Six years ago, Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire, an act of protest that toppled the Tunisian regime, captivated and captured Egypt, and from there reached Libya and Bahrain, Yemen and even Syria. The world without was mesmerized, astonished, amazed and inspired. Everything we thought we know about Arabs and Muslims, Middle Easterners and North Africans, was upended. President Obama even gave a speech.
He said some nice things, but that was about it. What he brought to this historical moment wasn’t just disjointed, confused and half-hearted. It was entirely unequal to the world historical moment he found himself in, a hinge-point in history, one of those rare weeks and months when it seemed possible to reorient the entire direction of the planet. It was ultimately reoriented, just not in the direction many of us might have hoped.
Last week, Aleppo all but fell. Russian and Syrian forces drop barrel bombs indiscriminately into Aleppo and other population centers, lighting civilians on fire. That is the worst violence in the Middle East, but not the only violence. Saudi Arabian and allied forces are pummeling Yemen, a catastrophe that usually goes uncommented on; the Gaza Strip remains under siege; the West Bank is even more occupied; Iraq teeters on the edge of anarchy; and Turkey has fallen under an authoritarian shadow.
There are bright spots in the Muslim world, but a sense of ominousness is inescapable. It doesn’t just seem like the Arab Spring is over, but that the winter is here to stay. Should Trump and Putin translate their public flirtation into geopolicy, many more will die. Trump may very well entirely cede Syria to Putin, but that doesn’t even begin to cover it. Putin may very well indulge Trump’s desire to go after the Iran Deal, and even abandon his Iranian ally in the event of potential war, in exchange for a freer hand in Eastern Europe.
The genocides in Eastern Europe, which overwhelmingly targeted Muslims and then Catholics, were only stopped by a combination of NATO intervention and the promise of European integration. What happens now?
Those who supported Trump may be emboldened by his rhetoric against Muslims; in the Balkans, that may mean renewed war. Elsewhere supporters may come to regret their enthusiasm. Despite the triumphalism with which Israel’s far-right greets Trump’s election and cabinet selections, the long-term consequences of Israeli irredentism are not hard to imagine. An ever-more alienated Palestinian population coupled with a destabilized Middle East is a bad combination. Already ISIS is excited by the prospect of such an openly anti-Muslim American presidency. Trump’s own statements and policies suffice as a recruitment tool among those marginalized and brutalized by the consequences of American and Russian intervention.
Does that mean despotism and dictatorship won? I wouldn’t begrudge you for thinking so—but I also don’t believe it, either.
In the fall of 2011, before Tunisia burst into popular uprising, I remember sitting with colleagues, discussing Egypt’s apparent political torpor. Many of us believed that things were too quiet—no people accept oppression for very long. In the early 1980s, Assad’s father killed tens of thousands of Syrians who dared to revolt. He used overwhelming, catastrophic force in the belief that utterly annihilating any expression of dissent would produce quietude. It did, of course—for some thirty years. But what came after that was far bloodier.
The question is not: When will the dictators fall? but: Who will replace them? There is ample reason to believe the next wave of uprisings will begin violently, more uncompromisingly, and proceed more harshly. That is to say, if we think ISIS is bad, we’ve no idea what’s coming. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of civilians scarred by war, convinced the world not only doesn’t care for them but is actively complicit in their destruction, and an environment made ever harsher and harder by the vagaries of climate change.
They will know whom to turn their wrath on, and no amount of brutality can insulate Putin and Assad from the karmic laws of historical physics. Putin and Assad, Iran and Hezbollah, all they have on their side is terrible violence; they don’t actually offer a vision of a society anyone would want to live in. (Iran, for example, suffers the world’s greatest brain drain; Russia’s economy is in the doldrums; and Assad only rules through astonishingly brutal force.) At some point, though, terrible violence ceases to have its intended effect, as perverse as that may sound.
Imagine what happens when dysfunctional religion meets radical insurgency meets huge refugee flows, mass dislocations produced by a severe climate and an ugly geopolitical alliance against democracy, pluralism and a responsible international architecture. There is no easy insulation from this, of course, and the many indicators of how ugly the near future can be. There’s a chance, though, that those who rose up, and saw their hopes and dreams extinguished by international malice or apathy, their causes hijacked by sectarianism and extremism, will learn a lesson that makes them a more potent opponent.
Internal division is what allows dictatorship to thrive; the rhetoric of sectarianism ultimately only empowers despots. Those who have seen revolutions stalled or reversed may well learn from their mistakes. They will come of age expecting the world to be indifferent and hostile; they will know, finally, that it is not Messiahs and Great Men of History who will save them. For while it is true their leaders have failed them, it is also true that they are—and I hope you’ll pardon the cliché—the very leaders they have been waiting for. And that if they were slowed, stopped or reversed, it was not just because those arrayed against them had superior force, but because they failed to build the kind of coalitions that could actually win.
The Arab Spring may have only just begun.