Here’s What Actually Happened

by James L. Gelvin

Confirmation bias: In cognitive science, the tendency for observers to interpret data in a way that confirms their preconceptions; e.g., “The Arab Spring Started in Iraq.”

Kanan Makiya's knowledge of Arab history is, at best, spotty. In The New York Times iteration of this article he places the 2005 presidential election in Egypt in 2006; here, he gets the date right but now concludes that an election in which the incumbent purportedly received 88.6% of the vote was “contested.” Again in the Times he locates the roots of the Lebanese Cedar Revolution in the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq two years earlier; here, he correctly cites the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri as the trigger, but then fumbles the ball again by imagining two Cedar Revolutions when the rest of the world witnessed only one. These and other mistakes might be deemed minor lapses by someone who just does not know or care much about the Arab world beyond Iraq. However, there are major lapses as well. It is a major lapse that after at least four published iterations of his argument Makiya still provides no proof beyond post hoc ergo propter hoc that there was a relationship between 1991 or 2003 and 2011. And Makiya's disingenuous division of modern Arab history into two periods—one before, the other after the invasion—is not a minor lapse but sheer willfulness on his part.

According to Makiya, in the pre-invasion dark times Arabs had been lulled into a state of lethargy by leaders who fed them a steady diet of propaganda consisting of the twin romances of armed struggle and pan-Arabism and anti-Israel, anti-imperialist invective, which the masses lapped up. (Pace Makiya, pan-Arabism—the idea that all Arabs should be unified within a single state—had ceased to be a factor in Arab politics decades before 2003. And the fact that anti-imperialism still strikes a chord among Arabs is hardly unreasonable: After all, American sponsorship and support for the Iraqi sanctions that Makiya decries, as well as for autocrats from Mubarak to the Al Saud to, at various times, Saddam Hussein himself demonstrates that the United States bears no little responsibility for the misery Arabs have experienced.) For Makiya, the invasion revealed to Arabs that the autocrats who governed them were mere paper tigers, roused them to take matters into their own hands, and awakened them to the possibilities of living lives where human rights were respected and democracy might flourish. Hence, the Arab Spring.

Oh, really? Here's what actually happened:

There was no “Arab Spring.” Conservative columnists originally cooked up the term in 2005 to describe a non-event that they imagined was taking place in the Arab world as a result of George W. Bush's “Freedom Agenda.” That Arab Spring did not live up to its hype, nor did democracy come to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and yes, Iraq and Lebanon, where its cheerleaders had breathlessly predicted it would. The term was forgotten, then resurrected in 2011 after a string of uprisings that were in some ways similar and in other ways disparate broke out in the Arab world. “Arab Spring” is an unfortunate turn of phrase: By drawing on associations of hope and renewal that Spring brings, it raised expectations so high that it was inevitable they would not be met. More important, “Arab Spring” is an unfortunate turn of phrase because events in the Arab world in 2010-11 cannot be viewed as a discrete phenomenon that might be isolated within a single “season.” Rather, they were the culmination of decades-long struggles in the region that had begun long before America's misadventure in Iraq.

Most observers agree that the contemporary human rights revolution began in the 1970s. The hallmarks of that revolution include a definition of human rights that emphasized individual political/democratic, civil, and personal rights (as opposed to collective rights) and the construction of a global institutional and legal infrastructure monitored by non-governmental organizations that might safeguard and expand those rights. Hence, the founding of Human Rights Watch in 1978 and the International Criminal Court in 2002, and the incorporation of the doctrine “Responsibility to Protect” into the corpus of international law at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Trends in the Arab world reflected global trends: The first Arab human rights organization, the Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l'Homme, was established in 1977, a year before the establishment of Human Rights Watch, and beginning in the early 1990s Arab governments began establishing “human rights councils,” ostensibly to monitor the observance of those rights. Although the actual purpose of the councils was to assuage international opinion, their establishment had much the same effect as the signing of the Helsinki Declaration 1975: They catalyzed the emergence of non-governmental bodies that kept tabs on human rights abuses and made the discourse on rights part of a shared political vocabulary. By 2004, the Arab world had already spawned enough of these groups with the requisite survival skills (more than fifty) to hold a congress in Beirut. The final communiqué of the congress contained a list of demands that called on Arab heads of state to repeal emergency laws, release political prisoners, outlaw torture, and redraft constitutions to guarantee basic freedoms and political participation.

Lest it be thought that agitation for human rights and democratic governance was limited to a small, Westernized elite, the numerous protests and uprisings that swept through the Arab world since the 1980s provide evidence to the contrary. Many of these protests and uprisings were non-sectarian or inter-sectarian and many included a broad coalition of Islamists, liberals, trade unionists, and leftists. The demand for human rights, democratic governance, or both lay at the heart of the “Berber Spring” of 1980, the fight by Algeria's largest ethnic minority for their rights; the Algerian “Black October” riots (1988), which led to the first democratic elections (subsequently overturned) in the Arab world; the Bahraini intifada of 1994-99, which began with the circulation of a petition signed by one-tenth of the island's population demanding an expanded and equitable franchise; the “Damascus Spring” of 2000, which called for the opening up of the Syrian political system; the “Blue Revolution” of 2002-5, which won for Kuwaiti women the right to vote; the formation of “Kifaya” (Enough) in Egypt in 2004, an amalgam of groups which called on Mubarak to resign; popular agitation which led to the establishment of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission in Morocco in 2004 to investigate human rights abuses that had occurred during the previous thirty years; the “Damascus Declaration Movement” of 2005, which continued the work of the “Damascus Spring,” only for an expanded constituency; the aforementioned Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005, which takes on a whole new meaning when placed in this context; the 2006 Kuwaiti “Orange Revolution” for electoral reform; Kurdish protests in 2004, 2008, and 2010 for minority rights in Syria; and the list goes on.

Alongside protests and uprisings for human rights and democratic governance were protests and uprisings for social and economic justice. Beginning in the late 1970s with “IMF riots”—when Egyptians (1977), Sudanese (1982, 1987), Moroccans (1983, 1990), Tunisians (1984), Lebanese (1987), Algerians (1987, 1988), and Jordanians (1989, 1996) resisted the introduction of neo-liberal economic policies by regimes acting in accordance with International Monetary Fund diktat—this agitation continued through the surge of Egyptian labor activism from 2004-2010, during which two million Egyptian workers and their families participated in more than three thousand strikes, sit-ins, and walkouts. The growing militancy of Egyptian labor set the stage for the strike wave that spread throughout the country beginning on 8 February 2011, a development that probably convinced the military to depose Mubarak a few days later.

All this hardly paints a picture of an Arab population that was inert and cowed, gulled by government propaganda or waiting for salvation from foreigners who merely want to bestow on the benighted peoples of the region the gift of freedom. While the evidence that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq tainted and thus actually hampered indigenous efforts to achieve fundamental rights is only anecdotal, evidence that the invasion and occupation of Iraq fostered the Arab uprisings of 2010-11 is non-existent. Non-existent, because it flies in the face of what the historical record tells us.

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James L. Gelvin is professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of five books, including The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know (2012) and The Modern Middle East: A History (2011), along with numerous articles and book chapters on the social and cultural history of the region.

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