

Who are the losers? Well again this may prove controversial but I would say the main victims of the Arab Spring have been the Palestinians, the Arab people in general, and the journalism industry.

Regional events over the past few years have completely deflected attention away from the central Arab/Israeli struggle. Palestine seems to be an afterthought these days for politicians, activists and journalists. Yet the so-called peace process is as moribund as ever, Gaza is going through its worst crisis in years, and the actors who have traditionally fought Israel are too busy fighting others.

Israel knows it will never win the hearts and minds of the Arab nation, but what does that matter as long as it can maintain its economic and military superiority over its divided foes?

Meanwhile, the curse of sectarianism is tearing the Arab and Muslim world apart. Decades of funding by Saudi Arabia is finally beginning to pay off, with a narrow takfiri ideology gripping sizable and vocal minorities across the Ummah. But not only is this ideology contrary to 14 centuries of orthodox Islamic scholarship, but it is also a godsend to the enemies of the Ummah who would like nothing better than for us to hate and kill each other.

Finally, I feel that my own profession has disgraced itself during the Arab Spring. State-funded regional TV stations and newspapers have all reverted to type and become mouthpieces for their owners. Perhaps that is inevitable when war breaks out but it has set back hard-earned trust with audiences years.

For me the biggest disappointment has been Al Jazeera Arabic which seems to have turned from an instrument to reflect Arab public opinion into a tool to manipulate it. In fact, there is no greater example of journalist hubris than Aljazeera Arabic, whose journalists became so big-headed that they believed they had the power and right to overthrow regimes.

But with their backing of Nato bombs in Libya and an unwinnable war in Syria they have led their viewers off a cliff and left behind a trail of destruction. Oh how the mighty have fallen.


The Arab Spring has taught us the following:

– The Arab world is composed of mixed societies, of Islamists, leftists, secularists, religious minorities and the non-aligned. And in general no one party can prevail at the complete expense of the others.

– Armed insurrection creates more problems than it solves.

– If you insist on regime change at all costs then your country will probably end up getting destroyed, setting back progress decades and opening it up to foreign economic and political manipulation.

– Foreign (and particularly western) intervention may result in short-term benefits but always results in long-term harm.

– Peace and security under a dictator is better than chaos.

– The Arab world is an ethnic and religious tinderbox and therefore some level of dictatorship is probably necessary to keep a lid on it.

– An Islamic state is not possible in societies where large amounts of people oppose it.

– Arabs are more divided than ever.

– A large section of the public is still in denial about the supposed benefits of the Arab Spring.

Moving ahead to the future I am with those would like to see some kind of balance between the forces that make up Arab societies – between the Islamists, the leftists, the secularists and the minorities etc. There needs to be more long-term, big picture, rational thinking and a move away from short-term, emotional fixes. Above all, I would like to see Arabs sort their own problems out in a peaceful manner without resorting to outside sponsors to settle the argument.

Perhaps then the fruits of a real Arab Spring can be experienced – united we stand, divided we fall.

But let’s face it, the opposite is likely to happen.


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