The civil war in Syria seems to occupy the headlines today, again. This made me recall the euphoric enthusiasm with which the world embraced the “Arab Spring” not so long ago, one which seems to have gone round Syria. I was once asked by a professor in Freiburg to share my opinion on the issue. Given that I am outright clueless when it comes to Middle Eastern politics, that’s what I had to say.
In Italy, in the years of the Italian campaign of 1796-1797, young Napoleon Bonaparte was received as the missionary of the French Revolution, a liberator of the people and an enemy of the tyrants. Regarding himself as a liberator, Napoleon launched the Egyptian campaign. Yet the man who came to restore the rights of the oppressed and punish the tyrants (Denon and El-Gabarti 1998) soon discovered how little his words meant to the Egyptians. Napoleon counted on the support of the local population but he was struck by the political backwardness and the low level of social development he found in Egypt, a miscalculation which eventually ended up costing him the campaign. Today, more than two centuries later, the question seems more current than ever: is Middle Eastern soil finally ready to sow and grow the seed of Freedom?
The expression “Arab Spring” refers to a wave of demonstrations and protests which has been storming across the Arab world since late 2010. Although with significant reservations, the international community welcomed the upheaval as the long awaited awakening of the Middle East in a pursue of democracy. Today, however, these feelings of optimism seem to have given way to an emerging skepticism. In the year and a half since the first outbreak of the protests, some long standing rulers, namely those of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have been forced to step down from power. But what changed? Is it safe to conclude that we are witnessing a democratic transition in the Middle East?
Let us recall the event that ignited the wave of protests throughout the Arab world. It was on the 17th of December, 2010, when the young Tunisian graduate Mohamed Bouazizi, selling fruits and vegetables for a living, set fire to himself in protest against what seemed to be everything (Blight et al. 2012). His example was followed by Senouci Touat, Mohsen Bouterfif, Aouichia Mohamed, and according to the BBC in Tunisia alone, during the first six months of the “revolution”, more than 107 people set fire to themselves in protest (Goodman 2012). On the one hand, one cannot remain unsympathetic to this sacrifice. On the other hand, however, on the surface inevitably appears the question whether such form of protests can lead to democracy. These self-immolations are a vivid representation of the fatalist spirit of the Arab world, its emotionality, spontaneity and unpredictability all of which are rather a challenge to the emergence of a stable, free and democratic form of government.
A great thinker once said that human history is a progress in awareness of freedom. And so we too must evaluate the events in the Middle East according to their approach to freedom. Although it is too early to come up with an adequate prognosis of the political situation in the Arab world, it is nevertheless possible to briefly sketch a general overview of recent and current events and their meaning. Indeed much has changed in the course the last year and a half, but can we say that this change is fundamental with regards to freedom? It seemed that Libya had to dirty its hands with the blood of Muammar Gaddafi so freedom can finally come, yet what we see today in the country is Islamists and tribal leaders in a race for power (Byman 2011). Egypt, once celebrating and harvesting the fruits of the Arab Spring, the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, is now in the hands of the military, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the background working its way towards power (ibid; Bradley 2011). The upheaval in Bahrain last November was put down with the help of Saudi troops’ “excessive force” (DeYoung 2011) while Yemen was straight on waging a civil war (Byman 2011). But none of these examples is as explicit as the current events in Syria. According to Agence France Presse (2012) for the past 13 months the country’s unrest took the lives of more than 11, 100 people.
The extent of violence in the Middle East and the enthusiasm with which ordinary citizens take part in the violent clashes with authorities represent their determination, but also raises questions about their ability to coexist and tolerate the pluralism of a democratic environment. Furthermore, an even greater threat is seen in the rise of the Muslim fundamentalism (Bradley 2011). Being officially recognized, the Muslim Brotherhood is slowly but surely making its way to power (ibid.). There is no question that the compatibility of Sharia law and liberal democracy is impossible. All this makes us approach the so called “Arab Spring” with serious reservations. Whether the Arab World has gotten any closer to freedom is yet to be seen in the upcoming years and decades. Meanwhile, one must not save his support and willingness to assist the Middle East in reaching this noble goal – Freedom.
Agence France Presse. 2012. “More than 11,100 killed in Syria in 13 months: NGO”. Accessed May 6, 2012. http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hV12mi9lkDgV9J4-R-k5C4TkWgzw?docId=CNG.b3a51da26e7e858e1c7f73c604cd63e3.6d1.
Blight, Garry, Sheila Pulham and Paul Torpey. 2012. “Arab spring: an interactive timeline of Middle East protests”. The Guardian. Accessed May 4, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/mar/22/middle-east-protest-interactive-timeline.
Bradley, John. 2011. “Arab Spring? This is turning into the winter of Islamic jihad”. Daily Mail, November 22, 2011. Accessed May 5, 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2064503/Arab-Spring-This-turning-winter-Islamic-jihad.html.
Denon, Vivant and Abdel Rahman El-Gabarti. 1998. Sur l’expédition de Bonaparte en Égypte: témoignages croisés et commentés par Mahmoud Hussein. Paris: Babel.
DeYoung, Karen. 2011. “Bahrain admits to ‘excessive force’ against protesters”. The Washington Post, November 21, 2011. Accessed May 5, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/bahrain-admits-to-excessive-force-against-protesters/2011/11/21/gIQANEqAjN_story.html.
Goodman, David. 2012. “Spate of Self-Immolations Reported in Tunisia”. New York Times, January 12. Accessed May 4, 2012. http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/12/spate-of-self-immolations-reported-in-tunisia/.
Gourgaud, Gaspard. 1823. “Letter from General Bonaparte to the Executive Directory” In Memoirs of the History of France during the Reign of Napoleon, 345-352. London: S. and R. Bentley.
 See Napoleon’s letter to the Executive Directory, July 24, 1798 published in Gourgaud (1823) for his account on the political culture of the population.