The Arab Spring in Danger

I first covered the Arab Spring just over two years ago, and since then, I’ve written about whether the revolutions were a setback for women’s rights, as well as the unresolved tension between democracy and Islamism among Arab populations.

I didn’t report on events in the Middle East very much last year, since I thought there were fewer major developments to cover. It seemed like the worst violence was over, and all that was left was the sausage-making process of democracy, writing new constitutions and hammering out the details of power-sharing. But I’m starting to fear that I was wrong, that the revolutions left big, important questions unsettled, and that renewed political strife has brought several countries to the precipice and risks tipping them back into chaos.

In Tunisia, which seemed like the greatest success story of the Arab Spring, political violence and unrest are surging. Chokri Belaid, the leader of a secular opposition party, was gunned down in broad daylight last week, leading to marches against the ruling Ennahda party. Other secular figures have been attacked as well, according to a report by Amnesty International.

Egypt, too, is threatened by political gridlock and sweltering under nonstop street protests in Cairo and elsewhere, fired by anger that the democratic revolution hasn’t brought the hoped-for changes. In the city of Port Said, there have been violent protests against the government, apparently sparked by a court decision sentencing people to death for their role in a soccer riot, but swelling with a more general sentiment that the city has been neglected by the government and is still being treated brutally by the police. Lawsuits for “insulting the president” have soared in President Mursi’s first few months in office, and a former finance minister has warned that unrest will worsen if the country’s rulers continue to consolidate power rather than seeking economic reforms. (I learned from that article that the revolutionaries’ original slogan was “bread, freedom, social justice”).

Last is Syria, which I fear has become the situation we intervened in Libya to prevent: a bitter, bloody and protracted civil war that leaves the country in ruins, its people as refugees and its institutions shattered. Unlike the other dictators who stepped down or fled in the face of a mass popular uprising, Assad seems determined to hang on to the bitter end. At this point he can’t possibly win the war, and with the fighting creeping steadily toward Damascus, I imagine he must know that, but he’s seemingly trying to kill as many people as he can first – a spiteful “if I go, I’m taking you with me” gesture to his own country.

I wish there were an easy solution to recommend in any of these cases, but I don’t think there is. The most obvious case for outside intervention is Syria, where the NATO countries could at least establish a no-fly zone – but even if we did that, a long battle lies ahead between the revolutionaries and Assad’s loyalists. Even if Assad’s government fell tomorrow, the people of Syria would still have to create a new government, and there’s no reason to believe that would be any simpler or less fraught than it’s proving to be in the other Arab nations.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: democracy is very, very hard to get right. The United States labored for years under the ultimately failed Articles of Confederation before adopting the Constitution, and even that more successful document was still the subject of bitter disputes, power struggles, and one full-blown civil war. Many other modern democracies went through similar convulsions. Especially in countries that have long been under the heel of dictatorship, where violence and intimidation were accepted facts of life, it’s too optimistic to expect that they can avoid the same power struggles. But the rule of the gun, if it goes on for long, can only lead to anarchy. There’s little that us outsiders can do about it now. The people of the Arab nations need to take a stand against it themselves. They’ve taken their destiny into their own hands, which includes the freedom to stumble and to fail; the world can only watch and hope they make the right choices.

Image: Protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in November 2012 in response to a constitutional decree by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi eliminating judicial oversight of executive decisions. That edict was later revoked. Photo by Lilian Wagdy, released under CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikinews.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Figs

    Good post, Adam. I remember thinking, during the Bush administration, that democracy is not necessarily the cure-all that some would have it be, and that sometimes it’s messy. They said over and over and over again that the solution for the Palestinians is to have free and fair elections, but then the Palestinians went and freely and fairly chose Hamas to represent them. The reaction was disheartening, I think. It’s not that there aren’t concerns with Hamas, but allowing people self-determination does not mean that we get veto power until their self-determinati0n aligns with what we want it to be.

  • trucreep

    It’s my understanding that a no-fly zone is very difficult to implement in Syria. They have serious anti-aircraft weaponry, and still have the support of the Russians, who would most definitely object to NATO equipment so close to their borders.

    Heh and I mean, who do you think has been arming all of these conflicts?? By extension, the same people can take the blame for the situation in Mali. (It’s us by the way)

  • Korey Peters

    You said, “democracy is very very hard to get right”. What about post-WWII Germany and Japan? Were not these countries set up as democracies? As far as I know there has been no great conflict to get democracy going there. Of course, I realize that Germany and Japan were coming out of terrible violence, but this violence was unrelated to the establishment of democracy.

    Just wondering out loud.

  • Peter


    IANAH(istorian), but I suspect the acceptance of a new democratic state in Germany and Japan had something to do with the trauma those countries’ populations felt as the militaristic, expansionist nationalism their leaders had fed them caused their whole countries to collapse in ruin about them. If I had been a German or Japanese citizen in 1945, reeling from the defeat and the revelations about concentration camps and the like, I think I would have had very little inclination to take up arms against the imposition of a new and democratic constitution.

    Also, I think another difference was their lack of tribalism or sectarian divide in the recent past. Japan was a clearly hierarchical monarchy, and Germany had been united for nearly a century and previous experience of democracy in the Weimar Republic. In Arab countries, clan or tribe loyalties (as well as religious and ethnic differences) seem to play a much larger part in politics, which would render those countries more vulnerable to civil war.

    (Happy to be corrected if the above is inaccurate!)

  • Tommykey

    From what I can tell, Muslim fundamentalist groups make out the best in these situations because they have a clear program and agenda, Islam is the solution. People see there charitable endeavors, they use their sharia courts because the government courts are too slow and corrupt. They are organized and ready to hit the ground running, while moderates and seculars are still trying to figure out what they want to accomplish. I wish it weren’t so, but that seems to be the case.

    In one sense, the last decade or so has been a tragedy for much of the Muslim world, starting with the Iraq War in 2003. For good or bad, long standing regimes have collapsed for been forcibly removed, resulting in civil war, the destruction of infrastructure, refugee crises, the massive flooding suffered by Pakistan a couple of years ago, and so forth.

    Maybe in hindsight history will show that this seismic upheaval was necessary to create the conditions for effecting positive change, though that would be a cold comfort to the peoples who lives were turned upside down.

  • Bob Wheeler

    I would have to say that I do not believe that democracy is possible in an Islamic country. Islam is essentially a theocratic religion — its ultimate goal is to establish a society governed by Sharia, and it uses the state to promote its ends. This means that the state, if it is truly Islamic, has to be guided by what it perceives as the will of Allah, and not by the people. Or to put it another way, the will of Allah is imposed on society from the top down, and the sword can be used to defend Islam.
    It is important to note that in this respect, at least, Islam is essentially different from Christianity. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Because a human government is always fallible, and our ultimate responsibility is to God alone, a true Christian will always respect freedom of conscience.

  • Michael R

    “I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: democracy is very, very hard to get right.”

    And I’m sure many of your commenters have said it before: Islam is not a religion of peace, and it is not compatible with democracy. Ergo, we should not expect a Muslim country to become democratic so long as they adhere (even nominally) to an undemocratic (and barbaric) religion. You simply cannot reform Muslim countries without first acknowledging the undemocratic (and unreformable) nature of Islam. These are obvious facts to anyone with an unbiased brain.

  • Adam Lee

    @Bob Wheeler:

    Because a human government is always fallible, and our ultimate responsibility is to God alone, a true Christian will always respect freedom of conscience.

    Since no one else has yet pointed out the painfully obvious, I will: Your argument fails to account for the Christian popes, kings, and emperors who exercised absolute, theocratic power over most countries in the Western world for a period well in excess of a thousand years. They were “true” Christians by any definition of the term, unless you adopt a definition that is explicitly circular.

    @Michael R:

    Ergo, we should not expect a Muslim country to become democratic so long as they adhere (even nominally) to an undemocratic (and barbaric) religion.

    This is bigotry, plain and simple. There are already Muslim-majority countries that are democracies by any reasonable definition of the word: Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Albania, to name a few. One can argue that Islam, on the whole, is an anti-democratic force – which I do assert, just as I assert it for every other religion in the world – without making the extreme blanket assertions in your comment that Islam is absolutely incompatible with democracy and wholly unreformable.

  • CelticLight

    Very good article. For some reason our press does not like to point out some of the painful realities of the Islamic movement, and it’s incompatabilty with a democratic form of government (agree with Michael R). You can see this evident in Pakistan as well as the obvious example in Iran. The Bush administration was overly optimistic about the impact of democracy in the Middle East. As bad as the dictators were, the new Islamic governments may be worse – especially for females. I was against the Iraq war, and I was against the Libyan intervention. I don’t see a positive outcome in Syria either. We tend to make things worse when we get involved in the Middle East. There is no easy answer. We need to beef up our missle defense system. I am glad to see the Obama administration come around recently to this point of view.