Libyans celebrate the downfall of Muammer Gaddafi in the 2011 Arab Spring after 42 years in power © Suhaib Salem/Reuters

Ten years ago, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire in rage at humiliating harassment by corrupt police. Weeks later, the long tyranny of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was brought down, setting off a chain reaction of uprisings across the Middle East and north Africa.

Hosni Mubarak was toppled in Egypt, as was Muammer Gaddafi in Libya, and eventually Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. Each of these army-backed Arab dictators had been in power for 20 to 40 years. Mass protests in Bahrain were crushed by a Saudi-led intervention. In Syria, the Assad regime waged total war against its own people in a continuing conflict.

Only Tunisia has kept aloft some of the soaring hopes of the so-called Arab Spring. But these countries still burst with the yearning of very young populations for decent lives and livelihoods. Uprisings keep recurring: from Algeria to Sudan, or Iraq to Lebanon.

So, what does the turmoil of the past decade tell us? The chances of success for Arab democratic revolutions were undermined long before they got under way — by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. This misconceived war removed the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and sought to reshape the Arab world along democratic lines. Instead, by bringing the Shia minority within Islam to power in Iraq where it is a majority, it reignited the centuries-old conflict between Sunni and Shia and strengthened the messianic Sunni jihadism pioneered by Osama bin Laden. Sectarian identity — distilled into the brief nightmare of the cross-border Isis caliphate in Iraq and Syria — has cast a dark shadow ever since, not just in the Middle East but from Europe to Asia.

This boosted paramilitarism as Iran — the main beneficiary of the Iraq war — used Shia militias with missiles to punch a corridor through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean, and down into the Gulf in Yemen. That, in turn, has sparked regional proxy wars in which Saudi Arabia has championed the Sunni and Iran the Shia. These two theocratic powers are different. The Saudis have for decades spread the bigotry of Wahhabi fundamentalism worldwide, seeding jihadism. But for Arab democrats the result is similar: it is very hard to survive this crossfire.

That in turn was used to re-legitimise or restore the national security state the Arab uprisings aimed to replace. The Gulf monarchies have reinforced theirs and, while loosening social restrictions, brook no political dissidence. Led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, they helped restore a strongman state in Egypt, through the coup that brought former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power in 2013 after the post-Mubarak interlude.

That brief period, after the heady Tahrir Square uprising, revealed another lesson: political Islam, as incarnated by the Muslim Brotherhood, is a busted flush. Egyptians narrowly chose Mohamed Morsi as their country’s first democratically elected president, bringing the Brotherhood out of the political catacombs. Instead of governing for everyone, they opted to colonise Egypt’s institutions, alienating all but their own.

The inability of mainstream Islamism to find a place among democratic currents is a disaster. Similar issues have arisen in Turkey. There was hope Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development party would be a Muslim analogue of Christian Democrats in Europe, rather than the neo-Ottoman jingoists they have become. The failures are a boost to jihadis, who say democracy is not only a dead end but ungodly.

Yet the chain of uprisings also revealed fundamental and intrinsic weaknesses in Arab societies and states. Lacking vibrant institutions and a common civic culture, or what the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam calls the social capital that links people in networks of trust and reciprocity, many in the region have sought refuge in family, clan, sect and tribe. Again, the exception (so far) is Tunisia.

Tunisia has built institutions including trade unions, accumulated reforms that provided quality education, greater equality for women and eased religion out of public life. Ennahda, the Islamist party that polled first in the 2011 elections, stood aside under trade union and civil society pressure in 2013 — and now calls itself Muslim Democrats.

But that took Tunisia more than a century and a half; there are no easy or fast solutions. Yet things would change if domestic policies and foreign aid targeted education for these very young populations, and sought to empower civil society and women. Institution-building is critical. Yet the west is perniciously attracted to autocrats. The US and its allies often appear to prefer to deal with rulers and regimes, focusing on arms and oil. Donald Trump’s administration was a prime example. President-elect Joe Biden says this will change. We shall see.

david.gardner@ft.com

 Letter in response to this article:

Tunisia uprising tore down a modern state / From Francis Ghilès, Senior Research Fellow, CIDOB, Barcelona, Spain

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