On December 18, 2011, one Tunisian man lit the Arab world on fire by, well, lighting himself on fire. The protest, in the form of self-immolation, sparked a revolution that, by today's count, has seen the ouster of five governments, and dramatically affected several other states in the Middle East and North Africa.
Those five overthrown governments include the most recent ouster of democratically elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Egypt's role in the Arab Spring early on was one of optimism -- while Libya struggled with fractured post-Gaddafi state, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad mercilessly slaughtered his own citizens, and Tunisia experienced a new wave of violence against the opposition there, Egypt successfully overthrew Hosni Mubarak and within a matter of months, had staged a relatively fair election and put a new president in place.
Fast-forward to today, and the picture has changed. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood party has become the political pariah of Egypt, with many members being killed or imprisoned. The Egyptian military is back in power, in an arguably powerless vacuum, and has resorted to unleashing their might on Egyptian civilians protesting what, at the end of the day, was a unilateral military coup -- in fact, Egypt now joins Iran as being one of very few countries in the past 50 years to violently overthrow a democratically elected leader. What's more, the former President Mubarak was released from prison yesterday, in a symbolic act indicating that Egypt truly is back to square one. Looking around the Middle East today, it's hard to find one good outcome from the Arab Spring. So the question exists: Has the Arab Spring failed, or is it merely beginning to catch its second wind?
It's hard to choose the former as correct because it's hard to discredit the revolutionary paradigm -- yes, revolutions have failed many times before, but scarcely any of the magnitude and global importance as the Arab Spring. The popular demand of a body of people from not just one state, but an entire region, is not something that simply fades away after a year or two. If anything, the killing by the military of over 500 innocent civilians over the past two days will exacerbate and re-energize that popular demand. Retrospectively looking at the lives that have been lost all over the Middle East this past several years for the sake of less authoritarian governments, it is impossible to think that this will be the end of the uprisings.
There are problems with more uprisings, though, and not just for the Middle East. As we've seen in Syria, al-Qaeda is adapting to political instability and beginning to take advantage of war-torn regions. Transcending previously black-and-white boundaries, al-Qaeda offshoots are now fighting alongside the very same rebels that the United States and much of the Western world are timidly supporting. They're benefitting from arms that come from the West, and solidifying their foothold in a country that will inevitably be lead by someone other than Asad and his Alawite minority in the not-too-distant future. Extrapolate this notion to the entire region: if more violence breaks out against the existing Middle Eastern governments, al-Qaeda will undoubtedly seize the moment and use the absence of stability to their advantage, strengthening their presence in a region where it has in the past few years waned. This is a reversal nobody wants to see.
And besides the bloodshed that will occur, and the horrific tragedy of once again watching from the sidelines as chaos envelopes a region that was just starting to appear heading towards stability, will we be satisfied with the outcome this time? As President Obama said in a radio address last week, "Democratic transitions are measured not in months but sometimes in generations." For Egypt, that does not bode well. The military watched former President Mubarak's ouster, and the subsequent election of President Morsi, and when they decided they had seen enough, they facilitated the transition of power back to themselves. To suggest that they will relinquish power easily is laughable -- Egypt could quite possibly be mired in a vicious civil conflict for the next decade, the effects of which could ripple back through states that weathered the storm moderately well the first time, such as Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan. For now, let's just hope we don't see President Obama's words come to fruition anytime soon.
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