Whatever happened to the Arab Spring?

Saturday 20 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Frobisher 4-6

At the beginning of last year, it seemed the people of the Arab world were finally throwing off decades of despotism. Leaders fell, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and people took to the streets elsewhere, from Bahrain to Syria. One newspaper editorial announced, ‘Something remarkable is happening, or rather, still happening: The “Arab Spring” — the uprising of pro-democracy, anti-dictator movements driven largely by young people across the Middle East — is surging along, country by country, intensifying rather than fizzling.’ The enthusiasm was widespread. This, many commentators proclaimed, was the ‘Berlin Wall moment’ for the Middle East. Another remarked confidently that ‘Arabs now have a shared, unstoppable drive for freedom’.

But what has happened since? Has the Arab Spring lived up to its perceived promise? It certainly doesn’t look that way. In Egypt, the military still wields considerable power, despite recent elections; in Tunisia, a similar stalemate prevails. Elsewhere the picture looks grimmer still. Syria is in the grip of an intractable civil conflict, in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia dissent has been effectively repressed, and in Libya the fall of Gaddafi has led not to a bright democratic future but to fragmentation and instability. And for some commentators the prevalence now of the Muslim Brotherhood as a major regional political force signifies not a spring, but ‘a winter of Islamic jihad’.

But what does the current situation in the Middle East actually mean? Does it suggest that the Arab world is still not ready for democracy proper? That nations like Syria, Libya, Egypt even, still need Western tutelage? There are certainly those who suggest political immaturity and democratic inexperience explain the Arab Spring’s stalling. But do such views rest on a misinterpretation of Arab Spring itself? Did the one-time cheerleaders, now voicing their disappointment at the diverse directions of the various uprisings, misinterpret the uprisings in the first place? Was what looked like the eruption of people power actually driven by the falling apart of the old order? And is what we’re seeing now not so much the stalling of change than various ruling elites looking to stem the unravelling? And what of the people themselves? Do the present difficulties indicate that Syrians or Libyans or Bahrainis are incapable of realising political and social change without Western help?

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Rania Hafez
programme leader, MA Education, Greenwich University; fellow, The Muslim Institute

Mark Seddon
writer and broadcaster; author, Standing for Something: life in the awkward squad

Karl Sharro
architect; writer; Middle East commentator; co-author, Manifesto: Towards a New Humanism in Architecture

Nadim Shehadi
associate fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House

Dr Tara McCormack
lecturer in international politics, University of Leicester; author, Critique, Security and Power: the political limits to emancipatory approaches

Produced by
Dr Tara McCormack lecturer in international politics, University of Leicester; author, Critique, Security and Power: the political limits to emancipatory approaches
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