What Happened to the Arab Spring?

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Nameer Galal/NurPhoto/Corbis
Demonstrators with a portrait of General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi—now Egypt’s president—at a rally in Tahrir Square, Cairo, January 2014

In 1938 George Antonius, an Egyptian Christian of Lebanese origin living in Jerusalem, published The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement. In his path-breaking book Antonius, who had been educated at Cambridge, charted the Arab national idea from its ethnic and linguistic beginnings in the early Islamic conquests, through the intellectual renaissance in nineteenth-century Syria, and to the grassroots—and eventually armed—political movement that overthrew Ottoman rule in Arabia, Iraq, and Syria—in alliance with Britain—during World War I.

In his indictment of British policy Antonius demonstrated that promises made by Britain to the ruler of Mecca, Sharif Hussein, whose sons Faisal and Abdullah led the Arab revolt against Ottoman Turkey, contradicted commitments Britain had made to its allies France and Russia under the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and to the Zionist leaders who were promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine under the terms of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration. Though Antonius, who died in 1942, did not witness the triumph, and debacle, of Arabism in Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, The Arab Awakening powerfully set the stage for its trajectory.

Taking his cue from Antonius, Marwan Muasher, a Jordanian diplomat and former foreign minister now working at the Carnegie Endowment, argues that what some have called the “Arab Spring”—and others the “Arab inferno”—should really be seen as a “second Arab Awakening.” The liberal promise of the “first Awakening” was aborted at the end of the colonial period, he writes, “when foreign despots were replaced by homegrown ones, who went on to rule the region for more than fifty years.” The fatal flaw of these post-independence governments was, at heart, constitutional: none of the regimes,

whether monarchist or “republican,”…paid much attention to developing pluralist systems of government, building systems of checks and balances on executive power, or promoting the rich diversity of their populations. Instead, the legitimacy gained during independence struggles hardened into diverse forms of autocratic rule.

In short the inadequacy of the first Awakening made the second Awakening—the wave of uprisings beginning in the winter of 2010–2011—inevitable. But that failure also conveys a warning:

Toppling despotic rulers alone is no guarantee of a healthy political development. A constructive vision for future polities must be hammered out and must be founded on an unshakable commitment to pluralism—leading to systems of protections and inclusiveness that enable what may be the Arab world’s greatest asset: its ethnic, cultural, religious and intellectual diversity.

In most of the countries he visits in the course of preparing his book Muasher finds that a pluralistic approach embodying a respect for differences of values, religions, and ethnicities is conspicuously absent. His book was already being printed when Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only president to have come to power through a transparent electoral process, was removed from office …

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