Ten years ago, as protests flared across the Arab world, Western governments failed to meet a date with destiny and help nurture dreams of democracy, missing an unprecedented chance to shape real reform.
History will not judge them kindly, said about 20 Western officials, activists and analysts, who talked to AFP on the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring.
“This was a lost opportunity for the Middle East to modernize and take the first steps on the road to freedom and democracy,” said Nobel Peace Prize winner and former leading figure of the Egyptian opposition Mohamed ElBaradei.
“The West opted to be a silent observer rather than an active supporter…. This did not help the Arab Spring.”
On December 17, 2010 an impoverished Tunisian street vendor unwittingly ignited a chain of uprisings which ricocheted across the region, leaving upheaval and chaos in their wake.
Brought down by grinding poverty and petty police harassment, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and so lit the touch paper of simmering anger at decades of autocratic leadership in Tunisia.
The Tunisian protests swept like a contagion, ultimately toppling several of the region’s iron-fisted rulers in a generational geo-political earthquake.
But, caught by surprise, Western nations such as the United States and France failed to seize the moment to support the cries for freedom.
ElBaradei, who had returned to Egypt in 2010 after many years at the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), voiced bitter regret at the lack of planning from the international community.
“We knew what we did not want, but we did not have time to even discuss what the day after should look like. We were in kindergarten, but had to move to university,” he told AFP.
“We did not have the tools nor the institutions,” said the former top diplomat, who has repeatedly denied accusations that he was little more than a puppet of the West.
“You can’t just jump from 60 years of authoritarianism into a full-fledged democracy,” he argued.
“The absence of a balanced vision and a long-term policy [from the West] has come back to haunt us.”
But it was not through want of trying on the part of some.
Even before the Arab Spring, a host of international non-governmental organizations and semi-official associations had set up in the region in a bid to help nurture a desire for democracy.
NGOs such as the US organizations Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute found themselves rubbing shoulders on the ground along with German foundations.
Funded partly through public finances, with agendas often coloured by political platforms, they tried to teach the ways of peaceful activism, from the use of social networks to dreaming up slogans which would capture the imagination of the crowds.
Such moves did not go down well with the dictators in power.
In late 2011, some 43 local and international staff working for NGOs were accused by Egyptian authorities of interference in domestic affairs. The foreigners, mostly Americans, were expelled, while the local staff were jailed.
When the then US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, travelled to the Syrian rebel city of Hama in July 2011 in support of the protesters, they showered him with red roses.
But the visit enraged the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which accused Washington of being directly implicated in the events and trying to increase tensions which “damage Syria’s security and stability.”
Observers doubt however that foreign governments had a direct hand in fomenting the protests.
“If they are to succeed, such battles have to come from within. The vision, the leadership, the numbers, the ideas have to be national,” said Srdja Popovic, co-founder of the Serbian organization Canvas, which supports pro-democracy movements.
Researcher Stephane Lacroix, from the Paris Institute of Political Studies, also dismissed the foreign conspiracy theory.
“Those who see imperialism everywhere fail to believe that individuals are capable of organising themselves because they have had enough,” he said.
Experts appear united in their assessment that the West was blind to what was happening, and lacked courage to seize the initiative.
“They took several months to think about it, and then very quickly closed the door on this experience of democratic change,” said Nadim Houry, from the Paris-based think tank Arab Reform Initiative.
“In 2012 to 2013, we saw them return with a vision based purely on regional security.”
In the long, difficult months of 2011, each country was to go through its own particular tumult.
In Tunisia, former colonial power France failed to step up in support of the protesters as anger against long-time autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali grew.
Then foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie resigned in February 2011, only weeks after offering Paris’s help in resolving Tunisia’s “security situation”, which by then had already cost 35 lives, according to NGOs.
She was also lambasted for holidaying in Tunisia at the end of 2010 despite the protests.
The French foreign ministry “was perfectly aware of the fragility of the Tunisian system,” said Francois Nicoullaud, former French ambassador to Tehran.
But government decision-makers, lulled by cosy ties with Tunis, “refused to listen to them (the French foreign ministry)”.
Paris had also long ignored opposition leaders in exile, believing Ben Ali’s rule was set in stone.
“We thought these dictatorships would go on forever. There was little point in talking to the opposition, which was not taken seriously,” said Lacroix.
Moncef Marzouki, the north African country’s first democratically elected president who had spent time in Paris and was a leading member of the Tunisian human rights movement, was just not on French radars, he added.
As for the Islamist Ennahdha party, which won the first post-revolution elections, Paris sought to keep its distance from its leader Rached Ghannouchi.
When Ben Ali was forced to flee after 23 years in power – the first of the region’s long-time dictators to cede to pressure from the street – France was left without any interlocutors in Tunisia.
The next country to catch fire was Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1981.
A close ally of the United States, it enjoyed some $1.3 billion a year in US military aid – amounting to a staggering $58 billion since 1979, according to US think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The demonstrations which erupted in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011 captured the interest of the US administration of then president Barack Obama.
But his secretary of state Hillary Clinton remained sceptical, despite her history-making stroll through the square in March that year.
“She was not convinced,” said Egyptian activist Sherif Mansour, then a member of the Freedom House group.
Clinton was concerned about reactions to the events among America’s key Gulf partners, some of whom were wary both of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Washington dropping its longtime ally, Cairo, observers said.
Indeed, in June 2012 after Mubarak stepped down, the Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Morsi became Egypt’s first ever democratically elected president.
His election placed Washington in an awkward position – the US administration had championed free and democratic elections, only to be confronted with an Islamist leader as the new president.
On the streets, Morsi’s victory was immediately contested and the US accused of having helped the Islamists “steal the election” by not having opposed him, betraying the democratic hopes of the Egyptian people.
When Clinton visited Egypt again and met Morsi in July 2012, her hotel in Cairo was besieged by protesters, and demonstrators in Alexandria pelted her convoy with tomatoes and shoes.
Less than a year later, Morsi was ousted by the military led by then general Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi.
The move found support among the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as Sisi ordered a bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
But relations with the US were plunged into a war of semantics – when is a coup not a coup?
Under US law, US military aid is automatically suspended if there has been a coup d’etat, so while Washington initially froze a portion of its aid, the Obama administration never went as far as to qualify the events in Egypt as a coup.
Even though Cairo failed to heed calls from the US to improve human rights, US aid to Egypt was restored in 2015, mainly because the Egyptian military had become a key ally in the fight against jihadist groups in the Sinai, whose rise had alarmed Israel.
“It was a time of turmoil,” said Frank Wisner, Obama’s special envoy to Egypt at the time, highlighting what he said was the Egyptians’ overwhelming desire for stability and democracy.
“Could the United States have changed the fundamental shift in historical circumstances? I certainly believe we couldn’t have. Could we have sent a different signal? Sure.”
Next door in Libya, another drama was playing out after protests against long-time leader Moamer Kadhafi erupted in February 2011.
France pushed for an armed intervention in support of the demonstrators, and UN resolution 1973 agreed the use of force to protect civilians from the fierce regime backlash.
NATO-led air strikes began in March but went beyond the UN resolution, drawing criticism from Russia and China.
And as the conflict dragged on, it became clear how fragile the state’s institutions had become under Kadhafi’s autocratic rule.
For four decades, he had “governed without a state, leaning on the security apparatus and a system of tribes,” said Lacroix.
“The country never had a political life, no parties, no civil society, no associations.”
Kadhafi was eventually cornered while on the run and killed in October 2011.
But without its “brotherly leader and guide of the revolution” as Kadhafi had dubbed himself, the country was headless, allowing tribal rivalries to quickly flare up.
“What we hadn’t seen sufficiently, was how much it would take… to rebuild the state,” said former French president Francois Hollande, who was in the political opposition in Paris at the time.
There was a growing idea in Europe that “democracy can implant itself without the need to defend or nurture it,” Hollande said.
Foreign governments should refrain “from imposing a political system… We should not be choosing the leaders. They are for the people to elect,” he insisted.
And then into the mayhem, came Syria.
Protests erupted on March 15, 2011 against Assad, who took over in 2000 on the death of his father, Hafez, following almost 30 years in power.
But the demonstrations were soon met by a brutal regime crackdown.
“When we began the revolt, it was like we were walking through a dark forest,” said Syrian activist Ibrahim al-Idlebi.
When the EU and the US “issued statements supporting us, and calling on the regime to refrain from the use of force against civilians, to us these felt like flashlights to follow.”
Such support was like “a salvation,” added Idlebi, who fled his home in northwestern Idlib and now lives in Turkey.
More than 380,000 have now died, much of Syria lies in ruins, and almost a decade later, Assad remains in place, having – with the help of allies Russia and Iran – recovered two-thirds of the territory he lost.
“There just wasn’t a plan,” said Idlebi, of the Western intervention. “A lot of money was being handed out to groups and people who just didn’t know what to do with it.”
Arms were also funnelled to opposition groups in Syria, but not a coveted anti-aircraft system which handed Assad’s forces dominion in the skies.
The US administration refused opposition pleas to be allowed to protect themselves from bombs dropped from the air, fearing the weapons could be turned against Israel, or fall into the hands of jihadists.
In the end, Western aid failed to change the military balance, said Haid Haid, a senior researcher for the London-based think tank Chatham House.
“No Western power took measures that could actually make a difference on the ground. If they had eliminated Assad’s air power, that would not just have tipped the military balance, but also saved the lives of tens of thousands of people,” he said.
Divided and weakened, the political opposition was wracked by internecine quarrels and rapidly became consumed by radical Islamists.
“There was a disconnect between the activists and the armed groups. Building bridges between those people was a major focus of US diplomacy for many years. I don’t think that was ultimately successful,” admitted Alex Bick, Syria director at the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
Hollande, too, acknowledged failure, saying he warned his European allies of what was to come: “Refugees and terrorism. We have had both of them.”
Thin red line
But the final death knell to Western influence in the region was when Obama drew back at the last minute from striking at Assad’s regime for its use of chemical weapons against rebel areas.
In August 2012, Obama said any use of toxic arms by the Syrian army against civilians would be a “red line” and warned it “would change my calculus” about using US military force in the country.
In August 2013, a large-scale attack was launched on Ghouta, in the suburbs of Damascus. A declassified French intelligence assessment determined in early September that sarin gas had been unleashed on civilians. Activists put the reported death toll at about 1,000.
But despite Obama’s earlier stand, no US air strike came until 2018 when his successor President Donald Trump joined forces with France and Britain after an alleged chemical weapons attack on the then rebel-held town of Douma.
“The United States never wanted to attack,” said former Dutch diplomat to Iraq, Nikolaos Van Dam.
And setting a red line was always “a weak position,” he argued.
“It suggests: you can use cluster bombs, barrel bombs, phosphorus, all kinds of weapons. But not chemical weapons. It is a kind of indirect permission, condoning the use of everything else.”
Hollande argues that Obama, in the end, refused to take military action as he had made an election promise to withdraw American troops from conflicts in the Middle East and because European leaders, such as Britain and Germany, were against it.
“I had agreed an operation with him. The militaries were working on it, the diplomats were preparing to legitimise it at the UN Security Council. Everything was ready,” said Hollande.
“The next day he said, ‘I’m going to ask Congress to authorise it.’ That’s when I knew it was over.”
With a sigh, the former French leader acknowledged: “It was a strategic error.”
Seven years on, only Tunisia has emerged from the Arab Spring with a fragile democracy.
Sisi still rules over a repressive regime in Egypt, with newly-emboldened Assad still in power in Syria.
And after a decade of conflict, Libya has just agreed to hold elections in December 2021, but remains torn between the UN-recognised government in Tripoli and the forces of Kadhafi loyalist and strongman Khalifa Haftar in the east.
Paris-based expert Houry doesn’t lay all the blame for today’s outcome at the feet of Western countries, saying it was “not meant to end up this way”.
“But in this huge failure and waste, this human tragedy, they failed to make their date with destiny.”