With continuing tensions and violence in Egypt, a horrendous civil war in Syria with over a million refugees and internally displaced persons destabilizing neighboring countries, assassinations in Tunisia, a supposed plot to seize an oil port in Yemen, it is perhaps understandable for people to ask what has happened to the Arab Spring.
Rather than answer that question directly, it would be better to revisit the so called Arab Spring itself. In other words, before questioning whether something has faded or died, it is important to understand what we are talking about in the first place. In his famous book, Orientalism, Edward Said argued that the Western world had created a vision of the Orient and the Middle East from a biased point of view. The Eurocentric vision, according to Said, helped justify what he saw as colonial or imperial activities by the West. By caricaturizing Arabs in a certain way, the West could sell weapons, extract oil, and invade in the name of the international community. Said’s central point is that Western academics and diplomats saw the Orient from their perspective and used it for their interests.
In much the same vein, the Arab Spring can be seen as a Western hope for democracy and open markets in different countries. The outpouring of support for change in Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Egypt was part of a surge of Western enthusiasm, somewhat reminiscent of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History after the implosion of the Soviet Union. (The inevitable movement towards liberalism was less relevant to countries like Saudi Arabia where autocratic rule was acceptable since the country was considered a key ally.) In sum, the Arab Spring was perceived in the West as a positive advancement for Western interests and values.
From this perspective, the current situations in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen seem to be going against that tide. But is this really so? The decline of the Arab Spring certainly may be going against the tide of Western optimism. A recent rereading of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations highlights both the tensions within the Arab world and the incapacity of the West – especially the United States – to impose its culture. The “international community,” as a construct of that culture, has shown its impotence in dealing with the flagrant violations of basic international humanitarian law in the current situations.
Are we witnessing the end of the Arab Spring? Not really. What we are witnessing is the concrete evidence that an optimistic Western vision was incorrect in the first place. Said’s explanation in Orientalism of the skewed Eurocentric perception of the region is now being played out. We in the West have little to say in terms of the spread of democracy/capitalism in the Middle East. In addition, the inability of the West to influence events – such as the inconsequential recent visit by U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in Egypt – re-affirms Huntington’s vision of the decline in Western power.
Western euphoria for the Arab Spring, much like the euphoria for the Rose, Orange and Tulip Revolutions, has been a product, clearly expressed by Fukuyama, of the ideology that democracy and market capitalism were the final answers to how to organize society. In spite of the mixed results of the color revolutions, that ideological optimism appeared again in the West this time toward the Arab world.
The real question to ask now is not if the Arab Spring has ended, but if the ideology behind that optimism has ended as well.