Mohammed Mursi

After the bloodshed of the Arab spring, where now?

The old order has come crashing down across the Middle East, but Egypt's unfolding tragedy is a cruel example of the void left in its wake

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 August, 2013, 2:45am

In Libya, armed militias have filled a void left by a revolution that felled a dictator. In Syria, a popular uprising has morphed into a civil war that has left more than 100,000 dead and provided a haven for Islamic extremists. In Tunisia, increasingly bitter political divisions have delayed the drafting of a new constitution.

And now in Egypt, often considered the trendsetter of the Arab world, the army and security forces, after having toppled the elected Islamist president, have killed hundreds of his supporters, declared a state of emergency and worsened a deep polarisation.

It is clear the old status quo, dominated by imperious rulers who fixed elections, ruled by fiat and quashed dissent, has been overthrown in the three years since the outbreak of the uprisings optimistically known as the Arab spring. That was amply illustrated on Wednesday in Egypt, where a reversion to the repressive tactics of the past was met with deep outrage by Islamist protesters who had tasted empowerment. What is unclear is the replacement model.

"The old regional order has gone, the new regional order is being drawn in blood, and it is going to take a long time," said Sarkis Naoum, a political analyst at Lebanon's An Nahar newspaper.

"All the people in those countries lived under similar suppression despite the differences in their regimes, so the uprisings were contagious. But nobody in Syria, Libya, Egypt or Tunisia who wanted to get rid of the regime was prepared for what came next."

In many ways, the Arab spring has revealed and exacerbated deep societal splits, between secularists and Islamists and between different religious sects.

"This is political polarisation on steroids," said Jeffrey Martini, a Middle East specialist at the Rand Corporation, a global policy think tank. "You've got both sides trying to banish each other from politics."

In Tunisia, the birthplace of the uprisings, the moderate Islamist party now in power has been unable to build sufficient consensus to draft a new constitution, and opposition leaders have been assassinated. And in the Gulf state of Bahrain, the use of overwhelming force by the ruling Sunni monarchy has failed to silence dissent by the Shiite majority.

Political exclusion has also afflicted Egypt's transition. After winning post-revolutionary elections, Mohammed Mursi, the now-deposed president, and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood faced fierce opposition from those who accused them of perverting democracy to monopolise power.

Throughout the region, the upheavals have failed to address the demands of citizens who had clamoured for change - for jobs, food, health care and basic human dignity. If anything, their grievances have worsened.

"Most Middle East economies buffeted by the Arab spring were already going in the wrong direction," said Joshua Landis, of the Centre of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in the United States. Economic distress caused by swelling youth populations, joblessness, rising prices and drought had done as much to cause the uprisings as political oppression. In many ways, he said, "the Arab spring is the canary in the mine shaft for a broader problem - fragmented countries, too much population growth, terrible education systems, too little water - these countries are the losers".

Historians note that fundamental political change anywhere can take decades or generations. The Prague spring of 1968 may have failed, for example, but it was a catalyst for changes in Eastern Europe that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

And turmoil often obscures subtle but profound societal changes.

For example, Ziad al-Ali, a Cairo-based constitutional expert, said it had now become normal for citizens of the Arab spring countries to insult their rulers - unthinkable only a few years ago.

"This dynamic of free expression, of political liberalisation where now you have lots of political parties and people expressing themselves freely, this will lead us in a positive direction in the long run," he said.