- - Monday, August 23, 2021

As Americans’ eyes remain fixated on the final collapse of the U.S. nation-building project in Afghanistan, people across the Greater Middle East are reflecting on a decade of disappointed hopes that followed the eruption of popular uprisings 10 years ago.

In 2011, the Arab Spring burned across North Africa and the Middle East, toppling autocrats in four countries and igniting protests in several more, from Morocco to Syria.

Leaders who had been fixtures in the region’s political landscape, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, were swept aside. The scenes were inspiring: Public squares teemed with ordinary people demanding freedom in countries bereft of political tolerance and civil liberties during the century following World War I and the treaties that carved up the Arab lands.

But with the partial exception of Tunisia, the nation where the first mass protests broke out, representative forms of government and pluralistic civil society were stillborn, fueling additional grievances about the lack of human rights, corruption and the lack of economic opportunity and social mobility.

In this episode of History As It Happens, Elie Abouaoun, a human rights expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s offices in Tunisia, said the Arab Spring uprisings failed to produce stable, free societies because the root causes of most grievances were left unaddressed.

“A revolution is not only about changing the ruling clan, whether it’s a family, a party or whatever. A revolution should also include social change, and I think this is the missing element in the region,” Mr. Abouaoun said.

As satisfying as it may have been to watch dictators toppled, the socio-economic demands of the people were not met by the successor governments. Moreover, some nations are even worse off now: Syria has been shattered by a civil war that began in March 2011, killing about 400,000 people, according to the United Nations.

The social discontent has led to a kind of nostalgia for the pre-2011 order because people desire stability and what they perceive to have been a semblance of order, Mr. Abouaoun said.

“The logic here is that since 2011 we’ve had a politically turbulent phase and we’ve had insecurity, which translated into deteriorating living conditions, so maybe if we go back to the pre-2011 status quo then at least we have the minimum stability that would allow the government to perform better in terms of basic services,” said the former executive director of the Arab Human Rights Fund.

This nostalgia is more common among older generations. The youth, who are social media-savvy and frustrated by the lack of economic opportunity, hold “anti-system” attitudes that could lead to more unrest in the coming years, Mr. Abouaoun said.

For more of Elie Abouaoun’s reflections on the Arab Spring uprisings, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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