The lucky ones in Tunisia.

Photographer: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

Arab Spring's Dreams Became the Islamic State Nightmare

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Five years ago today, the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi sparked the Arab Spring.

At this distance, it's possible to ask a difficult question: Has the Arab Spring been good for the Arabic-speaking world? Are most people better off than they were five years ago?

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

It's also possible to give a disturbing answer, one born of deep respect and admiration for those who bravely protested and in many cases gave their lives for dignity, justice and democracy.

With the exception of Bouazizi’s home country of Tunisia, the uprisings associated with the Arab Spring have either been thwarted by dictators and monarchs or led to civil war and anarchy. Extraordinary as it was, the Arab Spring wasn't enough to lift the citizens of the countries involved out of political subjugation and into collective self-government.

Historians will begin their assessment of the Arab Spring by noticing that regime change only took place in countries governed by old dictator-presidents: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. Monarchies escaped largely unscathed, even in Bahrain, where the Shiite majority’s protests were crushed by royal forces and hastily called-in Saudi troops.

In this sense, the Arab Spring seen from a distance will look like a response to the problem of transitions that especially plagues longtime authoritarian presidencies. It's very rare for such regimes to see a successful generational transfer of power of the kind that’s occurred twice in North Korea. Of the Arab dictators, only Syria's Hafez al-Assad managed to transfer power to his son. And sure enough, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, with no generational pressure for transition, has so far refused to go gently into oblivion.

In the countries where regime change did happen, recognizable patterns emerged. Where elections occurred, in Tunisia and Egypt, Islamic democrats won the plurality of the vote and set about constitutional transition. Tunisia's constitutional drafting process succeeded, for complicated reasons that included a strong civil society and a willingness to compromise by both the leading Islamic political party and its leading secularist opponents.

In Egypt, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood ultimately could not compromise -- and so, with cover from a second round of popular protests, the army took the Brotherhood out. Egypt is now back where it started, with a new military dictator replacing the old one. In Egypt more than anywhere else, the Arab Spring looks like a blip in the transition process -- a sorry end for the rousing activism of Tahrir Square.

But Egypt’s regression to the mean of repression looks good compared to the disasters of Libya, Yemen and Syria. In Libya, the Western bombing campaign that took out Muammar Qaddafi left behind the ruins of what was never a strong state in the first place -- and the country quickly evolved into a battleground among competing militias.

Yemen’s outside intervention from neighboring Saudi Arabia came a bit later, but there, too, the new regime, a close successor of the previous one, failed to achieve even the very basic form of sovereignty that its predecessor had accomplished. Now the country is mired in a multidirectional civil war.

Syria, of course, is the true worst-case scenario. Assad never budged from office despite rhetorical insistence from the West that he “must go.” His violent suppression of peaceful protests was based on the understanding that the threat to his regime was existential. The civil war that followed has made all Syrians far worse off than they were even under Assad’s oppressive regime.

Islamic State’s rise to power depended on its expansion from Iraq into Syria and its subsequent return to control western sections of Iraq. It's no coincidence that what makes Islamic State distinctive from al-Qaeda is its aspiration to achieve territorial sovereignty. The Sunni militant group’s distinctive strategy is to fill the power vacuum created by failing states.

The Iraqi state was already weak in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and the Sunni uprising there. But without a Syria weakened by civil war, Islamic State wouldn't have achieved its current position.

In this sense, Islamic State is the unintended consequence of the Arab Spring. There's plenty of blame to go around, from the failure of the U.S. occupation in Iraq to the Western vacillation between eliminating Assad and preserving his regime out of fear of what might follow. Assad himself bears vast moral guilt for his acts of violence against civilians. But the bottom line is that instead of producing a democratic Syria, the Arab Spring contributed to the chaos that has given the region and the world a new terror.

It's an epochal tragedy that the Arab Spring will be seen to have opened the door for Islamic State. For more than a generation, Arab dictators argued that their continued existence was justified by the threat of Islamism and anarchy.

The argument was baldly self-serving and morally repugnant. But it also turns out to have been self-fulfilling. By destroying or eliminating civil society, the dictators in Egypt and Syria created circumstances where they couldn't be replaced by effective, consolidated democratic forces.

The exception of Tunisia, with its labor unions and its moderate Islamic democrats, proves the rule of the other cases.

It's now very hard to see how the overall legacy of the Arab Spring could turn out to have been positive. The Arab Spring showed that Arabic speakers were just as committed to dignity and self-government as people anywhere else in the world. But their political situation was, in fact, worse than the people of Eastern Europe and Latin America who have ultimately achieved democratic stability on their own. And for the coming generation, there’s no obvious way to emulate Tunisia and achieve something better.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net