Remembering the Arab Spring
Civil unrest in Tunisia late December 2010 led eventually to a wave of revolution through the Middle East over the ensuing spring that drew global attention, and hope for the expansion of democracy.
Speaking at a conference at the University of Melbourne recently, Professor Gareth Evans, from the Politics program and former Australian Foreign Minister, said the Arab Spring had left a fundamentally changed geo-political landscape in the region.
“Most of us following events in the Arab world over the last twelve months have had a kaleidoscope of emotions,” he said, delivering the opening address to the Middle East in Revolt: the First Anniversary International Conference, hosted by the University Of Melbourne’s Asia Institute recently.
There had been initial exhilaration at what Professor Evans described as “the most triumphant reaffirmation of the human spirit that we have seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the colour revolutions of Central and Eastern Europe.”
But he said that exhilaration soon gave way to “anxiety as to the sustainability of the momentum, depression where achievement has fallen way short so far of expectation, or revolutions have been stillborn, and despair when they have been crushed or attempted to be crushed by the kind of brutality with which the Assad regime is now horrifying the world in Syria.”
Professor Evans said there were two big thematic issues with which the world “needed to wrestle”.
“First, how to bring nascent revolutions – where all the underlying preconditions for change are obviously present – to the point of actual transition, and secondly, how to sustain a transition once that tipping point has been reached and the old regime has gone.”
Conference convenor Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, from the Islamic Studies program, says the conference attracted some of the world’s leading Middle East scholars and practitioners, who explored issues from a multitude of political, military, economic, social and cultural perspectives.
Professor Akbarzadeh says the implications of the Arab Spring, and exactly what took place, were still poorly understood.
“The Arab revolution has been a momentous episode in a volatile region of the world. The implications of transition to democracy are far-reaching and affect global politics at every level.
“The events of 2011 represented a shift in our understanding of the Arab world, and the conference, organised in close collaboration with the Washington-based think-tank Freedom House, highlighted the University’s ability to play a leading role in this field of study.
“The sprouting of Arab democracy presents challenges for the United States, and by extension Australia. Washington was used to dealing with unpopular rulers – now it has to learn to talk to less accommodating governments,” he says.
Keynote speaker Professor George Joffé, from Cambridge University, told the conference advances in our understanding of global events required constant exchange of perceptions, ideas and analysis.
“It is the only way in which we overcome the influences of personal preference and distorted appreciation,” he said. “Conferences like this are the most immediate way in which ideas can be considered and challenged – that is why they are such an important part of academic engagement.
“We now know there has not been just one outcome from the events. Some societies have been able to eradicate the authoritarian states under which they lived and have replaced them with what may prove to be democratic states, others have not.”
Listen to a recent UpClose Episode 181: Mirages of influence: The US in the Middle East, post ‘Arab Spring, the University’s podcast of research, opinion and analysis, in which Professor Akbarzadeh speaks with host Jacky Angus about the changing geo-political environment.’.