RADICALISM FOUR YEARS INTO THE ARAB SPRING
By Jon B. Alterman
15 Dec 14. While many observers of the Arab world had believed for years that change was inevitable, the “Arab Spring” itself came as a complete surprise four years ago. The idea that a self-immolating fruit seller in Tunisia could shake the political foundations of the Arab world to their core would have been thought ludicrous even in early January 2011. By March of that year, as uprisings churned in Libya, Syria, Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen, and beyond, almost all held the view that the changes underway would prove transformational. After decades in which Arab authoritarian governments secured themselves by protecting secular liberals and religious conservatives from each other, secular and religious groups were uniting with one another and with an unprecedentedly entrepreneurial generation of young people to rise up against their rulers.
And yet, as the months passed, the old authoritarian systems proved surprisingly durable. Some sitting governments were able to co-opt their populations through material reward or the promise of political reform; others were able to rally their populations against the prospect of insurgency. Still others revived repression. Most importantly, governments were able to learn from each other’s mistakes. After an initial flurry of change, the process slowed. In some places, such as Bahrain, it seemed to be arrested. In Egypt, the process actually reversed.
While it was surprising to most observers that that Arab uprisings did not result in more-liberal political systems, what was more surprising was the way in which they revived radical movements. Indeed, almost four years after the fact, radical movements in the Arab world seem to have been even more invigorated by the Arab uprisings than liberal ones. This is in part because many of the radical movements embraced the idea of fighting, and the breakdown in order allowed more fighting to occur across the region.
But there was a more worrying aspect to the resurgence of radical movements. Many of the radical groups learned potent lessons from the revolutionary political movements of the Arab uprisings. Experiments with social media that began with the efforts of young revolutionaries in Egypt and Syria found their way into extremists’ tool kits. In the 2000s, websites and chat rooms were the somewhat static, one-to-many platforms for recruitment and communication. In the 2010s, private messages, Tweets, and videos dubbed into dozens of languages made jihad not only truly global but also infinitely customizable. Recruiters no longer needed to wonder how their messages were being received, because they were in constant and intimate contact with the recipients.
In a way, the religious radicals always had an advantage over the political revolutionaries. The latter sought mass support, hoping to rally majorities to their cause. They needed millions in the streets, and they needed diverse audiences to join in common cause. The rainbow that poured into Egypt’s public squares in 2011—young and old, rich and poor, religious and secular—represented their dream. It quickly proved difficult to sustain.
The religious radicals have always had a different model and were content to assemble a violent vanguard from among the disaffected. They need not fill any squares or draw a diverse set of adherents. Judged as a mass movement, the radicals have failed; they have attracted only a tiny percentage of their potential audience. But becoming a mass movement was never central to their ambition. As a vanguard and fighting force they have found at least limited success, winning battles and rallying tens of thousands to their cause.
What all of this means for the Middle East is a continuation of conflicts that many thought were coming to an end. The raging wars in Libya, Syria, and Iraq—all of which owe at least part of their origin to the Arab uprisings—have gathered existing religious, e