PARIS — Exactly 10 years ago, on December 17, 2010, a low-key Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller felt so harassed and abused by public officials that he set himself on fire. Bouazizi's fatal act of desperation and revolt would mark the beginning of a wave of uprisings in the Arab world, that spread from Tunisia to Egypt, and then on to Libya and Syria.
A decade later, what remains of this immense flame of hope? It was of course very quickly followed — with the notable exception of Tunisia — by a wave of repression, sometimes fierce, as in Syria. How did we go from the Arab Spring to the Islamic winter? And then on to the deepening of the infernal dialectic between authoritarianism and corruption? It's as if the doors of democracy, barely ajar, had been summarily closed by those of the kleptocracy.
Was the hope unfounded, nothing more than a product of a far too Western reading of a culture that we did not understand, of images that we did not know how to interpret?
It is of course easier to destroy than to rebuild. The young people of Tahrir Square in Cairo were able to bring down President Mubarak, but they were unable to create a democratic, strong and stable Egypt. They were caught between a security apparatus — dependent for the maintenance of its wealth on its presence in power — and the Muslim Brotherhood, who would soon prove their mixture of incompetence and intolerance.
Over time, the Arab Spring has exposed the dangerous limits of Islamists and political Islam, but has not strengthened civil society and the cause of democracy. The direct, almost mathematical link between the extent of Egypt's debt and the wealth of the "Egyptian generals" was strengthened at a time when the voices that remained of freedom were being fiercely muzzled.
Was the expression "Arab Spring" – a reference to the 1848 revolution known as the "Springtime of the Peoples" – a deceptive illusion from the outset? Or is it still too early to judge whether it is true or not?
At a demonstration against Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi in Tunis in 2011 — Photo: Olivier Corsan/Maxppp/ZUMAPRESS.com
If the comparison between that revolutionary European Spring of 1848-1849 and the Arab Spring of 2010-2011 is to remain legitimate, is it not because of their respective failures In Europe. It was not the Frankfurt Parliament that unified Germany, but Bismarck's Prussia. And, in France, it was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte who was able to reap the benefits of revolutionary unrest.
In the traditional heart of the Arab world, in Egypt, after the very inconclusive experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in power, the army regained control of the country, even more brutally than in Mubarak's time. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi knows that he can count on the mixture of fear of radical Islam and the mercenary appetites of many Western countries to weld friendships that ethics should condemn, but that politics encourages.
The Western world has been providing impressive examples of its ethical contradictions in its relations with the Middle East and North Africa for decades. "Rather than being selectively and hypocritically moral, we might as well be universally cynical and uncomplicated," say proponents of this realpolitik. "International politics is not for simple souls: sensitive minds should abstain."
That original and sincere hope shared by many observers and participants — those who are not resigned to seeing the majority of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa condemned for eternity to stigma, corruption and violence — seems to have been swept away by the test of time. But history cannot support those who claim it is dangerous to believe that the idea of progress can be applied to this part of the world.
From Cairo to Algiers, simply resigning oneself to the fact that the reign of the "kleptocracy" extends and consolidates itself in the name of the struggle against Islamism is not only a sign of excessive weakness, but an irresponsible risk in the long run. Western countries have stronger "levers" at their discretion than they might think. It is not a question of whether or not to receive Sisi in Paris, as French President Emmanuel Macron did recently.
The Western world can still make a difference.
We cannot passively accept the argument of sovereignty from regimes that tell us — playing on an indignation fueled by historical references — that "we have no right to interfere in their affairs." Those "affairs" are, especially for the European countries, so geographically close to our own. To be convinced of this, one need only see the Egyptian-Scandinavian film "Confidential Cairo," a vitriolic denunciation of corruption in Egypt set on the eve of the January 2011 uprising.
If civil society can no longer express itself in a society infected with corruption, if human rights organizations are treated as terrorist organizations, then there is no longer any intermediary between the security forces and radical Islamism. And this constitutes a clear danger for the region and those, like ours, that are close by.
Cynicism and self-interested passivity are counterproductive. They constitute a form of "after me, the flood" that is reprehensible on all levels: political, security and ethical. Yet the Western world can still make a difference.
The United States, even though it has been withdrawing from this region for the past 12 years, can still make a difference; not by sending more of its soldiers, but by imposing much stricter conditions on the allocation of its aid. Europe, if it can agree on a policy, can do the same. No, the Middle East and North Africa must not be condemned to an eternal winter.
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