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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 July 2018

How much progress has been made in the seven years since the Arab Spring began? 

Seven years on, what is the state of the Arab world after the tumult of the uprisings, wonders HA Hellyer

An archive picture from January 15, 2011, the day after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stood aside. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters
An archive picture from January 15, 2011, the day after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stood aside. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

This week, Tunisians marked the anniversary of the beginning of their revolution of 2010 – an uprising that was maintained as a revolution thereafter, and which led to similar events across the Arab world. Seven years on from that fateful week, many still ask was the Arab Spring successful? And each year, that question doesn’t cease to be peculiar – and especially at this time, when America’s declaration on Jerusalem has caused a US vice-president’s trip to the region to become shrouded in controversy. And yes, there is a link.

The success or failure of any revolutionary period, at least from a historian’s point of view, is judged at the point where we can tell whether or not the processes it unleashes lead to anything at all. Success is going to be where structural changes take place in the societies where the upheaval occurs – and those changes can take decades to see. That is the case for revolutionary eras all around the world. Incredibly, many seem to implicitly demand that the Arab world ought to move faster than anywhere else, and because it doesn’t they argue that the revolutionary era has failed utterly.

Two things are true about that era. The first is that it happened against the backdrop of deeply rooted autocracy and dictatorship. Indeed, the fact that any uprising in any part of the region took place at all is a testament to the Arab spirit – they didn’t begin because of some kind of external machination and the odds against all of them were stacked massively. The second thing to remember is that this is truly early to assess the success of those uprisings – the processes unleashed have yet to be settled, despite numerous efforts to the contrary.

What would be of use is not to judge whether or not the revolutionary era was successful – it’s too early for that – but to judge what success actually looks like. And here, far too little effort is invested. A revolution is not successful because of a political leader. It goes much further than that.

In the context of the Arab revolutions, there are three possible signs of success that, as an analyst who was based in Cairo during the beginning of the uprisings, I was looking for progress towards in the post-revolution republics. The first was the upholding of the basic fundamental rights of every individual. The second was the empowerment of the ordinary citizen – thus creating the "Arab citizen" – to choose who rules over him or her. The third was the institutionalisation of the first two points, through laws, constitutions or other means.

Have those signs come about? Objectively speaking, most certainly not. But there are signs that progress has been made in some places, though most certainly not others. And here Tunisia is indeed a bright presence, albeit one that remains in need of support, and whose citizens must remain ever vigilant. Their constitution, while not perfect, is a beacon of hope and evidence of what can be achieved when consensus is truly the aim.

Yet, the road that the revolutionary uprisings set off upon is not yet over. And that road did not appear out of a vacuum – it is the quite understandable and organic response to a long history that begins with colonialism, post-colonialism, and the modern Arab republic nation state. And here is where the Jerusalem declaration from the American president comes in.

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Let us be clear: Jerusalem represents a great deal to the people of the Arab world, and far beyond. For Muslims, Christians and Jews – and these make up the three primary religious groups of the Arab world – Jerusalem is deeply significant. It represents the first Qibla – the first direction for prayer – for the Muslims. For Christians, it is the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and for Jews, the spiritual geographical centre of their faith. For many westerners, understanding this considerable role for Arabs, and understanding, indeed, the considerable part that Christian Arabs play within the Arab peoples is a bit of a mystery. But it cannot be underestimated, even as Christian Zionists seem to ignore that primordial Christian history. Indeed, the descendants of the original Christians are Arabs.

But beyond this religious symbolism, there is this political symbolism. Because the occupation of Jerusalem is a salient reminder of the denial of Arab autonomy; a reminder of the colonial heritage that still indelibly affects Arab life.

If we return to those signs of success for the revolutionary uprisings, we see that they are essentially the fulfilment of Arab autonomy – the fulfillment of the upholding of Arab fundamental rights and the empowerment of the citizen to choose who rules. In this regard, we’re not discussing an Arab racial ethnicity that is narrow and chauvinistic – rather, simply the geographical reference. A jingoistic interpretation of Arab autonomy that, for example, denies full cultural rights to other ethnic groupings in the region is not freedom for Arabs – its denial of freedom for others.

But the denial of Arab autonomy represents something as well – it means the colonial history, par excellence, in recent history – and it means today the continued occupation of Jerusalem and the negation of true citizenship for Arabs. Seven years from the beginning of the Arab revolutions, it is clear there are many, particularly in DC and Tel Aviv, who are desperate to assume that Jerusalem no longer matters to the Arabs. But they are sorely mistaken. Jerusalem hits the to the core of Arab identity in the 20th and 21st centuries, whether anyone likes it or not.

Dr H A Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London