How the Arab Spring Became the Arab Cataclysm
By Robin Wright
By Robin Wright
Five years ago, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vender with black curls, deep brown eyes, and chin fuzz, refused to pay a seven-dollar bribe, yet again, to a government inspector. For a man who supported his mother, five younger siblings, and an ailing uncle, seven dollars was a full day’s income—on a good day. It was the start of the epic convulsion known as the Arab Spring.
“It’s the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world—the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity,” President Obama in a speech about the events some months later. “Only this time something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaints, this young man, who had never been particularly active in politics, went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.” Bouazizi died two and a half weeks later. Spontaneous protests erupted in sympathy, and soon spread across the region, directed against other autocrats.
Over the next fourteen months, the heads of state in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen—who had ruled for a collective hundred and seventeen years—were ousted. The President of Syria went to war with his own people to survive. “The story of this revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise,” Obama declared.
Five years later, the costs and consequences of the uprisings have stunned the world. “Perhaps we in the international community, and the people on the ground, were naïve and misled by how easy the Tunisians made it seem,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, told me this week. “The Egyptians, too, got rid of a dictator. But we underestimated the forces against democracy and rights—and the way in which other forces of repression and destruction were able to fill the vacuums that the uprisings created.”Read on....