John Simpson/Who are the winners and losers from the Arab Spring?


Who are the winners and losers from the Arab Spring?

By John Simpson/World Affairs Editor, BBC News

Islamic State is being beaten back in Iraq, President Assad is getting the upper hand in Syria, Egypt is under military control again, and Libya is in a state of complete chaos.

So was there ever really an Arab Spring? Or was it just a series of uprisings, sometimes linked and sometimes not?

Compared with that other great international political upheaval, the relatively quick and mostly bloodless collapse of Marxism-Leninism in central and Eastern Europe in 1989, the events in the Middle East have been slow and inconclusive.

And they have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands.

Even back in January 2011, the term Arab Spring, invented by an American academic, seemed pretty unsuitable.

It sounded like a PR phrase, encouraging people in the West to expect that this would be an essentially peaceable series of uprisings by people against longstanding corrupt elites.

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“That whole Arab Spring business has been a mess, right from the start”

Senior American diplomat

And it suggested that the old systems would simply collapse in the face of the popular will.

In fact, it did look as though things might go that way at first.

Only days after the street vendor Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death, goaded beyond endurance by petty tyranny in the town of Sidi Bouzid, the Tunisian government started to collapse.

Within a month of Bouazizi’s death, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali escaped to Saudi Arabia after 23 years of autocratic power.

Soon the regimes in Algeria, Jordan and Oman had announced reforms or even changes of government.

Ali Abdullah Saleh was chased out of power in Yemen.

Egyptian turmoil

Demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo encouraged the feeling that something akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall might happen in Egypt.

President Mubarak was overthrown quickly.

Yet after that the hope for an Arab version of 1989 faded.

The Muslim Brotherhood was elected to fill the power vacuum, disrupting the delicate balance between Islamic faith and the principles of a secular state.

The police and army, which had supported Mubarak and protected secularism, remained as strong as ever.

Eventually they staged a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood, and brought Egypt back to heel. The bitter divide remains.

Unlike Europe in 1989, there was no single outmoded political orthodoxy to be overthrown.

True, people from Tunisia to Yemen were united in a desire for greater freedom.

But the upheavals brought two conflicting principles into play: the belief that secularism had to be defended on the one hand, and the desire for a more fundamental implementation of Islam on the other.

The result has been great bitterness and violence, and in Syria and Iraq it has brought about the rise of Islamic State, (IS), the most aggressive and violent political and religious movement of modern times.


The Arab Spring began in Tunisia

At first, its extraordinary brutality seemed to work, as IS murdered its opponents in cold blood and rejoiced in it.

Quickly, though, it became clear that there was no point in surrendering to IS.

Since then, its enemies have fought with far greater determination.

So a new spirit of resistance on the ground, and American, British and other attack planes in the air have started to turn the tide.

Who has benefited?

Similarly, the Arab Spring, if it ever existed, has long ago come to a halt in every Arab country.

Who are the winners and losers?

Libya has been ruined by the continuing chaos which followed the revolution against Gadaffi.

Egypt is back in a condition of stasis, its economy horribly damaged by the events of the past few years.

In Syria, Bashir Assad has managed to survive against the revolutionaries.

Western countries, though they won’t say so, have decided they would rather have him than IS.

Iraq too has managed to weather the IS storm, and democracy even seems to be surviving there after all the horrors Iraq has endured since being invaded by the US and Britain in 2003.

The political system in Jordan has been under threat, but it is still surviving.

Lebanon has held together. Algeria and Tunisia have settled down. Turkey, watching from the sidelines, has often been worried, but has survived unscarred.

And what about the outside world?

President Obama, who warned Bashir Assad not to use chemical weapons against the insurgents then did nothing when he did, has never managed to shake off the appearance of weakness and indecision.

Britain, whose Parliament voted not to bomb Syria in August 2013, is generally regarded as having shrunk in status.

A vote a year later to bomb Islamic State has not really changed that perception.

“That whole Arab Spring business has been a mess, right from the start,” said a senior American diplomat recently.

It’s hard to disagree with him.