On Jan. 14, 2011, Tunisians packed the streets of their capital and shocked the world by overthrowing longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The revolution shook the Middle East, setting off the hopeful uprisings that came to be known as the Arab Spring. But five years later, the countries that followed Tunisia’s example could hardly be worse off, the hopes of their people dashed by new autocrats, strife, civil war and the rise of the virulent jihadism exemplified by the Islamic State group.
“Those were exciting days. The democracy fever spread,” Hafez Ghanem, the vice president of the World Bank, wrote in a recent book to mark the start of the Arab Spring. “But can a country with no democratic tradition and with weak institutions become a well-functioning democracy and improve the lives of its citizens overnight? The answer is obviously no.”
Only weeks before Ben Ali stepped down after 23 years in power, few could have expected the wave of change to come. A month earlier a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi had set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid, triggering the mass protests that eventually brought Ben Ali down. Tunisia was not only the first Arab Spring country but also its only partial success story.
There has been a rise in jihadist violence since Ben Ali’s overthrow, most dramatically in the attacks on the Bardo museum and on a Mediterranean resort that killed 60 people, most of them foreign tourists. But the country has elected a new government and its National Dialogue Quartet—a group of four civil society organizations—was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for helping to save its transition to democracy.
Elsewhere in the region, popular uprisings were less the beginnings of a new spring than preludes of harsh winters.
In Egypt, the ouster of Hosni Mubarak was followed by turbulent unrest and eventually a military overthrow of his Islamist successor Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first civilian—and freely elected—president. Then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took over and launched a harsh crackdown on Morsi’s supporters, leaving hundreds dead and thousands in prison.
Jihadist violence has surged, especially in the restive Sinai Peninsula, and the Islamic State has claimed a range of deadly attacks, including the downing of a Russian plane in October that killed all 224 people on board.
In Libya, an uprising against longtime leader Muammer Qaddafi quickly became an armed revolution backed by NATO, and his overthrow and killing in 2011 have been followed by continued strife and political chaos. Rival parliaments and governments are vying for power and U.N. efforts to bring about a unity government have so far failed.
Islamic State jihadists have gained an important foothold in Qaddafi’s hometown Sirte and launched attacks, last week killing more than 50 people in a bombing at a police school in Zliten, the worst incident since the revolution.
In Yemen, the stepping down of longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh after mass protests was followed by deep instability and eventually war after Shia Houthi rebels forced his successor Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee the capital.
Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention last March to support Hadi’s government but there are few signs, despite U.N. peace efforts, of a war that has killed more than 6,000 people coming to an end.
Shia protesters inspired by the Arab Spring also launched demonstrations against their Sunni rulers in Bahrain but were put down a month later. Sporadic unrest has continued.
But nowhere were the aspirations of the Arab Spring more disappointing than in Syria, where peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad evolved into a brutal civil war that has left more than 260,000 dead and forced millions from their homes. After nearly five years of war Syria is in ruins, its people scattered, many of them turned desperate refugees hoping to reach Europe.
Much of the country has been taken over by the Islamic State, which has declared a “caliphate” in areas under its control in Syria and neighboring Iraq, committing widespread atrocities as it imposes its harsh interpretation of Islam.
From its base there, I.S. has organized or inspired a new wave of attacks on the West, including the Nov. 13 massacres on the streets of Paris and the Charlie Hebdo killings a year ago.
“The Arab Spring was a moment in history comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the sense that there were major shifts in geopolitical maps, like in the 1990s,” said Michael Ayari, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “We still don’t have a clear reading… At the moment it feels like we are in downward phase, but this is a process that will take decades,” he said.
“It is clear that the Arab transition has taken on a violent, and even scary character,” wrote Ghanem, whose book The Arab Spring Five Years Later: Toward Greater Inclusiveness was published by the Brookings Institution last month.
But he said there was still hope for positive change, if Arab governments focus on more “inclusive” policies to pursue economic growth and good governance. “The Arab Spring is not a season,” he wrote. “It is a first and important step on the long road to a new political, social and economic order.”