Authoritarianism, a forever scenario?

Calls to normalise relations with the criminal Assad regime, which has killed and displaced millions of Syrians, marks a new phase, namely the victory of the counter-revolutionaries. The old-style Arab regime is back – more brutal and oppressive than ever, as Ali Anouzla explains

Essay by Ali Anouzla

Twelve years on since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the Middle East and North Africa is witnessing more ongoing power struggles than any other region in the world. The region also includes the largest number of states which have either failed or are on the brink of failing.

The Arab Spring was sparked after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia in an act of self-immolation; it was a harsh and tragic expression of protest by someone who had reached the depths of despair. Yet even this no longer moves the dial, as we saw recently in Morocco and Tunisia: two artists burned themselves to death without their protest achieving any serious reaction.

What was, 12 years ago, a heroic expression of anger which stirred the Arab street, is no more today than a state of despair engendering pity and sorrow towards the poor souls who resort to these desperate measures. So how have we come to this?

Once described as a major turning point in the history of the region, Arabellion is seen today as the biggest calamity a country can suffer, turning people’s lives upside down. All the slogans and aspirations carried on the winds of the Arab Spring have withered away. Instead, they have been transformed into wars, conflicts, coups, killings and arrests.

"Disasters, wars, divisions, repression, and economic crises have made people nostalgic for the old regimes"

Press freedom rally in Algeria, September 2020 (image: Louiza Ammi/abaca/picture-alliance)
يزاد تراجع حرية الإعلام والضغط على الصحافيين وتضييق هامش الحرية المتاح لهم في الجزائر: "انتهزت الحكومة احتجاجات الحراك ضدها واحتجاجات كورونا لزيادة الحد من حرية الصحافة"، حسب بيان لمراسلون بلا حدود. وأضاف البيان أن: "الملاحقة القضائية والاعتقال التعسفي ومضايقات المؤسسات الرسمية تجعل الصحافة الحرة محفوفة بالمخاطر في الجزائر". ولذلك فإن الكثير من وسائل الإعلام تحجم عن النقد السياسي لكي لا تفقد الإعلانات التي تشكل أساسها الاقتصادي، بحسب البيان.

The economic and social plight of the people has worsened, whilst many countries are becoming increasingly indebted. Some are unable to pay their debts or obtain new loans unless they accept the humiliating conditions of international lenders. At the same time, the region is in a precarious state, authoritarian and repressive regimes hold the reins of power in several capitals, and uncertainty reigns among many people. Meanwhile, the youth are suffering from unemployment and a dearth of economic prospects.

The Arab Spring had been seen as a glimmer of hope for the people of the region and an opportunity for them to take back control of their own lives. How did it morph into a means to extend their suffering through even greater impoverishment and oppression? What we see today is the result of over a decade of counter-revolution.

These retrenchments were planned and funded by certain Gulf States in collusion with the remnants of the regimes that had been kicked out by their own people; in various cases, the security forces helped. The counter-revolution began with the militarisation of the popular uprisings in Syria, Libya and Yemen, until it reduced these countries to civil, regional and ethnic warzones. The subsequent conflicts have destroyed everything, laid waste the land, reduced the towns to ruins, killed and displaced millions from their homes.


The first and most significant victory of the counter-revolution came with the military coup against the first civil regime in Egypt. The upshot of the past ten years of military rule has been a catastrophe at every level. Egypt now has more prisoners of conscience than anywhere else in the world and its economy has plunged into unprecedented crises. The ordinary person’s standard of living has been negatively affected and their suffering has become much worse in terms of poverty and repression.

As for Tunisia, which was the starting point of the “Arab Spring” and the last country that stood firm against the counter-revolution, it is today seeing the greatest regression under the rule of a president who is beyond redemption and who is leading the country towards the abyss.

Between the coup in Egypt and the relapse in Tunisia, many Arab countries have seen catastrophes, wars, divisions, turmoil, repression and economic crises. These have made people yearn for the old regimes, and the latter have emerged strengthened from the winds of popular revolution. The masses may have rebelled against them, and yet now they have an even stronger hold over power, in spite of, or thanks to, the many crimes they have committed against their own peoples.

The calls for normalisation of relations with a criminal regime like that of Bashar al-Assad, which has killed and displaced millions of Syrians, marks a new phase, namely the victory of the counter-revolution. The old-style Arab regime is back, more brutal and oppressive than ever.

Meanwhile, the millions of people who took to the streets in Arab capitals 12 years ago to demand freedom, dignity and justice are still there, only their conditions and the state of their countries have got even worse. Similarly, the rotten and corrupt regimes which the demonstrators came out to call for their departure remain in place, or they have come back even more powerful and oppressive.

So far, the #UAE, #Jordan, #Egypt & #Saudi have undertaken substantive moves to re-engage #Assad's regime in #Syria.

All have privately &/or publicly justified this as being driven by a desire to compete w. #Iran, stabilize #Syria, secure refugee returns, end drug flows & more.

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) April 13, 2023


That people have not come out in protest, to express their anger and disquiet with their situation, coupled with their acceptance of corruption and oppression as normal is explained by their fear, their despair and their loss of confidence in everything, including their dreams. Most people in these countries recognise that the legitimacy of their regimes and their rulers was shattered long ago. Moreover, they know that resentment remains over the injustice, the poverty and the tyranny, and it will foment whenever repression rises or the economic situation gets worse.

But the time will come when patience will run out and the disaffected and the angry will come out again, making the same demands. The people have learned a lot from their aborted revolutions, and also from the counter-revolutions which robbed them of their dreams. Therein is a lesson for those celebrating the success of the counter-revolutions, because the current situation is simply not sustainable!

Peace and stability are at risk in various parts of the world as a result of crises, wars and conflicts, with catastrophic consequences for the global economy. Add to this, the devastating effects of climate change and related risks of drought and floods, combined with the spread of potentially apocalyptic epidemics, and this is why most people are ever more certain that the world's problems will only become still more complicated. Hence the fear that the coming years will be worse. The Arab world will not be excluded from this cataclysmic fate.

Ali Anouzla

© 2023

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton