You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out a fire,
Once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher.
— "Biko," Peter Gabriel
It began with a spark, four years ago: An itinerant fruit seller, despairing of life in authoritarian Tunisia, set himself on fire and burned to death. It provoked a revolution, and the flames caught swiftly across a region that had known little but despotism since the day colonial rulers went home.
The world celebrated the "Arab Spring" as evidence that the people of the Middle East, like those everywhere, yearn to be free. But time has not been kind to the optimists.
After some hiccups, Tunisia is the one bright light today, with a free presidential election planned later this month. But across the Middle East, bloodshed, chaos and dashed dreams were far more often the result.
Hundreds of thousands have died, most in a ferocious and seemingly unwinnable Syrian civil war that has displaced millions, spilled over into Iraq, and threatens to destabilize other neighboring countries. Libya is an ungovernable and dangerous mess. And Islamic radicals have seized the discourse to a great extent; a US-led coalition fights them now, in Syria and Iraq.
"We can expect democratic transitions to be messy, chaotic and sometimes bloody, but this is worse than even the worst expectations," said Shadi Hamid, a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institution. The biggest and most unfortunate lesson people learned, he said, is that peaceful protest does not necessarily lead to a peaceful way forward or toward democratic transition.
Increasingly, people in the region are asking whether democracy is even a good idea in the Arab world. The question seems unfit for polite society, but it was already on the table in January 2011, as a panel of Arab finance figures considered events back home from the comfort of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, its members clearly none too pleased.
One recommended strong but "benevolent" leaders for the region. Another said democracy was alien to a region where patriarchal traditions dominate. A third said the public needs education lest it simply vote along tribal lines. Others saw radical Islamists swiftly bamboozling the masses.
Among the mostly Western audience, there was a palpable sense that these were the well-fed, predictably disinterested in sharing the pie.
Within days, a cheering world community was riveted to screens as Egypt's long-submissive people thronged to Cairo's Tahrir Square, braving bullets and refusing to leave until veteran ruler Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
The military forced him out in the end. But in the narrative of revolution, it was articulate young activists like Google executive Wael Ghonim who got the credit. They are not much to be seen these days in Egypt.
Instead of the liberals, an Islamist party won four elections. It badly misruled and was overthrown by the military and banned, its leaders now in jail and being handed death sentences en masse that are not likely to be carried out. Many hundreds have been killed in the suppression of street protests. Military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi was elected president almost without challenge, but domestic criticism is muted now and liberal activists sit in jail. Angry jihadis blow things up and kill what soldiers they can catch.
Bringing things nearly full circle, a court last weekend acquitted Mubarak — who has been in detention since stepping down — of corruption and dropped charges of complicity in the deaths of hundreds during the revolt. It went over quietly; the people, most of all, are yearning to be free of turmoil, and to have enough to eat. It seems likely that Mubarak, 86, will soon walk free.
Four years after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, here are some lessons to be learned:
THE ELITES DISTRUST THE MASSES
Most of the world has seen a growth in inequality in recent decades, and the educated and wealthy keep their distance from the masses in different ways almost everywhere. But in the Arab world it has long been rather extreme, and the past three years have made it worse. The Egyptian revolution enjoyed very broad support from the largely secular elites, except for people who had economic ties to the regime. Free and fair elections were the focus, much like in Eastern Europe two decades before.
But the early elections of the Arab Spring tended to elevate political Islamists, who were the only force that effectively organized politically under the authoritarian regimes. The Muslim Brotherhood won a succession of parliamentary, presidential and constitutional votes in Egypt — to the horror of most of the elites — before the military threw its leaders into jail. By now, educated Egyptians tend to have developed more complex ideas about democracy that sound like ways to keep it at bay: The people are not quite ready, as perhaps a third are illiterate; Western ideas of extreme freedom of speech are dangerous here for now; a steady building of the institutions of a civil society must come first, even if decades are required to do it right.
The subtext: If the masses will elect Islamists, then democracy can wait.
JIHADIS ARE NO JOKE
The jihadis who want to export Islam by force through the region and the world were a threat before, but the past four years took it to a new level. Libya's conflict sent heavy weapons scattering across the Mideast and war in Syria generated a new jihadi cause. Then came the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — and the support that move received in the Gulf, except for in Qatar. The Brotherhood denies any connection to terrorism but some supporters have likely given up on the ballot box. So jihadis are at war with secular governments and moderate Muslims everywhere. It is not just the Islamic State group, imposing an extremist form of Islam in parts of Syria and Iraq; it's also the Nusra Front and other Syrian factions with radical ideologies. Jihadis terrorize much of Libya and in Egypt's Sinai are in rebellion. They fight the government and the Americans in Yemen. So brutal are these radicals — massacring opponents, enslaving women, and beheading captives — that they are widely seen as a greater threat than anything as tame as a corrupt and authoritarian military regime.
Every one of the countries whose leader was toppled — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen — had been run by authoritarian civilians backed by military power. So is Syria, where war rages still. The monarchies, from Morocco to Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the neighboring United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait, were barely touched. In Bahrain Sunni rulers did have to stamp out an attempted rebellion by majority Shiites. But in the booming Emirates, life went on for a minority of privileged citizens and an army of Westerners living fantastically well for the most part. The others, Asian itinerants mostly, went on building their towers and cleaning their streets, largely unseen and rarely heard.
"You really can buy your way out of an uprising," said Ayham Kamel, director of Middle East and North Africa with the Eurasia group in London, speaking of the Gulf monarchies.
SUNNIS AND SHIITES, DYSFUNCTIONAL TOGETHER
The current map of the central part of the Middle East — the Levant — is in good part the result of colonial powers dividing up the spoils of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Minimal attention was given to the region's intra-Arab group animosities that have existed since the 7th century. This created states that are mixed between Sunnis, Shiites and other groups. To outsiders, Sunnis and Shiites differ little: the language, appearance, basic religion, social mores, and even most customs are the same. But history has shown that where one group dominates the others are often trampled; this is the case in Sunni Saudi Arabia. Where there is some parity a chaotic struggle for primacy has generally followed: this happened in Lebanon, whose 15-year civil war ended in 1990; it is the case in Syria and Iraq today. If Islamic State's goal was not extremist Islam but merely the creation of a Sunni zone spanning the Sunni part of Syria and Iraq, that aspect would have some support among the population.
NO PALESTINE SPRING
The Arab revolts did not spread to Palestine, but they are having a big effect. Events in Iraq and Syria make it seem not unreasonable that the Islamic State group could attack Jordan and in the future also make inroads in a Palestinian state composed almost entirely of Sunni Muslims. Palestinians tend to dismiss such fears. But Israelis listen when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues it would be folly, at such a time of chaos, to pull out of territory that sits on the cusp of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. So the occupation grinds on, and with it continues the Jewish settlement of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, each day bringing the sides closer to a single binational entity whose component pieces can no longer be ripped apart. That would be the end of the Jewish state — perhaps the most ironic potential outcome of the events sparked by a Tunisian street vendor on Dec. 17, 2010.
Dan Perry leads AP's text coverage in the region. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/perry_dan
Aya Batrawy and Zeina Karam contributed to this report.