It’s nearly three years since the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi sparked the Arab Spring. Long-established regimes have fallen, other have struggled, with varying success, to survive and an orgy of killing has swept across the region, most notably in Syria, with over 100,000 now believed to have been killed, over two million driven into exile and millions more displaced.
Bouazizi’s suicide was born out of his utter frustration at a society that afforded him no dignity and accorded him no worth as a human being.
It’s difficult to evaluate a process that is still continuing. And the turmoil in the region is far from coming to an end, as the latest outbreak of popular dissatisfaction in Sudan shows. What is apparent, though, is that those who claimed in the early days that the Spring represented a great hope for the flowering of democracy, as happened in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, have been sorely mistaken.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly last weekend, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed support for what he described as the “determined will” of the Egyptian people to proceed towards a “democratic path based on the participation of all spectra of society without exclusion and within a policy characterised by moderation, non-violence and the non-use of religion as a means of exclusion and classification or for the preaching of sectarianism and hatred”.
If we look at those countries that have been most affected by the Spring, it is clear that, rather than the emergence of a “democratic path”, as described by Sheikh Abdullah, there has been, thus far, a flowering of a very different kind.
In Egypt, elections brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, who attempted to govern in the interests of his own grouping, regardless of the opinions of the majority of Egyptians, Muslims and Copts, liberal secularists and conservatives alike.
With the Brotherhood now removed from power, many of its adherents – and others of a yet more extreme ilk – are stirring the fires of religious hatred and embarking on acts of terror.
In Libya, the growing influence of Brotherhood-allied factions has contributed to a state of near-war with tribally-orientated groupings and the country is on the verge of disintegration.
In Syria, where the conflict has lasted the longest, the brutality of the Assad regime goes far beyond the use of chemical weapons.
That has been matched by an opposition that is increasingly dominated by extremist factions whose sectarianism and religious hatred offers a vision of a future that is even more depressing, even more vile.
A future of violence and murder that, regardless of the views of ordinary Syrians, they pledge to impose not only on Syria itself, but to spread further afield.
In Syria, as in Libya, another failed state is in the making, and last week’s terrorist attack on a Nairobi shopping mall show how a failed state can impact on its peaceful neighbours.
Throughout much of the region, the democratic moderate, non-violent voices of which Sheikh Abdullah spoke have been sidelined or eradicated.
We have seen those who claim, falsely, to speak for Islam promoting sectarianism, using religion to set neighbour against neighbour, after centuries of living together, to promote a view of society based on exclusion, rather than inclusion.
We have seen the rebirth of tribal and ethnic tensions that threaten to tear countries apart.
The principles of democracy are complex. It’s not just a matter of casting a vote. It is a sensitive and fragile plant that requires peace to grow.
It requires time to put down its roots gradually, in a soil that is watered by the rule of law, not soaked by the outpouring of the blood of those who seek it.
It thrives in a society where there is respect for others, for those with whom one agrees as well as those with whom one disagrees.
It struggles where individuals are not accorded the right to their own dignity that is, or should be, the right of all.
What, I wonder, would Mohammed Bouazizi make of the Arab Spring today? It has brought little in the way of democracy or dignity. Many tens of thousands have died; many millions have lost their homes and their livelihoods. And for what?
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture