July 3, 2017 marks the fourth anniversary of the coup that brought down Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammad Morsi, and brought then-General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. Since the coup, President Sisi has been at the forefront of efforts to return the Middle East to the pre-Arab Spring status quo. But, rather than learning lessons from these revolts, the world is acting like they never took place.
The resurgence of Arab autocrats, and the willingness of foreign countries to back these dictatorial strongmen, is an example of attempts to turn the clock back on the Arab world. In addition to Sisi, who enjoys the support of U.S. President Donald Trump, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Iran and Russia, other autocrats in the pre-Arab Spring mold are emerging.
Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, for example, has come to control much of Libya following his campaign to oust Islamist militias from Benghazi. Haftar, a former general, has deliberately presented himself in the mold of Sisi, including copying his speeches and emulating his battle with Islamist opponents. As a result, he has received support from Egypt and the UAE. Russia has also started courting Haftar, inviting him aboard a Russian aircraft carrier to speak with the country’s defense minister.
In a similar fashion, economic lessons from the Arab Spring have been forgotten. A major tenet of the 2011 uprisings was a rejection of neoliberal economic restructuring that had cut social services and increased poverty. During the revolutions, protesters voiced their rage at autocrats and their families who had enriched themselves by privatizing state industries.
In 2014, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the driving force behind this economic restructuring, published a paper entitled “All in the Family: State Capture in Tunisia.” The paper acknowledged that neoliberal restructuring in an authoritarian context leads to the sort of crony capitalism and corruption that prompted the 2011 revolutions.
But, the IMF seems not to have heeded its own warnings. In November 2016, it extended a three year, $12 billion loan to Egypt. The money is conditioned on the same neoliberal restructuring that dominated the country under its previous rulers. Just as these old autocratic rulers did, Sisi is using this foreign financial aid to enrich himself and his close associates.
In countries where protests elicited gradual reforms, rather than full scale change, progress is also being reversed. In Jordan, persistent protests produced a slight weakening of state control over the media, as well as other minor reforms. Now, the Jordanian state has both reversed these gains and passed constitutional amendments that further increase King Abdullah II’s power. Six years after the Arab Spring, Jordan is more of an absolute monarchy, than a democratic state.
Morocco has followed a similar trajectory. Protests in 2011 prompted King Mohammad VI to promise constitutional reforms. These promises never really materialized, as the country has moved further from democracy. Recently, frustration over the status quo has led thousands of Moroccans to return to the streets, demanding reforms that should have come six years ago.
These attempts to erase the Arab Spring will inevitably fail. The people of the Arab world, who came out in the millions to protest a status quo that is being reinforced now, will not let this regression go unchallenged.