Arab Spring: A New Page in History That Failed to Turn

Oil remains the main source of wealth and the start of endless conflicts in the Middle East. (File)

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan

The advent of the US-British occupation of Iraq and the humiliating capture, trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, the most feared dictator in the region, while the rest of the Arabs were either helping the invaders to dismantle a member of the Arab League or just helpless spectators, showed the Arab youth that their dictators were just pitiful paper tigers. They serve at the pleasure of their masters in Washington and London or Tel Aviv or Moscow, and when they are not needed, they are discarded like trash. Arab youth discovered the truth about their dictators, their regimes have no public support, and they should not be feared. That almost certainly inspired demands for overthrowing the authoritarian regimes and the establishment of participatory institutions and economic reforms.

Middle East youth led “Arab Spring” that began in 2010 demanding freedom from authoritarian rule and repressive governments. They expected that the demise of the semi-secular and pseudo-modern dictatorship of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Iraq put an end to half-century-long regimes of oppressive corruption. They raised hopes that the region’s forces of autocracy would be defeated and replaced by liberal democratic principles which should not be permitted to fail. But after the collapse of the regimes, they discovered the road to democracy is tortuous and the established institutions cannot be reformed easily. Existing political and social forces embedded in foreign-supported-military institutions, religion, sectarianism, and tribalism are stronger and better organized than the youth demonstrating in the streets and city squares for democratic principles.

The call for establishing democratic political and economic institutions turned into a contest between military backed authoritarianism and Islamist ideology; or sectarian, ethnic and tribal civil-wars that involved regional and international powers. After all the sacrifices and the big expectations, the Middle East today is living the state of nature that Thomas Hobbes imagined three centuries ago. Interestingly, while Arab monarchies, the rich and the poor are still standing and relatively stable, failed states and extremist movements torn-apart the Arab republics only. The big casualty of this failure is the Palestinian cause. The preoccupation of the Arab states with their internal malaise weakened their effectiveness to support the Palestinians in their struggle to end the Israeli occupation, end Gaza siege and establish an independent Palestinian state. Some of the Arab states are actually looking to Israel to save them from what they perceive as radical elements that pose threat to their regimes.

Arab countries became inhospitable to their own population, forcing them to risk dying in search for safety in foreign lands; the states became monsters; violence, and more of it is the only law; and life is “nasty, brutish and short.” The “Arab Spring” insurgency was viewed as a new page in the history of the Middle East, but even after five years, this page of history has failed to turn! Instead of democracy, ghastly and repressive models of governing have emerged; governments kill dissidents in the streets and in jails; and they gas their own people to death and invite foreign powers to massacre their own civilian constituents.

The new Arab regimes that emerged are in many ways far nastier, more brutal and more repulsive than the previous autocratic regimes that the “Arab Spring” insurgencies were trying to replace. They have concentrated their resources on violence against their political opposition on a scale that no sane person could have imagined in this century when more people than ever before live in democracies.

The US invasion of Iraq may be seen as a catalyzing event in a larger transformation of the region but the roots of discontent in the Middle East lie in decades of poverty and lack of equal opportunity under corrupt and oppressive regimes. The things that have held the Middle East people back include ineffective states and societies where people cannot use their talent, ambition, ingenuity, and what education they can get. All the economic impediments they face stem from the way political power is exercised and monopolized by a narrow elite.

Political institutions of a society determine how the government is chosen and who has the power in society and to what ends such power can be used. Under narrow and unconstrained absolutist political institutions as exemplified by regimes reigning throughout the Middle East, those who wield power can set up economic institutions to enrich themselves, their families and their supporters and augment their power at the expense of society.

Citizens in democratic societies can choose their occupation freely, acquire schooling and skills and encourage the employers to invest in technology that leads to higher wages for them. They have access to political institutions that give them the power to elect their representatives, and replace them peacefully at the ballot box if they are corrupt or if they fail to provide the basic services and create the environment that improves their economic conditions.

Rich countries that do not have extractive economies became rich when their citizens created a society where political rights were much more broadly distributed, where the government was accountable and responsive to citizens, and where the great mass of people could take advantage of economic opportunities.

Oil has been and will remain the main source of wealth and the start of endless conflicts in the Middle East. Nature has accorded petroleum generously to some Middle East countries and some of the oil revenues was used to build new cities, new roads and new airports, and raised the standards of living in the oil producing countries. That was obviously progress, but much of the revenue enriched a privileged class, members of the royal families and the tribal chiefs. Oil producer states such as Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia are rich with per capita income levels close to the first ten worldwide.

Oil is valuable only when it is sold, but at the present time, there is no shortage of oil in the world, and with new techniques to extract oil from dry wells in the US and with the development of other forms of cost effective energy, Arabs virtual monopoly on energy supplies may not last forever. The windfall of wealth in these countries has done little to create diversified modern economies. Those in control have used much of the extractive economic wealth to support their authoritarian regimes, and more extracted wealth is unlikely to lead to fundamental transformation of these regimes toward democratic inclusive institutions. Citizen’s loyalty to the ruling elite cannot be bought for ever; and in the long run such spectacle may not please the educated young or the middle class who would like to play their part in public affairs of their countries. It is a matter of time before citizens of the oil producing countries will demand democracy and civil rights.

Middle Eastern countries with little or no oil, all cluster around a level of income similar to that of the poor Central America states. They cannot engineer prosperity without the participation of the masses under democratic institutions that legitimize the government and the opposition alike, respect civil and human rights for all including the women, and provide functioning markets and equal opportunities.

– Hasan Afif El-Hasan, Ph.D. is a political analyst. His latest book, Is The Two-State Solution Already Dead? (Algora Publishing, New York), available on and Barnes & Noble. He contributed this article to

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1 Comment

  1. The secular regimes of Hussein, Gaddifi, and Assad are targets of the U.S. as they all advocated independent actions that worked against U.S. hegemony. In particular, they were all attempting to finance the oil trade using currencies other than the US$, the U.S. fiat petrodollar. Gaddafi was promoting a pan-African currency supported by gold; and Assad sits astride an easy route for oil to be transferred to Europe away from Russian/Iranian interests.

    In addition, secular Arab nationalism was not to be tolerated vis a vis Israel. This led to the creation of Islamic fundamentalist groups receiving aid and supplies directly or indirectly from the U.S. for destabilization of the area.

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