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Arab Spring Through the Looking Glass:
A Polemic Essay

2,398 words

Protesters march on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis, 14 Jan 2011

One spark can ignite the whole world, or at least one part of it. It was December 17, 2010, when a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi pushed his handcart down to the market in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Police approached him and accused him of violating regulations he hadn’t. They demanded money, and when he had none, they humiliated him and took his vegetable scales. Bouazizi went to the town office to complain, but was refused.

Bouazizi then doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire.

This desperate act soon caused protests, to which police responded with brutality. What could have been typical unrest grew nationwide and caused the dictator of Tunisia, President Ben Ali, to leave the country.

Live footage of demonstrations and the success of the Tunisian uprising spread across the Arab world through social media and the Al-Jazeera TV channel. Soon, there were demonstrations and riots in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, and Bahrain. While some Western governments — the US government, for example — reacted skeptically to possible turmoil in the Middle East, Western media commentators were amazed. The uprisings were called the “awakening of the Arab people” and seen as liberation from corrupted dictatorships. At that point, what no one in the West would dare to name “crisis,” soon turned to conflicts that would cause the death and homelessness of millions. As Arab Spring turned to autumn, hopes for importing Western values of democracy, equality and civil rights to Muslim states started to fade.

Not so much an analysis of actual events, but on the hopes and attitudes of the Western world, this essay approaches the Arab Spring as an instigator of crises, conflicts, and insecurity.

Liberating violence

The idea of imposing liberty might seem paradoxical, but “freedom” and “liberty” are probably two words that have caused more oppression, killing, and misery than any other. It was Nietzsche who wrote in Der Wille zur Macht that we in the West are a result of a self-crucifixion that has lasted for two thousand years. Nietzsche saw that the uprising of early Christianity was an uprising of slaves in the name of utilitarian and egalitarian values, thus breaking the hierarchy that in antiquity was called the “natural order of things.” For Nietzsche, this order — unlike the Platonic or Aristotelian one — came from chaos.

Unfortunately, Nietzsche is never understood by the people who sympathize or mentally identify themselves with slaves, seeing him only as a supporter of authoritarian elitism and rule-of-power. This same age-old dichotomy was seen when Western media celebrated the beginning of unrest in Libya. After all, the long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi, once a revolutionary himself, was widely seen as a violent despot and a supporter of terrorist organizations. From this perspective, fighting fire with fire was only justified in the name of the human rights that Gaddafi had violated for so long. The long-awaited liberation of the Libyan people reached its peak when Tripoli was captured by rebel forces on August 2011, supported by NATO bombings. When Gaddafi was found a few months later, he was sodomized with the bayonet of a rifle before being shot to death. No nobility and honour could have been expected in an uprising where former slaves had achieved their liberty and implemented it with brutal violence.

Carl Schmitt, in his essays on political theology, was convinced that all principles of politics have their origins in theological discourse. And while some could see Western, egalitarian values as a surpass of religion, it was Karl Löwith who introduced progress as secularized eschatology, and Agamben the idea that secularization means only to transfer a concept from one context to another, thus leaving its purpose and logic intact.

Studying reactions and attitudes toward events in Libya and elsewhere in Western media and public discourse can, in this perspective, be seen as an effort to import secularized Western values to Muslim states. Someone could even call this as a form of colonization; not of people, but of ideas. So, when Gaddafi was killed, there appeared to be many in the West thinking that the Libyans would now end up like us: Living in a liberal democracy based on everyone’s right to earn, spend, and vote without any higher purpose or anything greater left to achieve. History repeated itself in Libyan revolution, at least if we look at it through the eyes of Thomas Paine, who saw the American Revolution exactly this way: As a crisis where the enlightened ones can step up and introduce the liberating, egalitarian values that cure a society of its ignorance.

Indeed, this all starts to sound like the “end of history.” This concept was popularized in the 90s by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and the Last Man. It referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist bloc, as the world had now achieved its purpose: Mankind would spend its time worrying not about war or struggle, but only how to make as much money as possible and how to spend it, reminding us of the Last Man that Nietzsche had introduced in his Zarathustra.

The concept of the end of history can be traced back to Hegel, who saw history as a history of conflicts: When the conflicts end, history would end. He saw the history of mankind as a man’s journey from a slave to a ruler. At the beginning of history, two unequal men met each other and the other one challenged the other to a duel. When the other one, presumably the weaker, refused, he had to succumb to be a slave for the other. While the ruler enjoyed the fruits of the slave’s work, he started to degenerate, while the slave only became stronger. Finally, the slaves were so strong that they could kill their masters and become rulers themselves. Because slaves were all equal and now had freedom, there was no need for conflict, since all conflict is born from the struggle to achieve equality and freedom; history has ended.

Alas, no one told this to the Libyans when they killed their master.

Never-ending insecurity

While the uprising in Tunisia led to the formation of a democratic government, things were less glamorous elsewhere. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak stepped aside after 18 days of demonstrations, and again, hopes for “democratizing” another Arab state were high.

The Western world was stunned when the Egyptian people voted the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist Mohamed Morsi to power.

However, more demonstrations were to follow, and finally, in July 2013, Morsi was overthrown in a coup d’état. In August, the future President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi organized a raid against two camps of protesters. What followed was called the “Rabaa Massacre,” and almost 1000 people were killed. Egypt remains an unstable country with armed rival groups and continuous terrorist attacks to this day, almost ten years after the Arab Spring.

Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, over 16,000 people gathered to demonstrate against corruption and unemployment in Sanaa, Yemen, in January 2011. Even bigger demonstrations followed, but this time the supporters of the government also went to the streets. The day that saw the first death of protesters was called “the Friday of No Return.” That it surely was; Yemen is today considered an example of a failed state without a proper government or legal institutions.

What the West failed to understand in the case of Yemen was that there were no “people” against an “evil dictator,” but a nation composed largely of rural tribes and Islamist militias. Thus, the utopias of individualism and democratic freedom were not realistic. What most of the Yemeni tribesmen wanted was not freedom to work in an office, spend their earnings on mobile phones, and sit their evenings in front of a huge TV. All this “Western freedom” was seen as corrupted consumerism and immoral plutocracy by people who led traditional lifestyles based on the teachings of Islam.

Hobbes’ view of politics is that it’s all about solving and eliminating conflicts. The root of the problem is that all men want something, and that they all have approximately equal strength, so anyone can try to take anything from anyone. This war of all-against-each-other is prevented by making a social contract where people hand over part of their freedom in return for security. In this context, the state should have both internal and international sovereignty, otherwise it loses its justification to exist. Because of this, the state has the right to use violence, which is illegal for the citizens.

Revolution is, of course, a dissolution of that order, as can be seen in the cases of Egypt and Yemen. So, rather than Hobbes, perhaps it was Jacques Rancière who got closer to the truth when he wrote that conflict is not something between members of society, but society’s conflict with itself. From this perspective, politics is not about solving conflicts, but about people manifesting themselves from the shadows of the police state. But Rancière also gave a warning not to ever think of politics as a way to build a society; only to make it more equal. If everyone is already equal, then taking inequality as a starting point would only lead to a situation where the old order is replaced by a new one. Thus, it would not make society more secure. Instead, it would only lead to a question: “Whose security are we talking about?”

From conflict to crisis

While uprisings in the name of freedom soon turned to conflicts in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, much worse was to follow in Syria. Civil unrest began in 2011 as people demanded President al-Assad step down. Protests escalated into armed conflicts, and by March, it was already called a civil war. As in the case of Yemen, Western media had difficulties pointing out the “good guys and the bad guys” of the conflict. Al-Assad, as a dictator of some kind, was clearly an enemy of democracy, but how is one to react to the Salafi jihadist groups that were also fighting against him, or mixed Kurdish-Arab groups? In addition to these, ISIL, Russia, Turkey, and the United States were involved in the conflict.

It seems that because of the Christian history of the West and the secularized values that took its place during the Enlightenment, we are capable of comprehending issues only through a polarity of good and evil. Thus, we have an obsession to categorize parties of conflicts in these terms and then take sides with the one that seemingly represents the ideas of freedom and equality. As we can see, this turned out to be difficult in the Arab world, where dictators were fought by radical Islamists. So, the common folk — the poor and the oppressed, the “slave” of our imagination — would just as easily impose Sharia law on the citizens of these “liberated” nations.

But the conflict in Syria was just a beginning, and the West would soon have to face the consequences of the Arab Spring knocking at its own door. It is estimated that over 7.6 million people had to leave their home in Syria. In 2015, EU member states received 1.2 million asylum applications. Thousands died at sea. Although only part of these refugees were from Syria, there is no doubt that the events that began at that Tunisian marketplace were a major instigator of what would be called the European migrant crisis.

The misuse of the term “crisis” is here at its best. “Crisis” has its etymological roots in medicine: Crisis was the moment of decision; when a disease embodied itself and a doctor had to interfere.

Today, many doctors have appeared, but there is still no resolution among EU states about what to do to millions presumably waiting for a chance to migrate into the EU. And this ineptitude is the thing that has already sown the seeds of the next crisis: The crisis of democracy.

It was Machiavelli who wrote that conflict will never disappear, and Heraclitus who said that war is the father of all. Perhaps they are right. However, when there is no clearly defined enemy, war becomes something unjust. What follows is that the only justified war is the war of good against evil; and when the concept of humanity is brought into politics, its alleged enemies are no longer human, which leads to absolute wars.

The Arab Spring, seen from the West as a war against inhuman tyrants, is a good example of our own misconception of reality. The results of those conflicts are also good examples of our idealism. We’d like to think anyone can be the ruler, and no one a slave. As the American author and three-time Pulitzer winner Thomas Friedman put it in 2002: “Is Iraq the way it is today because Saddam Hussein is the way he is? Or is Saddam Hussein the way he is because Iraq is the way it is?”

To put it more cynically, do the slaves sometimes need a master? And can a society without a master work at all? There is always a master, no matter what we call it or how glamorously we disguise it. A demos without aristoi is just a kind of a paradox that we see in the states ruined by the Arab Spring.


In September 2019, a man named Albert Razin set himself on fire in Udmurtia, Russia, because of Moscow’s Russification policy and oppression of minority languages. Although the incident was reported throughout the world, no comments about Finno-Ugrian awakening, freedom from Putin’s tyranny, or the uprising of Volga nations were to be found. The passion for freedom would be, in this case, like a flame fading away in darkness, just like the fate of these nations. Perhaps the significance of a small Finno-Ugrian nation is just too small to be viewed in the light of an age-old struggle of oppressed slave against tyrant master. Or perhaps it’s because it was a case of a minority against an overwhelming majority, and not the other way around, as in the case of Arab Spring.

After all, democracy is all about the tyranny of a majority, and thus special laws are required to protect the rights of minorities. And “human rights,” so violently imposed during the Arab Spring, are all about the rights of those who support the egalitarian world view and the current establishment that represents them as its own.