What if the Arab Spring had never happened?
They thought Arab communities could absorb the shockwaves and continue to function. And they were wrong.
What if the Arab Spring had never happened? This is a recurring question asked by many people in Arab countries affected by the revolutions or observing them. As hopelessness mounts and suffering worsens, people wonder if it was worth it. There were those who believed freedom and liberty should be sought at any cost, but even they could not imagine the human cost that would be paid.
As reality hits harder against their revolutionary fervor, they too are now in doubt. Three years ago, every Syrian I met supported the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Today, I hear more and more Syrians whispering things such as “at least we were safe,” and “unless you were in politics your livelihood was protected.” Some even say: “Change would have come had we waited.”
‘What if’ questions are not easy to answer - history is neat but reality is complex and unpredictable - but it is important to ask such questions, especially about the Arab Spring. The purpose is not to imagine an alternative history, but to discuss other means of bringing change and reform.
They thought the social and institutional structures of Arab communities could absorb the shockwaves and continue to function. They are realizing they were wrong.Abdullah Hamidaddin
When the Arab Spring started, those of us who supported it did so from a moral perspective. We believed people should resist oppression, and in the process tolerate the human cost. However, there was another underlying belief that led many of us to encourage change by whatever means. Many assumed it was enough for people to want change and to topple opposing regimes.
They thought the social and institutional structures of Arab communities could absorb the shockwaves and continue to function. They are realizing they were wrong. More and more are waking up to the fact that the human cost has gone beyond what is justifiable, and that Arab social and institutional structures are more likely to accommodate religious fundamentalists than civil and democratic activists.
Many thought it was all about the people. Very few thought of the fragile social and institutional structures that would fall apart amid chaos and unpredictability. Had the Arab Spring not happened, we would still have had disruptions here and there as the situation was reaching boiling point. However, those disruptions would have most likely led to gradual reform rather than revolutions that wreaked havoc.
Had the Arab Spring not happened, Syria would not have been decimated.Abdullah Hamidaddin
All Arab Spring countries were hit badly, but none more so than Syria and Libya. Before the uprising, Assad was already making steady reforms - not enough, but there was some progress. Had there been no revolution, Syria would have gradually improved, and in 10 or 15 years things would have been much better.
In the process of that gradual reform, there would have been oppression, disappearances and torture. However, there would not have been some 300,000 deaths, millions injured and half the population displaced. Had the Arab Spring not happened, Syria would not have been decimated. I am not telling people to lie down and die while dictators do as they please, but to consider whether there is any chance of reasoning with the dictator in question.
Arabs wanted hasty change, and were overconfident with the power of the people, paying no attention to the power of structures. We realized that ‘the people’ was an empty phrase, that it is social and economic structures that matter. It should not be what the people want, but what the structure allows.
I am all for reform, but I am also for appreciating what we have, and for softly pushing for more. I am also for a deeper understanding of the structures within which we live, and for appreciating their value even if they are not perfect. Without them, we are left with chaos and misery.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1