What happened to the Arab Spring?

When Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself in the provincial Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010, he did more than light a spark to the Arab Spring. He changed the Middle East forever.

His act of supreme desperation struck a chord with Arabs across the region. Perhaps it was the petty humiliations that Bouazizi endured at the hands of the local authorities, the representatives of a dictator that had ruled Tunisia since Bouazizi was three.

Or perhaps it was because here was a man of no great status in life - he was a street vendor, a seller of oranges - in a town of no great importance, a man who struggled daily to make a living, a man with no voice.

Whatever the reason, his was a template for so many Middle Eastern lives, a story enacted under countless guises in countless places across the Middle East, day after day, generation after generation.

Within a month of Bouazizi's self-immolation, the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali would be overthrown. Two months later, people's power would drive Egypt's once-all-powerful Hosni Mubarak from power. And within a year, Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Middle East's ultimate despot, would die an ignominious death at the hands of his own people.

It seemed like only a matter of time before popular uprisings would sweep from power the last of the Middle East's dictators. That a man like Bouazizi could trigger such an extraordinary sequence of events became one of the most inspiring narratives of our time: the people of the Arab world had, through his sacrifice, found their voice.

But the mass demonstrations that would characterise the Arab Spring, like Bouazizi's suicide, were voices of protest that could carry the aspirations of demonstrators only so far. Overthrowing dictators was one thing. Building new platforms for governing would prove far messier.

Almost three years later, Syria is at war with itself, a war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives. Egypt is in the grip of an existential crisis as the army, Islamists and liberal protesters battle it out for the soul of the Arab world's most populous country. And the nascent political opposition has been brutally put down in Bahrain.

''The cost of change has exceeded even the highest anticipated costs, as in Syria,'' says Robin Wright, journalist and author of Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion across the Islamic World. ''And half of the Arab world's 350 million people have yet to witness any real change at all.''

The Arab Spring has, it seems, turned to winter.

ON ONE reading of history, the Arab Spring was destined to fail: the expectations that arose from the uprisings were simply too high. In the heady days of revolution, democracy became a cure-all solution for all manner of ills, from economic disenfranchisement to unravelling the crimes of the past.

''Revolutions are never fairytales,'' says Wright. ''Nor do they create utopias, either instant or long-term.''

A Tunisian street vendor who now works on the same corner where Bouazizi sold oranges summed it up pretty well when I visited him last spring: ''We have more freedoms, but we have fewer jobs.''

''Hope and expectations are two different things,'' is how Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson centre in Washington, describes it. ''They part ways when the revolutionary fever subsides and the reality on the ground takes over.''

But the Arab Spring has disappointed for reasons that extend far beyond unrealistic expectations.

The great success story of the Arab Spring - the broad cross-sections of society that participated - was also its most complicating factor. So diverse were its participants that the Arab Spring came to be a Rorschach blot for looking at the Middle East's future, and, like democracy itself, the new reality quickly became an unruly clamour of voices.

While hope for a better life and shared experiences of exclusion from political and economic power had provided a sound basis for political rebellion, they could do little to build the consensus necessary for governing in the post-revolutionary era.

In Egypt, for example, the liberal protesters whose presence in Cairo's Tahrir Square had given irresistible momentum to the revolution in its early days had, it turns out, little in common with the conservative rural poor who would vote the Muslim Brotherhood to power.

In Syria, al-Qaeda affiliates loathe the liberal intelligentsia almost as much as they do the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while religious and ethnic minorities fear the rise of the Sunni majority.

In Libya, too, regional and tribal faultlines continue to play their part in destabilising the transition from the Gaddafi era.

With so many competing voices and no clear vision of the post-dictatorship future emerging, Islamists, unlike other opposition groups, were perfectly placed to fill the political vacuum with their pre-existing networks of patronage, ready-made approximations of governing structures and coherent ideologies.

It would be wrong to typecast Islamist parties as universally fundamentalist in nature: they, like their secular counterparts, come in many guises, from the relatively moderate forces of the ruling al-Nahda (Renaissance) Party in Tunisia to the al-Qaeda-backed rebel groups that hold sway in parts of Syria.

But it is the partial hijacking of the Arab Spring by these latter groups in particular that may be the most worrying outcome from the upheaval across the region. In Egypt, for example, one-quarter of Egyptians voted for the hardline Salafist party - it was from within the Salafist strain of Islam that al-Qaeda was born.

''The focus shifted from the democratisation to the Islamisation of the state,'' Esfandiari says. ''When constitutions were drafted, the concerns of women's groups, minorities, human rights activists, and civil society organisations were ignored. Revolutions, it seems, do not take good care of the people who started them and do not shy away from shattering hopes and dreams.''

And then there is the problem of new, democratically elected governments inheriting the very structures that sustained the former dictators in power.

''Mubarak may be on trial, Gaddafi is dead and Ben Ali is currently enjoying the dubious pleasures of exile in Saudi Arabia,'' writes Toby Dodge, Middle East analyst at the London School of Economics, in an LSE online publication.

''But the ruling elites they created, the state structures they built, the powerful secret services and crony capitalists they nurtured did not disappear when the despots were deposed.''

With such a formidable collection of forces arrayed against it, it should come as little surprise that the Arab Spring has stalled.

AND YET, how the Arab Spring is judged less than three years after it began may be entirely different to history's verdict in the decades ahead.

''Too little time has passed,'' says Karim Mezran, professor of Middle Eastern and North African studies at Johns Hopkins University. ''Revolutions take a much longer time to meet any kind of expectation. The countries of the Arab Spring are thus far moving in the right direction yet remain on the verge of a cliff - where the possibility that everything could go wrong is always present.''

For all its violence and false starts, too, the empowering human element of the Arab Spring remains unchallenged. In this version of the Arab Spring story, the unwillingness of ordinary Arabs to accept the status quo has transformed the region's people from oppressed victims and passive onlookers to actors with a say in shaping their own destiny.

''One thing is clear about the Arab Spring: it ushered in people's role in the political processes for the first time in the countries where revolutions took place,'' says Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi sociologist and political analyst. ''And this, if consolidated, is a big achievement and a turning point in the political history of the region.''

Dalia Ziada, executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies in Cairo, said the people had broken the barriers of fear and realised that they had the absolute right to decide their future and the future of their country. ''If this was the only gain from the Arab Spring, it is more than enough,'' she said.

It is also true that experiences of the Arab Spring vary greatly across the region. Partly, this has to do with what Rami Khouri, a Lebanese academic at the American University of Beirut, calls the ''variety of regime responses''.

These responses, he says, would include buying off citizens with cash (the Gulf States), making modest and symbolic reforms (Jordan and Morocco), fighting back militarily (Bahrain and Syria), and leaving office dead or alive (Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen).

At the extreme end of the Arab Spring's spectrum of outcomes stands Syria's civil war and Bahrain's shutting down of civil society. Egypt, too, teeters on the brink of a profound political crisis, its democratic experiment having come to resemble the dark days of the Mubarak regime without the accompanying stability.

''In medical terms,'' Dr Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Arab studies at Oxford University, told ABC radio earlier this year, ''the country is in intensive care, its survival at stake, its economy asphyxiated, unable to produce a vision for the future''.

At the same time, countries such as Jordan and Morocco inch towards political reforms while remaining stable at a time of great regional upheaval. Part of the reason for this stability doubtless lies in the governments' recognition, forced upon them by events of the Arab Spring, that they could no longer survive without at least paying lip service to the need for popular participation.

It also has to do with another lesson of the Arab Spring, the need to beware of what may follow from a popular uprising: ''I'm less aggressive towards the king because I saw what the Islamists could do,'' Alaa Fazzaa, editor of a banned Jordanian website, told The Atlantic in July. ''I see what is happening in the region.''

Even Libya, for all the lingering power of the armed militias that helped overthrow Gaddafi, has held peaceful elections.

It has also entered the post-Gaddafi era in a state characterised more by paralysis and soul-searching than any meaningful likelihood of resuming actual hostilities.

And then there is Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring. There, the two defining forces of North Africa's most liberal country, the two great strands of philosophical thought that dominate political debate in the Middle East - Islamist and secular social democrat - govern the country in an unlikely but, for the most part, successful coalition.

That they have done so without taking up arms is as much a part of the Arab Spring as Syria's descent into anarchy.

With such different manifestations of the broader Arab Spring at play, the result is, in the words of one analyst, ''noisy, messy and inconclusive''. It is also a victory for the people even as it has complicated their lives and at times feels like a defeat.

Perhaps we have been using the wrong framework to judge the success or failure of the Arab Spring, preferring to view as a revolution what could better be described as an awakening.

Either way, the ultimate test of the Arab Spring may be whether popular participation ended with the demonstrations that drove dictators from power.

Or, to put it another way, whether in charting the region's future it is the people, or the already powerful, who get to cast the deciding vote.

Anthony Ham is a Melbourne writer and Middle East specialist.

This story What happened to the Arab Spring? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.