Shortly after the Arab Spring broke out at the tail end of 2010, two narratives took hold in the West. Optimists hailed a region-wide birth of democracy, as though the Middle East and North Africa were following the path blazed in Eastern Europe during the anti-communist revolutions of 1989. Pessimists fretted that the Arab world was following Iran’s example in 1979 and replacing secular tyrants with even more repressive Islamist regimes.

Both narratives turned out to be wrong, and not just because their adherents had the wrong narrative. Any narrative superimposed over this series of events was doomed to be wrong.

The Arab Spring isn’t one thing. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are experiencing wrenching change, but unlike in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, each affected country is moving in different and sometimes opposing directions. Each has its own history, its own narrative.*

Tunisia, where everything started, proved the pessimists wrong, and Egypt, which rapidly followed Tunisia, all by itself proved both the optimists and the pessimists wrong.

The mostly nonviolent removal of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from office in Tunis led to free and fair elections in 2011 that brought to power the Islamist party Ennahda, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Ennahda only won forty-one percent of the vote, with a majority voting for secular parties—hardly a mandate for radical Islam. From the very beginning, Tunisia’s liberal and secular opposition resisted Ennahda so effectively that the Islamists had to abandon their push for a religious state and grudgingly accept a secular civil state. Even that wasn’t enough for the majority; in January 2014, Ennahda, exhausted by the unrelenting onslaught from moderates, liberals, and leftists, resigned from the government. Later that same month, Tunisia adopted one of the most liberal constitutions in the entire Arab world. “With the birth of this text,” center-left President Moncef Marzouki said, “we confirm our victory over dictatorship.”

So much for Iranian-style revolution.

But the optimists were wrong everywhere else.


When Egyptians dumped Hosni Mubarak, the majority didn’t vote for secular candidates in the first elections, as the Tunisians did. The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won Egypt’s presidential election with fifty-one percent of the vote, a slim majority but a majority all the same. Meanwhile, the totalitarian Salafist party—which is more or less the political arm of al-Qaeda—won twenty-four percent of the parliamentary vote, meaning that, unlike the Tunisians, a substantial majority of Egyptians went for Islamists of one stripe or another.

Morsi’s power grabs, his incompetence, his lunatic politics—symbolized by the appointment of a governor associated with a terrorist group that murdered fifty-eight tourists near the city of Luxor in 1997—were too much for even a nation as conservative and Islamist as Egypt. Millions of people—the overwhelming majority of them fellow Muslims—took to the streets to demand his removal from power, just as they
had against Mubarak before him.

The army took care of the rest. General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi overthrew Morsi in June of 2013 and immediately declared war against the Muslim Brotherhood. Millions of Egyptians celebrated Sisi’s coup as a revolutionary “correction.”

So while Egypt never became an Iran on the Nile, it did not become a democracy either. It’s right back where it started. The Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed all over again. The new regime and its supporters are no more liberal and democratic than Mubarak’s or Morsi’s.

In some ways, they’re worse. Sisi’s regime reeks of Stalinism these days. In March of this year, more than five hundred Muslim Brotherhood officials were sentenced to death in one swoop. Many of those sentences were commuted to life, but the regime did it again the very next day and sentenced six hundred more.


Libya and Syria are drastically different, not only from Egypt and Tunisia, but from each other. They have one thing in common, however. Their pre–Arab Spring rulers weren’t standard-issue authoritarians like Mubarak and Ben Ali, but full-bore totalitarians who all but guaranteed bloody transitions.

Libyans who’d had enough of Muammar el-Qaddafi did not even bother to protest like Tunisians and Egyptians. They would have been arrested or murdered the instant they opened their mouths. Rather than go out in public with placards and slogans, they took to the streets with rifles and opened fire.

Qaddafi lost the war thanks in large part to NATO involvement. And Libyans voted en masse against the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, suggesting the country might emerge ahead of even Tunisia. But that was not in the cards. Tunisia is more politically, culturally, and socially advanced than Libya by an order of magnitude. That’s been true since the time of the Roman Empire and ancient Carthage. And Libya didn’t just lose its president. Nearly all of the regime’s institutions collapsed. Everything had to be rebuilt from scratch by people whose only experience with politics was Qaddafi’s lunacracy.

Libya went from totalitarianism to anarchy, from a country with way too much government to a country that doesn’t have nearly enough. The state is so weak that the government pays various warlords and militias to police whole swaths of the country. In mid-April, the Jordanian ambassador was kidnapped. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan himself was kidnapped by a terrorist militia last October in “protest” of the government’s cooperation with the United States in arresting Abu Anas al-Libi, an al-Qaeda operative indicted for the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. Though Zeidan was freed within hours, it doesn’t say much about the strength of Libya’s government that the kidnapping could happen at all, nor does it inspire much confidence in the government’s decision to pay the militiamen’s salaries.

Zeidan is a good guy. Before serving as Libya’s prime minister, he was a human rights lawyer based in Switzerland. If only other Arab countries were lucky enough to have the likes of him at the top. But the Parliament ousted him in March of this year after he failed to stop a rebel tanker from leaving the port of Sidra with stolen oil. The prime minister who replaced him, Abdullah al-Thanay, resigned after less than a week in office.

If things don’t break right, Libya could turn into a failed warlord state like Somalia. As it stands now, it is neither Tunisia nor Egypt. It’s just a mess—certainly not the democracy the optimists hoped for but not the Islamist dictatorship the pessimists feared.

Syria was always bound to be messiest of all the messy Arab Spring cases. Bashar al-Assad’s regime is the most murderous in the region by far since Saddam Hussein’s, and the country’s sectarian divisions prime it for Iraqi-, Lebanese-, and Yugoslavian-style mass slaughter.

There was a brief window of opportunity at the beginning of its seemingly endless agony. The anti-Assad coalition began as a nonviolent protest movement. In sharp contrast to the rebels in Libya, Syria’s dissidents endured months of arrests, torture, murder, and rape before pulling the trigger even once, although Assad lied and said they were terrorists.

Had Assad been driven from power at the beginning, Syria might be relatively okay right about now, but NATO was never likely to intervene there as it had in Libya. Unlike Qaddafi, who had alienated almost the entire human race before the uprising against him began, Assad has powerful friends, notably Iran and Hezbollah, willing to fight to the death to keep him in power. Russia has his back, too. Fearing that direct military involvement could have sucked in the Israelis and blown up the region, the US and NATO stayed out.

The nonviolent movement against Assad is dead now. Political moderates among the rebels are harder to find by the month. They’ve been butchered and shoved aside by the al-Qaeda–linked fighters of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

If the US and NATO had backed the rebels before al-Qaeda hijacked the movement, that might have worked. Maybe Syria would resemble present-day Iraq—unstable, but standing as something resembling a state. Maybe.

Instead Syria resembles Yugoslavia circa 1993, and by the time the war is over it could very well resemble Afghanistan after the Taliban came to power. Whatever ends up happening, whoever ends up winning that war, Syria sure as hell won’t resemble Tunisia. That’s for damn sure.

In Syria, it’s too late for the US and NATO to contribute in any way to a positive outcome. That ship sailed a long time ago. In the meantime, armed conflict is spilling beyond Syria’s borders into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, with no end in sight. The United States and Israel may yet get sucked in no matter how much we’d like to stay out.


And then there’s Morocco. Few associate the Arab world’s most remote country with the Arab Spring. They should.

The very idea of a good autocrat is for the most part an oxymoron, but they do pop up here and there every once in a long while. In his recent book, Asia’s Cauldron, Robert D. Kaplan defines such a rare creature as “one who makes his own removal less fraught with risk by preparing his people for representative government.”

Mubarak missed that mark by a couple of time zones. But Morocco’s King Mohammed VI—a liberal autocrat if ever there were one—kickstarted a new constitutional process that would give more power to Parliament while sharply curtailing his own, transforming the country from a traditional monarchy like the Persian Gulf emirates into a constitutional monarchy like Thailand. There’s a big difference.

He began as a genuine modernizer when his father, Hassan II, died in 1999. And when Ben Ali and Mubarak were toppled, he knew he had to speed things up if he were to ride the wave of change rather than be swept away by it.

Nadia Bernoussi, a professor of constitutional law at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Rabat, the capital, co-wrote the new constitution in 2011. Along with Tunisia’s, it is one of the most liberal in the Arab world. “The king hasn’t retired from the government,” she told me last year. “What changed is that the Parliament has entered the government. Because before we didn’t have a real Parliament. The king can’t make laws by himself anymore. He can’t issue executive orders.”

He can, however, issue religious edicts, or fatwas. He’s the only one in the entire country who can. And his fatwas, unlike those of Islamist jurists, are progressive.

Morocco is a little like Japan in some ways. Change occurs slowly, deliberately, with forethought, and it’s done by consensus. It’s working in Morocco because the change is liberal and conservative at the same time. The system is opening up, but the monarchy keeps it anchored. The country isn’t breaking apart like Libya or Syria, nor is one side vanquishing the other, as in Egypt. Liberals are getting some of the openness they need. (In its annual rating of freedom in the world’s nations, Freedom House changed Morocco’s ranking from “not free” to “partly free.”) Islamists benefit with however much government representation they can earn at the polls—in the 2011 election, they won forty-six out of three hundred and ninety-five seats. Secularists and women’s rights advocates don’t have to fear the Islamists because the monarchy and the Constitution protect everyone’s rights. Conservatives aren’t being overwhelmed with too much change all at once, and everyone can breathe easy knowing they aren’t facing the fate of Egypt, Libya, or, God forbid, Syria.


So what are we supposed to make of all this?

First, understand that any one-size-fits-all policy prescription for such a diverse region is guaranteed to be wrong somewhere. Libya needs state-building. Egypt needs gradual reform. Morocco needs as much diplomatic support from the US as possible. Syria, at this point, needs a miracle. Tunisia doesn’t need much of anything.

One reason Tunisia is doing so much better is because its first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, was one of the rare good autocrats that Robert Kaplan described. He aligned the country with Europe, guaranteed women their rights, sidelined the Islamists, and decreed the Tunisians would be schooled in French with a Western curriculum. Ben Ali, the man who succeeded him in 1987 and was overthrown at the start of the Arab Spring, did nothing to prepare Tunisia for representative government, but he also didn’t undo the progress Bourguiba had made. He just coasted along as a non-ideological strongman until Tunisians decided they’d had enough. They’ve been ready for democratic government now for decades. It should come as no surprise that the Arab Spring began there and that it’s succeeding.

In Egypt, the Bush and Obama administrations tried to coax Mubarak into making liberal reforms. He pretended to listen, but rarely delivered. He said he was the only thing standing between Washington and an Iranian-style regime. For a while it looked like he might have been right about that, but he wasn’t, and either way his thirty years in power did almost nothing to prepare Egypt for the day when he wasn’t in power. He was a little like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in some ways, creating and perpetuating problems only he could resolve in order to keep himself indispensable.

Would he have delivered if Washington threatened to cut off the two billion dollars in annual aid money? Who knows? Perhaps. Will Egypt’s current ruler, General Sisi, ease up and prepare the country for something a little more civilized? Frankly, I doubt it, but maybe. It’s what the US needs to push for right now because it’s the only thing likely to work. Egypt can never turn into Tunisia or Morocco, but it could, at least theoretically, become more like Tunisia and Morocco than it is now. No country on earth is forever the same, and the alternatives for Egypt are that it becomes more like Libya or more like Syria.

Gradual change, as long as it’s in the right direction, should always be preferable to violent breaks with the past, but sometimes a violent break is required. There was no other way to get rid of Muammar el-Qaddafi, nor is there any other way to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. You want them out of their palaces? You’re going to have to shoot them out of their palaces. Whether that’s worth the cost is a question with no easy answer.

Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and the author of five books, including Where the West Ends and The Road to Fatima Gate.

*Editors’ note: This article was completed for publication in the print journal prior to the incursion of ISIS into western Iraq. The author has written about this and other developments in the region in his World Affairs blog.

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