A DIFFICULT LEGACY

Faisal Al Yafai

Faisal Al Yafai is chief columnist for The National newspaper. He was previously an investigative journalist for The Guardian in London and a documentary journalist for the BBC. He has reported from across the Middle East, from Eastern Europe and Africa. In his columns and for The National, he writes mainly on foreign policy, economics and international affairs. Faisal is a frequent guest on television networks such as CNN, the BBC and France 24. His book on feminism and liberalism in the modern Middle East will by published soon by IB Tauris, London. He has served as a Churchill Fellow in Lebanon and Indonesia.

Five years after the French and American revolutions started, they were still not over. The revolution that created the United States burned for eight years; that which birthed the French republic lasted for ten.

Five years after the Arab Spring revolutions, young Arabs, as per the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, appear unsure it was even worth it. Asked this year if they agreed or disagreed that “following the Arab Spring, I feel the Arab world is better off,” just 36 per cent agreed.

Perhaps that is unsurprising. The five countries through which the Arab Spring blew – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria – are, broadly, in a parlous state. Some, like Libya, Yemen and, of course, Syria are only getting worse. Small wonder, then, that not only has the broad feeling towards the Arab Spring deteriorated, but that in three of the Arab Spring countries surveyed (Tunisia, Libya and Yemen), the feelings of young Arabs have deteriorated in the space of just one year.

When the results of the Survey suggest young Arabs think democracy will not work and the Arab republics should prioritise stability, I don’t read that as the youth turning their backs on democracy, or even the possibility of change. Rather, I see it as a retrenchment, as a belief that the best way to get personal autonomy and economic prosperity is to first seek stability in an ordered political system.

It wasn’t always thus. When ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller polled young Arabs in 2010, it found a powerful desire for social change. The following year, as the Arab Spring revolutions began, a second survey found a staggering 92 per cent of Arab youth believed “living in a democracy” was their most important desire. So what happened?

In a way it is hardly surprising that belief in the potential of the Arab Spring has declined so rapidly. The legacy of the Arab Spring is at best mixed; at worst, straightforwardly negative.

Syria is the worst example: a revolution that became a civil war that then became the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet. The other four Arab Spring countries may have avoided such severe conflict, but none have reached the ambition of the initial clamour.

Small wonder then that, in a follow up question from this year’s Survey, when young Arabs were asked if “promoting stability” was more important than “promoting democracy”, they chose stability. Has the initial enthusiasm for democracy been so eroded?

To answer that, it is important to understand what lies behind the desire for democracy.

I tend to think that the desire for democracy is composed of three parts. A desire for a stable and ordered political system; a desire for personal autonomy – meaning the ability to live a life unencumbered by too much control from the state or society; and a desire for economic prosperity.

“My message to Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans and Yemenis, young and old, is that if the young people of your countries do not believe that they are better off five years after the Arab Spring, that is not the fault of the young for believing. It is the fault of the political establishment for not achieving.”

That may seem like quite a lot to have wrapped up in the idea of democracy, but my conversations with and reporting on young Arabs in the Middle East, and the way these young people express their desires for the future, tend to revolve around the ability to have a stable, economically prosperous life, and to be sure that nobody is going to come and take that from you. The ability to choose their own leaders is an essential part of that, but all the components are necessary.

I think what we see in this Survey is that as the potential of the Arab Spring has faded, as the countries of the Arab Spring appear to be more and more locked in intractable conflicts, as those conflicts spilled beyond the borders of individual countries, the feeling is that democracy is probably not going to work for now and that
it’s a good idea to go back to stability.

But stability is a political prerequisite for everything else. It lays the foundation for a successful society. So when the results of the Survey suggest young Arabs think democracy will not work and the Arab republics should prioritise stability, I don’t read that as the youth turning their backs on democracy, or even the possibility of change. Rather, I see it as a retrenchment, as a belief that the best way to get personal autonomy and economic prosperity is to first seek stability in an
ordered political system.

I think you see elements of that in the research. Of the four republics – Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen – that passed through the Arab Spring, Egypt went through a democratic process, found it unstable, and then refocused on stability first – and that country’s youth appear best disposed towards the Arab Spring.

In Libya and Yemen, the most unstable of those four countries, it is perhaps unsurprising that positive feelings towards democracy have deteriorated and that the promise of the Arab Spring has been unfulfilled. The democratic process in both those countries has been interrupted and the result has been instability and war.

In that regard, Tunisia, which has had a broadly successful Arab Spring transition, is a bit of an outlier, but 2015 was a terrible year for the country and it faced three terrorist attacks inside its borders, which perhaps influenced the answers of young Tunisians.

Five years on, I remain optimistic about the Arab Spring, because I am optimistic about the Arab world. To me, the Arab Spring was a moment when Arab youth sought to take back their personal agency from state and military institutions. Even after five years of reporting and writing on the revolutions, I still see it as a historic moment, when agency was returned to the Arab body politic. That the promise and ambition of the Arab Spring has not been fulfilled yet does not mean, I hope, that it will not be fulfilled in time.

But there is an important distinction to be drawn between the Arab Spring revolutions and the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

The revolutions were not a choice: they were a spontaneous expression of dissatisfaction. But the aftermath is a choice. Making sure what comes after the revolutions fulfils the ambitions and desires of the majority of young Arabs is a choice and the responsibility of all elements of society. It will require the governments and the people of the republics to work together.

My message to Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans and Yemenis, young and old, is that if the young people of your countries do not believe that they are better off five years after the Arab Spring, that is not the fault of the young for believing. It is the fault of the political establishment for not achieving.