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September 19, 2007

Remembering the 'Arab Spring'
Posted by Shadi Hamid

A few days ago, Ezra was wondering if anyone remembers the "Arab Spring," and lamented "how far we've fallen." We should remember the Arab Spring not just because it failed so miserably, but also because it offers a tantalizing hint of what might have been. My memory of it all is beginning to blur. It is difficult to remember it now, but there was reason to believe, then, that, for all its glaring faults, the Bush administration was on its way to helping usher something new in Middle Eastern politics.

We wanted to believe it. And we really did feel that something different was in the air. I felt it in December 2004, when I was having dinner at a workshop in Amman with Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Essam el-Erian, and other bright lights of the Arab opposition. El-Erian and Saad Eddin (the former is now in prison, the latter in hopefully temporary exile) were jubilant and optimistic. Here they were - Egypt's most prominent Islamist, and its most prominent secularist - laughing, joking, praying, hoping, and believing. For me, it was a moving moment that would inspire, and continues to inspire to this very day.

Before the disillusion - before it all began to fall apart - I was a believer, not, of course, in the Bush administration, but in the perhaps now antiquated idea that Arabs would no longer be the historical exemption to the spread of democracy. Freedom, finally, would be theirs. I remember at the end of the workshop (organized by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy), Radwan Masmoudi, CSID's president, was beaming. We have a window of opportunity, he said. The time has come, and we do not know when, if ever, it will come again.


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Take heart and recall that the Prague Spring of 1968 was followed by 20 years of repression but eventually democracy triumphed. The Arab Spring of 2004 did show the desire for self determination was alive and well in the Arab world. Spring will come again. The only question is when.

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