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In six days, it will be exactly four years since what would become known as the ‘Arab Spring’ began – an often forgotten reference to the revolutionary movements which swept over Europe in the spring of 1848. That day, a young street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in the streets of his native Sidi Bouzid, in the centre of Tunisia. He had decided to take his own life as a sign of protest at the injustice inflicted upon him by petty officials of Ben Ali’s autocratic government, which had been in power since 1987.

News of his sacrifice triggered demonstrations in Tunisia, which sparked a seemingly unstoppable movement of revolutions around the Arab world, toppling in the process four autocrats and sending shock waves through the entire Middle East and North Africa region, from Baghdad to Casablanca. Hopes for a free and democratic Middle East ran high: would Arab civil society succeed where US neo-conservative grand designs had failed lamentably?

Four years on, the time for celebrations seems to be well over. The democratic experiment has been halted abruptly by a military coup in Egypt. Syria is still in the throes of a savage civil war, and it has often become difficult to find a respectable liberal ally to support on the ground. Yemen remains in a state of high instability, and, in the meantime, the Libyan state is about to break down under the strain of the centrifugal forces of tribalism and particularly virulent forms of political Islam. The latter has become one of the major beneficiaries of these revolutions, with Islamist militants hijacking the liberal agenda of many popular movements and using this new impetus to extend their violent control of entire swaths of territory, as in Syria and Iraq, in Mali – until the French intervention in 2013 – and in Nigeria, where Boko Haram’s reign of terror has remained unabated up to this day. Islamists may have been right when they reportedly claimed that the Arab Spring was their objective ally and that Western powers would be quite surprised at the outcome of their efforts in the region.

Since then, the region has witnessed a sad repeat of earlier scenarios, with French boots pounding in the Sahara, American fighter jets leading an international coalition designed to repel Islamist militants out of Iraq and Syria, and organised crime or systematic political violence taking a heavy toll among the most vulnerable layers of society, targeting minorities and educated people and ruining the livelihood of millions of citizens across the region. Chaos and warfare prevail where peaceful political negotiation was expected to take place. The most extreme forms of religious and social conservatism are being imposed where freedom was expected to flourish.

Yet, and in spite of the innumerable sufferings which have been wrought on the populations of the region, ranging from higher unemployment rates and food shortages to executions and death in combat, there are still reasons to hope that Mr Bouazizi’s self-sacrifice – a major sin according to Islamic law – and its wide-ranging unintended consequences will not have been made in vain. In the cradle of the Arab revolutions, the road to democracy has been bumpy, but Tunisia seems to be at long last developing a healthy democracy, with the second round of the presidential election taking place on 21 December. Further West, Morocco is negotiating a peaceful democratic transition marked by the rise to power of an Islamist Prime Minister under the leadership of an enlightened young king, whose rule has been somewhat safeguarded by his symbolic position as the Commander of the Faithful (amir al mu’minin).

These two examples of successful transition towards pluralist democracy may rightly be seen as beacons in the middle of the tempest. In Tunisia, as in Morocco, the long tradition of a strong state and of political engagement provided the structures needed to maintain stability in spite of deep political change. Elsewhere, the transition has been less orderly than expected. But most of the story of this ‘Arab Spring’ remains to be written, and civil societies, as well as the international community, can still influence the outcome of this long-term political earthquake. After all, earlier revolutions, whether American, French or Haitian – the latter led to the first modern black state being created in 1804 – brought about considerable turmoil where they took place, and their spasms often lasted for decades.

Though intolerance should be fought forcefully wherever it flares up, the perspectives of freedom which the ‘Arab Spring’ suddenly opened four years ago are still a viable option. To that purpose, the international community should find a balance between direct interventionism and support to moderate groups. Above all, it should develop nuanced and carefully crafted policies of local alliances based on subtle political engineering. It is the least we can do to honour the memory of the street vendor who detonated a call for dignity that resonated all around the Arab world, breaking open the floodgates of autocratic regimes. With it came the question of what Arabo-Muslim societies should look like in a post-postcolonial world, and this is what all the current conflicts in the region are all about. Navigating between a hypothetical return to an idealised Caliphate and a radically new and modern society, the shape of which remains to be decided, is a perilous business.

Dr Berny Sèbe
Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, University of Birmingham