The wild-looking crowds overflowing the plaza, breaking through police lines and rushing the capital building, furious and joyous at once. The lies and threats uttered by the president in increasingly desperate video addresses. The sudden collapse of support from his allies and enablers – and then, abruptly, his departure.
Ten years ago, we sat mesmerized by those images from Tunis and Cairo on social media feeds and TV screens. Arabs had risked their lives by rising up against the strongmen who had held their region in the grip of underdevelopment, dependency, dictatorial cruelty and needless poverty for decades.
It was a test for Western democracies. For once, a passionate push for regime change had come directly from the majority of people of a region, without any impetus from the United States or its allies – in fact, the Arab Spring defied the foreign policies of most North American and European countries, which had long allied themselves with Arab dictators in the name of “stability” or short-sighted, strategic self-interest. Would we finally side with the people? Yes, begrudgingly, at first. In the years after 2011, though, we would fail that test.
A decade later, the tables have turned, and we are watching the United States endure its own test of democratic principles and institutions against a dangerous would-be autarch.
It’s not quite the same. The crowds mobbing the Capitol have been the strongman’s people, trying and failing to crush the popular electoral will. Institutions have held strong, and it is elected officials who will ensure his departure from office – and possibly his punishment.
Nevertheless, the United States, unlike in 2011, is not peering down on the people of the Middle East and North Africa from a pedestal of democratic purity. The past four years of U.S. history may have humbled Americans (and empowered the worst Arab dictators), but this is an opportunity for president-elect Joe Biden.
He will approach the wider world not as an exemplar but as a fellow victim. Americans have been there. The 2017 presidential inauguration speech spelled out a terrifying defiance of moral and democratic norms, and for most of these four years Americans have been unable or unwilling to do much about it. Sound familiar?
On Jan. 14, 2011, Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, ending 23 years of authoritarian corruption. On Feb. 11, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak agreed to step down after almost 30 years in power. The same month saw major protests begin in Libya, leading to dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s death at the hands of a mob in October, ending 42 years of terror.
Few of these anniversaries will be marked happily. Tunisians and Yemenis, who experienced lasting democratic change but still have far to go, will celebrate quietly. There will be silence in Egypt, where strongman Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has imprisoned tens of thousands for even mildly questioning the legitimacy of the power he captured in a 2013 military coup against the democratically elected government that replaced Mr. Mubarak. Libya remains in chaotic limbo, its post-Gadhafi future still uncertain. And in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad remains in control after a decade of genocidal slaughter of dissidents and ethnic minorities – with both conventional and chemical weapons – it will be as if 2011 never happened.
When the people of those countries asked us for help a decade ago, we waffled. Only after it was certain that Mr. Ben Ali and Mr. Mubarak were toast – when their own militaries were poised to turn against them – did then-president Barack Obama side with the people, giving an inspired speech on the virtues of non-violent resistance but offering little in the way of material support. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper was even more hesitant, waiting until after the 11th hour to offer begrudging support, but declaring: “They’re not going to put the toothpaste back in the tube on this one.”
Over the next few years we would stuff ourselves with that “toothpaste” – the bland substance that leads us to favour the stability of an impoverishing dictatorship over the challenge and compromise of any nascent democracy, propped up by an atavistic belief that Arabs, or perhaps Muslims, are somehow not fit for it.
A year after Mr. el-Sissi seized power, Canada and the U.S. were backing him. We helped the Libyan people avoid mass slaughter at the hands of Mr. Gadhafi with light NATO assistance but then left them to their own devices. At least Libyans got rid of their strongman before he could wreak his revenge – Syria shows us how much worse things would be if they hadn’t.
The Arab Spring had ground to a halt by 2014 precisely because established democracies did so little to champion it in 2011. Now that many more of us are in the same boat, we might be more understanding when the Arab people rise again.
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