A decade ago, crowds massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the ouster of Egypt’s American-backed strongman, President Hosni Mubarak. In Washington, President Barack Obama made a fateful decision, calling on him to leave power.
The backlash from other Arab potentates was swift, Mr. Obama recalled in his recent memoir.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates — a tiny country with an outsized military built on American weapons and training — told the president that he no longer saw the United States as a reliable partner.
It was a “warning,” Mr. Obama wrote, that “the old order had no intention of conceding power without a fight.”
Ten years later, the collisions between that old order and the popular uprisings across the Middle East in 2011 that became known as the Arab Spring have left much of the region in smoldering ruins.
Wars in Libya and Yemen have reduced those countries to shattered mosaics of competing militias. Autocrats cling to power in Egypt, Syria and Bahrain, snuffing out all whiffs of opposition. Tunisia, hailed as the uprisings’ sole success, has struggled to reap the benefits of democracy as its economy founders.
The hope for a new era of freedom and democracy that surged across the region has been largely crushed. The United States proved to be an unreliable ally. And other powers that intervened forcefully to stamp out the revolts and bend the region to their will — Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates — have only grown more powerful.
“People now know quite well that nobody is going to help them, that they have to help themselves, and that those countries that they used to look to for change are part of the problem,” said Amr Darrag, who served as a minister in the democratically elected government that led Egypt for barely a year before it was toppled by the military in 2013. “The forces that are against change in our region are numerous and they have a lot of common interests that allowed them to unite against any kind of positive change.”
The biggest hope voiced by intellectuals in Washington and the region is that the Arab Spring at least gave people a taste for the possibility of democracy. And that if the underlying inequality and oppression that led to the revolts have only gotten worse, uprisings are likely to return, as they have recently in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq. [Continue reading…]