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Why the Arab Spring went wrong

Saturday 21 June 2014

When Egyptians were flooding to Tahrir Square, I was fascinated with the Arab Spring. Like many others, I too wrote in praise of the movement at the time. Then an experienced Turkish diplomat warned me. “Do not reach for quick conclusions” he told me, “things always start good in the Middle East, with high hopes and good intentions, but let me tell you about the people here: They mess up sooner or later. They cannot break from their past.” He was right. They just messed up big time. In the second act, it all became messier in Egypt, Libya, Syria and now Iraq. The Arab Spring has gone wrong.

Here is my first take for today: There is no structural break with the past. That past is still there and haunting them. So nothing unusual yet on the southern front, I have to say. The age-old dysfunction of the region is still alive and kicking. They live in the past and think that is normal.

Think about the region now. There are two types of countries: the ones that achieved a structural break from the past and the one that cannot. Turkey is in the first group. Iraq and Syria are in the second. At the beginning of the last century, aspirations were similar in all the major urban centers of the Ottoman Empire. Be it Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad or Istanbul. Yet the epistemological break happened only on the Bosphorus. We started with a clean structural break from the past and they could not. It was an epistemological break a-la-Bachelard, if you ask me – a break with the whole pattern and the frame of reference of the old and the construction of a new order with a totally new frame of reference. Why is Turkey still the only country with a civil code in this region? That is the epistemological break for you. It was, it has to be said, political and rather painful. Yet it happened, thanks to the political genius of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the fact that Turks inherited the only institution of the empire at the time: the army. Here is my second take for you: the Turkish experience of epistemological break with the past cannot be replicated in the whole region afterward. “Why?” is a story for another time. However, let me note that we could have started it through the al-Assad-Erdoğan friendship of the past. The failure of that relationship is largely on Ankara, not Damascus.

Here is my third take from the Arab Spring-gone-wrong experience for today: Turkey has not only achieved a clear break once, but multiple times. Not only did we have that epistemological break at the outset of the last century, but we had the economic transformation decision in the early 1980s first, and then the political transformation process that started early 2000. Here is the take: Turkey has the capacity to overhaul its whole system not only once, but thrice in less than 100 years. That is something. No stagnation in Asia Minor, just constant change. Turkey has a high level of adaptive capacity. Turkey had the capacity to agree on an epistemological break not only once, but three times, while the others could not even have just one great leap forward.

The Arab Spring filled me with hope at the outset. But it is obvious that it has not brought any strong idea for a structural break from the past. I’m afraid if you cannot define a new order, you fall back to the old one, where you were at the beginning of last century. That is what is happening in Iraq and Syria right now.


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