Hope of the Arab Spring has been replaced by total despair
Published 26/12/2015 | 02:30
Five years ago this month, a young vegetable trader in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid ran afoul of an inspector and had his stall confiscated. In despair, 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside the offices of the local authorities.
No one could have imagined at that point the extraordinary series of events that this act of self-immolation would trigger. Just weeks later, Bouazizi was dead and the protests that followed eventually gained enough momentum across Tunisia to topple the decades-old rule of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. After Tunisia came Egypt and the popular ousting of another autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for decades. Then Libya, where the drive to dislodge Muammar Gaddafi took a more violent turn, with an armed uprising aided by a Nato-led intervention eventually bringing his 42-year-old dictatorship to an end. If Libya's revolution was bloody, then Syria proved to be much bloodier.
The brutal efforts of Bashar al-Assad to crush what was in 2011 a popular uprising against his regime plunged the country into what is now a multi-sided, intractable conflict with no end in sight, its poisons seeping into neighbouring states like Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. Syria's war paved the way for Isil - before 2011 a small group of militants in Iraq - to develop and evolve far beyond anyone's expectations so that now it controls swathes of territory across both countries.
Almost five years on from the beginning of what collectively became known as the Arab Spring, the optimism that marked those initial months has given way to a dark, despondent mood across the region. Authoritarianism has returned with a vengeance in some countries, such as Egypt, now back under military rule; the rise of extremism in the form of Isil poses a threat that reaches far beyond the Middle East and north Africa; and Syria's bleeding has resulted in one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history.
A British newspaper recently tracked down the inspector who confiscated Mohammed Bouazizi's stall. "Sometimes I wish I'd never done it," Faida Hamdy told 'The Daily Telegraph'. "When I look at the region and my country, I regret it all. Death everywhere and extremism blooming, and killing beautiful souls."
Even Tunisia, held up as an example for the rest of the region for continuing with its fragile transition from dictatorship to democracy, has not been immune to extremism.
Tunisians comprise the largest foreign component within the ranks of Isil and many have started returning home to carry out attacks there. Tunisia's tourism industry, the vulnerable backbone of its feeble economy, has been knocked sideways this year with two attacks on the capital Tunis and another on the coastal resort of Sousse, which claimed the lives of dozens of foreign holidaymakers including Irish nationals.
In Tunis last month, hoteliers and restaurant owners told me they feared going out of business after Isil claimed responsibility for a bus bombing in the city, this time aimed at presidential guards.
The Tunisian authorities like to pin much of the blame on neighbouring Libya, where Isil have taken advantage of the political power struggles that followed Gaddafi's demise.
These power plays resulted in a dangerous political and security vacuum in a country awash with weapons and hundreds of militias that emerged during and after the 2011 uprising.
Such is Libya's chaos that next year may well bring another international intervention, this time to tackle the growing presence of Isil, whose current stronghold in the country is Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte.
On my last visit to Libya this September, I was struck by the extent of the unravelling there and also how many people yearned, if not for Gaddafi's authoritarianism, at least the relative stability of their lives before 2011.
"It is very difficult to see any light at the end of the tunnel right now," one Tripoli resident told me. "The challenges we face are so overwhelming, I now think only my children might see the Libya I once dreamed of."
While Libya's travails now get more international attention due to the expansion of Isil there and the flow of refugees and migrants using the country as a transit point to Europe, it is Syria's tragedy that continues to dwarf everything else. Hundreds of thousands dead, millions forced from their homes and a country devastated by the horrors of a conflict marked by extreme brutality from both regime forces and extremists.
In grim refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, a lost generation of Syrian children is growing up, traumatised by violence and displacement. Syria's war arrived on Europe's doorstep in earnest this year in the form of thousands of refugees desperate for sanctuary.
It is a crisis - and a war - that is not going to end anytime soon.