OpinionMiddle East

The Arab Spring in Western minds

The sooner the West stops trying to promote a vision of democracy no one in the Middle East is interested in and the region is not ready for, the better.

A demonstration in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt, in December 2018. Credit: The Egyptian Liberal.
A demonstration in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt, in December 2018. Credit: The Egyptian Liberal.
Eyal Zisser
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

Last Sunday marked 10 years since the Egyptian revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In Egypt, the anniversary was marked more with mourning than celebration. Many in the country see the revolution, and the “Arab Spring” that swept across the Middle East in general, as a disaster that brought with it death and destruction.

Mubarak died last year, after he was released from prison and had his honor restored. Many of those who carried out the uprising against him and brought about his downfall— members of the Muslim Brotherhood who came to power after him and the young people who took to the streets calling for his ouster—are now behind bars.

When they erupted, the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria sparked hope, in the West but also in Israel, that this was the dawning of a new era and the beginning of a new Middle East. From this point forward, the thinking went, the region would be led by educated and optimistic young people that would shape the face of the Middle East, transforming it into a region of political stability, economic prosperity, democracy, elections and human rights.

Needless to say, nothing of the sort ever happened. The young people of the Arab world did not unite. The protests died down, and when the dust had settled, the Middle East was stuck in the same place it had been on the eve of the Arab Spring. In some cases, it even regressed. Egypt was lucky—order was restored there, and the elderly, out-of-touch ruler was replaced by a young, dynamic one. In other countries, though, the protests led to the collapse of the political system and bloody civil wars whose end is nowhere in sight.

It has also been 10 years since the pitching of Israel’s social justice protest tents on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. In some ways, these protests have also disappointed both the leaders of the movement and its activists, albeit in an entirely different way from the Arab Spring.

Yet these two movements are similar in more ways than just timing. They both teach us that young people aren’t really all that interested in revolution, and that there is no limit to the patronization of journalists and academics, who know better the region’s residents what’s good for them and what they really want. Both events were imbued with others’ fantasies of young people and the change they could bring about.

Reports in the media, and in particular in the West and Israel, on what is transpiring in the Middle East often raise the question: Are there two Middle Easts? One situated to the east of the Mediterranean Sea and the other in the imaginary parallel world we read of in the media and academic literature?

The reality, though, is that the real Middle East remains unchanged, rooted in past traditions—tribalist, authoritarian, if not dynastic, traditions. A region that does not offer its inhabitants liberty or human rights, a region of deep economic and social distress, where instability is the only constant.

The sooner the West internalizes that this reality is not about to change and stops trying to “wake up” the region with the promotion of some vision of democracy no one is interested in and the Middle East is not ready for, the better things will be for the region and its rulers, as well as their neighbors in Israel. The Tahrir revolution, the one with the flowers and democracy and the young people in the streets, took place nowhere but in wild Western imaginations.

Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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