Steven Cook: The False Dawn of the Arab Spring

Steven Cook

When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was chased out of power by the Tahrir Square demonstrations in January-February 2011, a wave of hope swept across the Middle East and around the world that finally democracy would overtake the region’s hitherto authoritarian regimes. Six years later it is clear that hope was a “false dawn”, in the words of Steven Cook, the senior Middle East fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who spoke to a LAWAC Global Café breakfast on October 6th. From Bahrain to Syria to Yemen to Libya popular uprisings led to harsh reprisals and escalating levels of violence that continues to this day.

Why did the democracy wave fail? “We talk about revolutions, but from a social science perspective these uprisings don’t meet the definition of revolution - they did not uproot the holders of political power nor the social order that supported them,” said Cook. In Egypt, the military who supported Mubarak retained their power after Tahrir Square. In Libya the tribes through whom Gaddafi ruled the country became, if anything, more powerful once Gaddafi himself had been killed. And throughout the region authoritarianism was strengthened, not the reverse, as the privileged elite sought to protect their positions from an angry insurgent mob. “There was change, but much more continuity than real change. The people who were the beneficiaries of the system remained in place.”

Tunisia, often lauded as the one country that successfully navigated the Arab Spring, is better off than either Libya or Egypt, but Cook said that the country is still “on the edge”. Unemployment is still very high, and more Tunisians (6,000) have gone to join ISIS than from any other country in the Middle East (outside Iraq and Syria).

Cook said the ISIS phenomenon also illuminates one of the central failings of Middle Eastern governments – their inability to develop a vision of the future. “We think of ISIS as a consequence of the wars in Iraq and Syria,” he said. But he said ISIS was more than a negative reaction to chaos. “The leaders who came to power in the Arab Spring uprisings were never able to articulate a vision for their countries that made sense to their people - ISIS offered a vision.” To be sure, it was a harsh and violent vision and attracted only a minority of Muslims – but it was, nonetheless, a clearly articulated vision of a purified form of Islam, operating in its own self-declared territory, or caliphate. Outsiders repeatedly asked ‘what did ISIS want? ‘– but Cook said we should also look at ‘what did ISIS offer?’

Cook observed that a creeping authoritarianism has also infected Turkey, much to the disappointment of many inside and outside the Muslim world who saw the “Turkish model” as a promising new third path between the twin perils of authoritarianism and Islamism, an enlightened progressive model of government that allowed Muslims to express their faith freely without threatening others or being threatened. In 2004 the EU suggested Turkey begin applying for EU membership, the economy was on an upwards curve and Erdogan – “a very compelling politician, second only to Bill Clinton,” according to Cook – was eagerly sought out by other leaders. But a 2016 coup attempt that made Erdogan paranoid about his position and determined to crush his opponents, along with incipient cronyism and corrupt transfers of wealth to those close to him, took him down the familiar path of the despot. “Now Erdogan believes he is the only one who can save his country,” – the classic pretension of the autocrat.

One other misconception that Cook identifies is the over-estimation of US power in the Middle East. “The way we imagine US influence in the Middle East is quite different from the reality.” Cook says that Washington has few resources to bring to bear on the ongoing struggles for identity in Egypt, Turkey and Libya. “We can use overwhelming military force – putting warheads on foreheads as my Pentagon friends would say – but what is that achieving? We have been bombing Iraq for half of my life!”

On the diplomatic front, the US does not wield such power. “We should approach the region with more humility,” he said, and identify what our real interests are. “We have three key interests: ensuring the flow of oil, maintaining the security of Israel and making sure no other power dominates the region.” Beyond that, much of the turmoil in the Middle East will have to find a local solution – and that is the work of years, maybe a generation or more. The False Dawn has at least given people in the region a sense of what might be achieved, but it hasn’t given them a timetable for when they might get there.