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Does Egypt Chaos Signal Death Of Arab Spring?

A man walks inside the burnt Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque, the morning after the clearing of the sit-in in and around the mosque in Cairo by police in which scores were killed.
A year ago, Egyptians were voting in their country's first free presidential election. Today, that fleeting glimpse of democracy has been obliterated by a toppled president, military killings of civilians, and increasing talk of civil war.

Egyptians are far from the only Arabs who successfully revolted against their rulers during what became known as the Arab Spring and are now living with insecurity and violence. Tunisians and Libyans are enduring bitter power struggles, rampaging militias, and deepening poverty. Syrians face the choice of fleeing abroad or staying behind to risk getting killed in a brutal civil war. In Yemen, a fragile government is struggling with a hostile military, widespread malnutrition, and lawlessness.

The lack of democratic progress, and now Egypt's backslide into military rule, has prompted some observers -- including Tawakkul Karman, the Yemeni democracy activist who shared the Nobel Peace prize -- to ask whether the death knell of the Arab spring has sounded.

"Certainly it's very hard today, sitting here in Washington, to talk about great hopes for democracy when Egypt is descending further into chaos, when Syria is in the throes of a very bloody civil war, when Libya is still contending with militias running rampant," says Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser on the Middle East at the Stimson Center. "So the concerns about where the Arab transitions are headed are well-founded."

Yacoubian, who was in Tunisia just two months ago, says that while the so-called Arab Spring countries are "clearly in a period of great turmoil, that might get worse before things get better, I would contend that over the long term, we have to bear in mind that these transitions are part of a historic transformation that's sweeping the region and that, I believe, will take a generation, if not more."

Taking The Lid Off Silence

Yacoubian believes that because the first uprising, in Tunisia, and the biggest uprising, in Egypt, both went relatively smoothly, most observers expected the postrevolution period to go equally as well.

Instead, the power vacuums that were created when governments fell triggered bitter political struggles between groups who had no experience in a democracy. Islamists and secularists clashed. People long forced into silence were suddenly able to express their religious and political views, exposing deep polarizations that sometimes exploded into violence.

As one member of the National Constituent Assembly in Tunisia described it last year, "There are daily demonstrations, passionate arguments, and rumors that tend to spread like wildfire."

Yacoubian calls that blowback partly the result of "the lid being taken off of decades of authoritarian repression." But she adds that although outside observers may feel pessimistic about the Arab Spring's uneven progress, people in the region have told her there is no going back.

Mourners carry the coffin of slain opposition leader Muhammad Brahmi, one of a number of political killings in Tunisia.
Mourners carry the coffin of slain opposition leader Muhammad Brahmi, one of a number of political killings in Tunisia.

That's also what Karima Bennoune is hearing. Bennoune, a law professor at the University of California and author of, "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism," returned from the region earlier this month.

"Talking to women activists on the ground you still hear a determined optimism, a sense that there is hope," Bennoune says. "A Tunisian woman activist said to me that the Arab Spring for her is not dead, in fact it's the spirit of extraordinary resistance now in Tunisia to Islamism and to the attempts to impose a new kind of totalitarianism, a theocratic totalitarianism that, for her, represent the ongoing spirit of what was called the Arab Spring -- peaceful protests for a truly democratic alternative in her country."

You Can't Eat Religion

Bennoune also says what other Middle East watchers have been saying for years, which is that economic progress is as vital as political progress if the revolutions are to take hold.

In Egypt unemployment, poverty, and food insecurity have soared since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, reversing decades of progress in those areas. Foreign investment and tourism have collapsed. Oil-rich Libya suffered a 60 percent drop in GDP in 2011 after foreign companies pulled their workers out during the fighting to oust Muammar Qaddafi. An Egyptian woman summed up the frustration of many Arabs when she told Bennoune, "You can't fix a broken pipe by saying 'Allahu akbar' over it."

Throughout history, revolutionary political change has always taken years. That other famous spring, in Prague in 1968, was crushed by Soviet tanks but helped plant the seeds of change in Central and Eastern Europe that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall more than 20 years later.

Even successful revolutions, like the French, Russian, and American ones, were followed by chaotic and dangerous decades, notes John Esposito, a professor of religion, international studies, and Islamic studies at Georgetown University.

"The U.S. is a very good example in the sense that we went from a revolution and then it took a civil war, in which far more people were slaughtered. So if you actually look at our history, it looks like absolute chaos when you're looking at the period from the revolution to the Civil War," Esposito says. "When we celebrate our revolution we sort of block out the fact that we had a civil war and it still took a long time to take hold."

Yacoubian believes it will be the younger generations who will continue to carry the torch of the Arab Spring through the chaos of the postrevolution years. Now that they've tasted freedom, she says, they will do everything that they can to make sure they don't lose it.