Winning: Why The Arab Spring Failed


June 2, 2014: The Arab Spring uprisings that began in early 2011 were a popular movement to replace the many dictatorships and monarchies that have long been the cause of most of the poverty and unhappiness in the Arab world. That has made the Middle East an economic, educational, scientific, military and cultural backwater. While there were some successes during the Arab Spring, the long-standing problems of the Arab world, especially corruption and tribalism, crippled the rebellions and diluted their success. While the first Arab Spring uprising, in Tunisia, was a success, the subsequent ones were not. In Egypt the corrupt businessmen who had backed and benefitted from the military dictatorship for decades retained their power, used it and now another general is poised to become the next leader. In Yemen something similar happened, with the wealthy supporters of the deposed dictator retaining their wealth and influence and still exercising much control over who will rule the country and how. In Libya the dictator was overthrown and killed but here the dictators main backers were tribal leaders and they hung on, only being challenged by the many Islamic terrorists who came to fight for the rebels. But the Islamic terrorist groups made themselves so unpopular that the tribal leaders ended up joining another a popular uprising in 2014 against the Islamic radicals. Syria was the saddest tale of all. The dictator and his wealthy backers (including Russia and Iran) fought the rebels to a standstill then, taking advantage of fighting between Islamic terrorist rebels and less extreme rebel groups, the government is regaining territory.

The common error many of these uprisings made was accepting help from Islamic terrorist groups, who had long been trying to overthrow all these authoritarian rulers. The Islamic terrorists considered the secular democrats who sparked and initially sustained the Arab Spring as competitors for power, not allies in creating new democracies. This misreading of the Islamic terrorist groups (most of whom consider democracy un-Islamic) proved to be very expensive in terms of lives, property damage and economic losses in general.  These popular rebellions led to the fall of several long time dictatorships, and a rush to reform (or the appearance of such) by most other Arab governments. Yet the Arab Spring also proved a major boost for Islamic terrorist morale and numbers. This was not what the Arab world needed. No, it was very much a disaster.

Islamic terrorists have long been depicted in Arab culture as noble and pure warriors fighting to protect Islam. This is partly religion and partly culture but the reality is no Islamic radicals have ever managed to do any permanent good for the Moslem world. This truth gets realized and accepted from time to time. For example after the 2008 defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq, and the 90 percent decline in al Qaeda attacks there it was believed that Islamic terrorism was on the ropes once more and many Arabs were visibly relieved. But the Arab Spring changed all that with terrorist attacks, most of them by Moslem religious radicals, more than doubling from 7,200 in 2009 to 18,500 in 2013.

There have been many outbreaks of Islamic terrorism in the past but his time around the chief cause was state sponsored Islamic terrorism by Pakistan and a recent boost by the Arab Spring uprisings. The Pakistani policy of covertly supporting and encouraging Islamic terrorist groups began in the late 1970s and after September 11, 2001 there Islamic terrorists were increasingly out of Pakistani control. Pakistan found itself in the position of continuing to support Islamic terrorists who attacked India and Afghanistan while fighting a growing number of disaffected terrorist groups at home that had declared war on Pakistan.

The result was a huge spike in Islamic terrorist violence. For the Arab Spring countries it meant prolonged unrest and more Islamic terrorist deaths. Worse, it isn't over, especially in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Algeria. Over 200,000 have died so far in the Arab Spring countries, and millions more wounded, imprisoned or driven from their homes. The financial cost, so far, has been over a trillion dollars. Most of that is the economic damage from shrinking GDP. The rest is destruction of buildings and possessions. The lost wages and reduced economic activity have been particularly difficult for populations that were poor to begin with. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Bahrain have suffered most from the unrest, losing up to a third of their GDP because of the Arab Spring economic disruption. Then there is the cost in cash for wealthier monarchies and dictatorships that have spent money (sometimes borrowed) to placate their restless populations. The money spent here is not all Arab. The Assad dictatorship of Syria has been kept afloat by billions of dollars in support from Iran, and much smaller amounts from Russia. There has also been some unrest in non-Arab Moslem nations because of Arab Spring and that has cost billions to deal with.

In the midst of all this revolutionary exuberance thousands of very hard core Islamic terrorists were released from prison in most Arab Spring countries. The overthrown governments were bad in many ways, but they were good at catching (and often promptly killing) Islamic terrorists who threatened them. This was the main reason al Qaeda decided in the 1990s to make war on the United States and the West. These foreigners were easier targets than the thugs (or tribes) with flags back home. By recycling all these imprisoned Islamic terrorists after 2011 the terrorists now had the ability to do a lot more damage. As usual most of it was done against fellow Moslems. The Islamic world in general and the Arab world in particular has long been reluctant to confront the most dangerous aspect of their religion; the enthusiasm for terrorism and savagery in the name of God and the greater good. This has never worked and those who point this out tend to get shouted down or killed for preaching heresy. Islam needs some serious reform but few Moslems are eager to take on the tyranny of religious extremism.

The Arab Spring created several unexpected popular uprisings against dictators and monarchs. Most had varying degrees of success (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya), while others failed or never got going (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon) and Syria is turning into an abysmal loss for the rebels. None of these uprisings developed into a true war. Iraq is a special case in that its dictator was already gone by 2011 but, as other Arab Spring states were to discover, the Islamic terrorists stick around for a long time. Meanwhile Libya was unique in that the rebels won with assistance from NATO smart bombs and warships.

In Egypt the military was able to maintain its corrupt grip on the economy. Eventually the army regained its political power because the Islamic and secular rebel groups spent too much time going after each other. Indeed, the biggest problem was that these dictatorships was not just the single dictator but that the small segment of the population that kept the dictator in power and were well rewarded for doing that. These privileged groups were not eager to flee or give up their wealth. The dictator's supporters always strive to retain or regain their power. The Old Order has substantial economic and political resources and is willing to use them to retain power and wealth. This often works, especially in the Arab world.

This arrangement was common to all Moslem nations, not just the Arab ones. Islam has a particular fondness for preserving ancient practices and traditions. Not all Moslems agree with this but the most traditional believers have long relied on violence and terrorism to block social, political and economic change. Thus the Moslem nations tend to be quite poor and backward compared to the rest of the world.

The Arab Spring is part of another reform movement in that is trying to address the root causes of poverty, corruption and mismanagement that are so common in the Islamic world. Naturally, a lot of vested interests, both secular and religious, are resisting these changes. The worst of the opposition is an ancient one, religious fanatics selling a radical solution that not enough Moslems want to buy into. So far tradition and the dysfunctional past is winning.





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