Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi at the UN in September 2018 © Li Muzi/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Why the Arab Spring failed

Egypt's general-president must take the blame
November 13, 2018

When and why did the Arab Spring fall apart? A narrative has grown over the past few years that it was doomed from the start. These countries weren’t ready, possibly weren’t even right, for democracy. The only winners would be Islamists and extremists, as proven by the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. Egypt was only “saved” when Morsi was removed and replaced with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Egypt’s new president—don’t call him a dictator—restored order, while the rest of the Arab world unravelled.

It’s a narrative that David D Kirkpatrick authoritatively demolishes as he recounts the events and the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution and bloody counter-revolution. Instead, he makes a powerful case that the coup which brought Sisi to power—welcomed by US Secretary of State John Kerry as “restoring democracy”—was the dismal turning point across the region.

A month after Sisi took power more than 800 Morsi supporters were massacred in Cairo’s Rabaa el-Adeweya square—it was one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in modern history. The massacre, and the west’s unwillingness to criticise Sisi, had enormous consequences in the region.

After this, al-Qaeda in Iraq declared democracy had failed. Within months the group had broken away and formed Islamic State, taking control of land in Syria too, and later Libya. “Egypt,” writes Kirkpatrick, “was the pivot.”

The coup did not take place in a vacuum. This was a process enthusiastically supported by many of the supposed liberals who led the Tahrir Square campaign that brought down Mubarak in the first place, and who turned out to be more anti-Islamist than pro-democracy. “What Tahrir ignited,” writes Kirkpatrick, “Rabaa extinguished.” The region is still suffering the consequences.

Into the Hands of the Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East by David D Kirkpatrick (Bloomsbury, £25)