Ten years after the patronisingly named ‘Arab Spring’ shook the world in 2011, the media has almost universally portrayed it as a failure while allowing Tunisia the ‘grace and favour’ status of enjoying a limited democracy. These claims merit further investigation. At its most generous, the narrative points to new rights for women in Saudi Arabia such as the right to drive and the equal pay initiative or the protests over fracking and water rights in Algeria which contributed to the fall of its long term leader, Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019. Other narratives point to the huge protests in Baghdad and Beirut in October 2019 as evidence of a second Arab Spring.
What no mainstream narrative has pointed out is that there is a genuinely democratic revolution going on in Syria and that it was made possible by the Arab Spring: the Rojava women’s revolution, a grassroots anti-patriarchal, multi-ethnic, secular and ecologically sustainable democracy. The 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring should be the hook on which to hang a portrait of Democratic Confederalism, the system of municipal, bottom-up decision making, which occupies over 25% of Syrian territory, formally known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Instead it has become a noose which attempts to kill off the revolution by denying it the oxygen of publicity.
When Assad’s attention was diverted to civil resistance in the south of Syria in 2011, it created a vacuum in the North-East which allowed this bloodless revolution to come into being. Sadly it didn’t remain bloodless because it soon became embroiled in an existential battle against ISIS and now Turkey. Why has its existence not been universally acknowledged, let alone celebrated? Rojava is a paradigm of another world which many of us have been seeking in order to escape the deadly cul-de-sac of neo-liberalism. Perhaps that is why it gets so little coverage. Its existence is a threat to capitalism which is more comfortable accommodating dictatorships like that of Erdogan in Turkey than true democracy.
Even though SDF, the defence forces of Rojava, played a central role in defeating ISIS in Syria, considered to be the world’s number one enemy, media interest was limited to SDF’s fighting capacity and not the society from which it arose. As soon as the ‘caliphate’ was brought down, Trump pulled out US troops and left the Kurds to clear up the mess and the remnants of ISIS sleeper cells. While Biden is likely to be more friendly towards Rojava, already signposted by his appointment of Brett McGurk considered to be a pro-Kurdish envoy, this is mostly to reassert US presence and influence in Syria. The US has no interest in supporting or promoting revolutionary politics. This has been the reality for Rojava from day one and its choice of allies has been guided by a chess player’s analysis of who would support their continued survival. That is why the international alliances Rojava forges are contingent, unreliable and self-interested to an even greater extent than is normal in geo-politics.
Almost every major regional and international power has a vested interest in this region. A further attraction, no doubt, is the fact that 80 per cent of Syria’s gas and oil reserves are based in Rojava. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni bloc, along with Israel are involved in a power play against Assad, Iran and Hezbollah, the Shi’ite bloc. Turkey is hell bent on destroying the revolution because of the close relationship between its own restive Kurdish population and that of North Eastern Syria. Its occupation of Rojava is supported by Russia, although it is a NATO ally. Assad is waiting for Turkey to do his dirty work for him before moving in for the kill. The US-led coalition (which included UK and France, Canada and Australia among others) provided air-cover and military support to SDF forces on the ground for five years. Given this level of international involvement, you would have expected greater media interest in this area. Although the media was relentlessly interested in the fortunes of Syria and Assad at one point, yet it managed to focus only on the death and devastation of Syria without touching on the positive developments in more than a quarter of its territory.
Instead, Tunisia is hailed as a success of the Arab Spring which was triggered by the self-immolation of a vegetable seller, protesting against state harassment, and led to the fall of President Ben Ali who had been in power for 23 years. It is worth looking at its democratic record since 2011. It has a constitution which enshrines civil liberties, it has moved to a parliamentary system and has held several elections since then. The first election brought the so-called moderate Islamist Ennahda party into power but it began to court Salafist groups like Ansar al-Sharia which wanted to adopt sharia law. Ansar al-Sharia took over 400 mosques and installed jihadi imams, killed secular politicians and destabilised the gains made by the transition until it was finally declared a terrorist organisation. The initial dismantling of Ben Ali’s security apparatus also left a vacuum that created space for
Islamists to take over, a phenomenon we saw across all the countries stirred by the Arab Spring, as the hard men fell one by one. The Islamist insurgency on the borders of Western Tunisia has necessitated the rebuilding of the army.
Whilst I have no wish to decry Tunisia’s halting steps towards a stable democracy, I raise it simply to question the international media’s focus on it as a ‘success’ when Rojava is missing from its crosshairs. Compare the rise of Islamist forces in most of the Arab Spring countries with Rojava where the clear headed banishing of religion from the public square has freed women’s rights on marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody from sharia law’s entrenched inequalities. To point to Saudi Arabia’s liberalising moves as a consequence of the Arab Spring, as some have done, is to really clutch at straws. Women may have won the right to drive but four women activists who campaigned for the right to drive are still languishing in prison. Mingling between the sexes in public places may be more tolerated but it appears to be a purely pragmatic move to placate the rebellious youth who make up more than two thirds of the population. As women’s rights have become the marker of modernity, Bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi probably believes that such moves will win him kudos and continued trade from the West. Alongside this, of course, is the rounding up, jailing and killing of dissenters. If anything, it is probably more accurate to argue that the Arab Spring triggered Saudi Arabia’s slide into authoritarianism.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the absence of Rojava from both UK and international narratives is because its anti-capitalist principles and revolutionary ideas could destabilise other so-called democracies at a truly dangerous moment when the world economic system has fallen into deep exhaustion and may even be at a point of collapse, especially post-Covid.
To assert that the Arab Spring has failed is to draw a veil over the existence of Rojava.
Rahila Gupta is a journalist and activist. Follow her on twitter (@rahilag) or visit her website rahilagupta.uk for more information.