Anyone taking a virtual tour of the Arab world is bound to feel a sense of depression, if not despair, that might deepen into neuralgia if they contemplate the scene for any length of time. Never since World War II has it been in such a state of rudderless chaos, with states mired in endless civil strife, inter-state wars, genocide orchestrated by fraternal Arab states, growing repression in states that had at least a pretence of representative government, not to speak of a Wahhabi monoculture that seeks to bend every Muslim to its bigoted tenets, by force if necessary. The last vagrant breezes from the Arab Spring are on the verge of dissipating.

It is hard to believe that less than 10 years ago the region was alive with hope and intoxicated with the possibilities of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia where the people, in a 28-day campaign of civil resistance, overthrew the decades-long reign of the venal dictator Zine al-Abidine bin Ali. They forced him to flee and for the first time since independence Tunisians have a proper democracy.

The spring spread with breathtaking speed to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and other places. Egypt’s effective president-for-life, Hosni Mubarak, who had kept himself in power through the support of the military and a series of increasingly dubious elections to legitimise his rule, was abandoned by his closest allies as a result of the civil disobedience movement orchestrated by millions of Egyptians who braved police and military brutalities that killed hundreds of protesters. They succeeded in forcing the transitional government to hold a free election for the first time ever in Egypt’s history and bring to power a mostly civilian parliament and a legitimately chosen president in Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. But that was the high point; since then the Arab Spring has spiralled into a deep, unending winter in most of the countries that experienced it.

Egypt shows how, with a little help from friends outside, the strongest popular movements can be subverted. The limits of freedom in countries in alliance with the west are defined by the degree to which the new rulers hew to the lines drawn by Washington.

Libya and Syria are both mired in a brutal civil war that has taken half a million lives (mostly Syrian), beggared two prosperous societies and loosed a tide of refugees who have strained the resources and patience of neighbouring countries and pushed the European Union to near-breakdown. An entire generation has been lost in both nations and still there is no sign of the conflicts winding down. In Libya it is attritional, in Syria murderous. Neither democracy nor prosperity seems remotely likely in this context. In Yemen, the struggle between competing power factions eventually became a Shia-Sunni affair. Now it is a genocidal war executed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states in an effort to exterminate the Shia Houthis on the pretext of curbing Iranian influence. 

But it is Egypt, the most poignant of aborted possibilities, that shows how, with a little help from friends outside, the strongest popular movements can be subverted and turned on their heads. The fate of Morsi—its only legitimately elected president, overthrow, imprisonment by a kangaroo court and death in jail—is a warning to all hopeful democrats. The limits of freedom in countries in alliance with the west are defined by the degree to which the new rulers hew to the lines drawn by Washington.

The ascension of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president in a grotesque electoral parody preceded by a shameless subversion of rule of law, constitutional provisions and democratic protocols, endorsed if not orchestrated by the US and its allies, is an example of hypocrisy that is hard to top. If anyone still had any illusions about the west’s commitment to democracy and its institutions, an examination of its role in reversing the tide of reform in the Arab world should dispel them. American interventions in Libya and Syria, the first open and the other covert, have only deepened the misery of every faction besides destroying the economy. Oil production in Libya, the major source of its revenue, has fallen by over 90 per cent.

In Yemen the US has given carte blanche to Mohammad bin Salman and the Saudi crown prince has shown a rare enthusiasm for his bloody work even if it hasn’t worked so far. Millions of people have lost homes and livelihoods and the majority of its people are at constant risk of starvation. No one cares anymore. 

Tunisia is the only place where the winds blow free but it is still an oasis in a desert of despots. So far, however, it has managed to steer clear of ideological extremes and found a way forwards through the various factions. That is mainly because everyone, including the elements of the old regime, was willing to give the revolution a chance.  The other major reason is that the west was so busy in Libya and Syria that it quite neglected its duties in Tunisia, to the great relief of its citizens. If the Arab Spring shows anything it is that ancient regimes can be overthrown but uprooting them is an entirely different task, especially if they have superpower friends.