In retrospect, the label of Arab Spring ascribed to the unrest of varying degrees of intensity across 19 countries in North Africa and West Asia has been an unfortunate one. One reason is the historical association with the high hopes of the eight-month Prague Spring of 1968. History bears grim witness to how that particular attempt at democracy ended: with a brutal invasion by the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries. The Czechs and Slovaks had to wait another two decades for democracy. Given the impact of those unprecedented protests across the Arab world, it is hard to escape the view that it’s 1968 all over again. The three countries that saw regime changes – Libya, Egypt and Yemen – remain in disarray. Libya marked the second anniversary of Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow with a lot of help from the US and Nato forces on February 8, but there is little to celebrate. The new incumbents in Tripoli appear to have little control over armed and lawless militiamen roaming freely outside the capital, including in Benghazi, the country’s economic hub. In Egypt, the elected President Mohamed Morsi appears torn between the demands of his Muslim Brotherhood and the demands for a more representative Constitution. Everywhere, people feel as disenfranchised as ever. In Syria, the civil war rages, and Bashar al-Assad’s determination and ability to cling to power grow in direct proportion to the intensity of domestic and international pressure for his exit.
This huge vacuum in governance has left the field clear for rising extremism. The fact that it has acquired a religious hue is primarily the result of the absence of secular institutional mechanisms to distil the protests into coherent opposition. Indeed, comparisons with the aftermath of the French and Russian revolutions appear more apt in this case. Eastern Europe had relatively strong institutions of governance and of popular protest before the Warsaw Pact, and these impulses never entirely vanished. Many Arab nations, on the other hand, were either artificially created or under the colonial yoke of Europe (or both) for so long that national institutions have never had the opportunity to fully develop (in that sense, India remains a beacon of sorts in the transition to nationhood).
Equally importantly, East Europe and South Africa had the advantage of enlightened leaders in Mikhail Gorbachev and F W De Klerk to complement the democracy protests from below. All in all, it is hard to escape the view that despite the hopes of the Spring, the Arab world, too, awaits its Gorbachev.