This spring marks the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring. As the name, “Arab Spring,” implies, for many in the Middle East it was a time of a future reimagined – a time of rebirth when throngs in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria thought their governments could and maybe would transition from repressive autocracies to liberal democracies.
The niceties of its name notwithstanding, in fact the Arab Spring was a series of attempted revolutions: demonstrations and protests by followers in countries throughout the Middle East for the express purpose of overthrowing their leaders. Though initially these pro-democracy movements were peaceful, their intention, however benign in Western eyes, was unmistakable. It was to overthrow the old order and install a new one.
Syria’s president, the ophthalmologist-dictator Bashar al-Assad, had the benefit of being toward the end of the line. When a group of teenagers scrawled on a school wall, “Your turn has come, doctor,” he knew that to save his own neck he’d better put an immediate end to their juvenile but potentially dangerous insurgency. He saw what had happened in nearby Egypt, where an early (February 2011) casualty of the Arab Spring was Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak had been, until he was forced to resign, president of Egypt for fully thirty years. So, given Mubarak’s dramatic fall, Assad did what he felt he had to: arrest the graffiti culprits and torture them for insurrection. He was deliberately intending not only to set an example but to presage the future.
This triggered the start of the Syrian Revolution – the bloodiest outcome by far of all the countries in which there was such a thing as an Arab Spring. The numbers speak for themselves. Since 2011 some 600,000 Syrians have died, largely at the hands of Assad’s forces and their allies. And nearly one quarter of Syria’s population, some 5.6 million people, have been displaced, most fleeing the country for their safety.
President Assad, meantime, remains, all these years later, perched on his perch. How it happened that the followers failed while the leader prevailed is complicated. Suffice to say here that there is blame enough to go around, from the United Nations to the United States, a range of players unable to get their act together to preclude so much mayhem, to prevent so much murder.
With one notable though fragile exception – Tunisia – the Arab Spring has failed abysmally to live up to its early promise. But even among the ruins Syria stands out, in part because its ruler then, at the start of the Arab Spring, remains its ruler now. As Professor of Islamic History at Oxford, Christian Sahner, put it, “The bitter truth is that, for all intents and purposes, Mr. Assad has won the war, and the Syrian revolution has failed. He has won by devastating his country and butchering his own people, but he has won all the same.”