Before a day had passed after the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya—in which four Americans were killed, including J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and as many as ten Libyans trying to protect them—some commenters declared an end to the Arab Spring. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried to use the Libya attack and attempted attack on the U.S. embassy in Egypt, both reportedly sparked by an American-made anti-Muslim video, to score political points. His statement darkly warned that the protests could represent the end of a trajectory away from authoritarianism and instead a turn toward an "Arab winter."
Even those who weren’t as ready as Romney to declare the Arab Spring over were worried. Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch suggested that the fate of democracy hangs in the balance in the aftermath of the violence, which continues as rioters attack the U.S. embassy in Yemen. Not the events themselves, but how governments and peoples react in the days to follow, he wrote, will decide.
The Arab Spring broadly refers to the democratic protests that swept northern Africa and the Mideast beginning in late 2010 and reached a crescendo with the Egyptian protests that toppled the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. When commentators talk about the life or death of the Arab Spring, however, they mean dramatically different things. They often mean hope for genuine political and economic empowerment for millions of Arab citizens. The picture here is mixed: Landmark elections have been held in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, and significant political reforms have been extracted from rulers in other states of the region. However, economic conditions and employment have not improved in Egypt and Tunisia since the 2011 democratic revolutions, and ongoing civil war has worsened the suffering of Yemenis and Syrians dramatically.
The new governments are, to put it kindly, struggling. Libya’s transitional authorities must create basic institutions from scratch, deal with Islamist militants, and maintain security in a country awash in weapons. Protests have continued in Egypt as elections dashed the hopes of the secular liberals associated with the 2011 revolution, and power-sharing across military-civilian and Islamist-liberal divides is at best a work in progress. Tunisia’s pro-Islamist government is falling short of its citizens’ economic and political expectations. Yemen is plagued with governance difficulties and the U.S.-backed assault on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Tens of thousands of Syrians have died, and Arab Spring ideals seem to be mutating into sectarian savagery there, while the world looks on impotently.
A day, or a week, of riots will make these tasks harder. The uprisings risk driving away outside investment, destroying infrastructure, and further weakening trust between government and governed. The riots should serve as an important warning of how much dissatisfaction and despair governments face; how profound the habit of anti-Americanism as a form of political expression remains; and how much security challenges stand in the way. In every country where there have been riots, there have also been allegations that groups that are not just extreme but also aiming to harm U.S. interests and U.S. citizens have infiltrated or led much larger groups of protesters. This is most visible in Libya, where it seems possible that the killings of the American diplomats were planned and carried out separately from the attack on the consulate, with the anti-film protests serving as a convenient cover. An al-Qaeda-linked group has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the FBI is investigating.
Yet the rhetoric of those who believe these events signal the end of hope for stable democracies is overblown. The protests by themselves do not represent the end of the Arab Spring, any more than protests in an established democracy—Greece, say—mean the end of Greek democracy.
If we understand the Arab Spring to represent a starting point for new, constructive, and mutually respectful partnerships between the region and the United States, as exemplified by the Western-seeming, Facebook-using Tahrir Square protesters and the Arab League-NATO partnership to remove Moammar Gadhafi in Libya almost a year ago, well, that Arab Spring was a fantasy, a case of looking in the mirror and seeing an imagined reflection of ourselves or a ghost of Eastern Europe circa 1989. It’s time to move on from the images of cuddly protesters.
Political Islam, as Brian Katulis, a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress, has written, is here to stay in the politics of the Middle East. The United States will need to learn to live with it. Egypt—and other nations—has aspirations of regional power and influence that will compete with American visions of how the these countries should function. Sunni-Shiite cleavages, real in themselves and also a convenient shorthand for more modern stories about economic and political power, shape the area’s politics profoundly in ways the United States seems only able to alter for ill. These hard realities lie behind the inability of other Middle Eastern countries to halt the killings in Syria or to press Russia and China to allow the United Nations, let alone the U.S. or NATO, to help do so.
Behind the question of what the Arab world looks like lies another question: What about Israel? One of the more terrifying aspects of the film that sparked the current round of rioting is the suggestion, thus far unsubstantiated, that its makers were a group of American Christians, some or most of Middle Eastern origin, who sought to disguise themselves as Jews. The Arab Spring may have changed the balance of power between rulers and ruled, between military, secular, and religious forces. But it thus far has not changed the political language in which the battle over power is fought. If anything, it has made it easier for citizens to express anger at Israel’s wrongs, perceived or real, and harder for governments to stop anti-Israel rhetoric or to gain anything from stopping it. Their inability to tamp down this anti-Israel sentiment in turn makes it harder for the Israeli government, any Israeli government, to adapt to the political changes or even take advantage of them.
Finally, do this week’s events represent a failure of American policy or a response to American weakness, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asserted via Twitter Wednesday? Did President Barack Obama, or the State Department, or Congress, or someone somewhere lose the Arab Spring for America? Even to ask this question is to misunderstand profoundly what the Arab Spring was and remains. It was—and is—a generation of Arabs taking up the tools of modernity to enact the oldest demands for human dignity. Some of those tools are technological—Facebook—others are structural—elections—and others are organizational—community organizing, at which the Islamic movements excel. The United States, because of enduring American interests and values and 50 years of inconsistent policy choices, is deeply entwined with how that struggle plays out. We can’t extricate ourselves after a bad week, and it makes no sense to try to do so. More important, the struggle was never ours to lose. That is something that Ambassador Stevens understood and for which he had risked his life repeatedly in Libya before losing it. We would do well to remember what the Arab Spring was aiming to accomplish.