Spring and Deluge: How popular uprisings in the Middle East exacerbated the migrant crisis

Pawel Durakiewicz

“We mustn’t be afraid of this ‘Arab spring’… [it] sparks tremendous hope.”

These were the words of Alain Juppé, former French Prime Minister and later Minister of Foreign and European Affairs. Juppé was the closing speaker for an “Arab Spring” symposium at the Arab World Institute in 2011, in which he expressed hope for “the emergence of an area of peace, stability and for exchange” with countries such as Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. At the time, these countries seemed to be on the long road to establishing equitable, democratic governments.

But in the almost 5 years since the events that sparked the Arab Spring, many nations have not completed the transition to peaceful democracies. On the contrary, the turmoil in the region has magnified.

Egypt, which witnessed the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, a dictator who ruled for almost 30 years, held elections for the first time in the country’s history. Mohamed Morsi, the new president, attempted to grant himself effectively unlimited power, in what independent Egyptian media labeled “an Islamist coup.” The Egyptian military later unseated him and sentenced him to death. Now the country is led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the military chief who ousted Morsi, who won more than 95 percent of the vote in an election that international observers criticized as falling short of “constitutional principles.

Libya, whose dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, met his end cowering in a ditch and stabbed with a bayonet, was forecast to see its period of violence and turmoil end with the death of their dictator. Instead, the country became embroiled with two governmental claimants vying for control, and countless groups of warring militias now wreaking havoc across the country.

Syria is perhaps in the worst situation, with a devastating civil war tearing the nation apart. Although many of the fighters who rose up against the Bashar Al-Assad regime were inspired by “democracy, freedom of speech, equality and Western values,” prolonged conflict and devastation have given rise to the terrorist entity known as ISIS and have led to the death of 210,000 people since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.

Unfortunately for the West, particularly for the European Union, the aftermath of the Arab Spring has led to the deluge that is the ongoing migrant crisis. In the struggle for power in Libya, the country has now become a “transit zone” for many of the migrants entering Europe. Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov observed that “European countries are now facing the results of their own policy [of bombing Libya].” The war in Syria has also led to over 400,000 asylum applications from Syrian refugees, with the number expected to increase.

The question of where to house migrants, however, have led to tensions between varying nations in the E.U. With the rise of Eurosceptic, nationalist parties like UKIP in Great Britain and Front National in France, accepting a greater number of foreigners at the demand of the European Union is something that a growing number of Europeans are now less willing to accept.

Even countries like Germany, who have traditionally been pro-immigration, are wary of accepting larger numbers of migrants. The country recently closed its border with Austria to control the influx of refugees, which led to a chain of border closures in Austria, Hungary, and Serbia. Other countries, namely Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, have rejected the immigration quotas, calling for more sovereignty in determining who and how many migrants the respective EU member states admit.

The whole ordeal stemming from the crisis in the Middle East serves as a lesson in unintended consequences. Most Westerners support the principles of liberty, democracy, and equality, but many do not understand that imposing those values on other societies is no simple affair. Historically, Europeans have lived under illiberal governments for centuries, ranging from aristocratic monarchies to communist dictatorships. It shows a great deal of hubris on the part of the West to think we could engineer free and peaceful societies in mere decades. Those who see themselves as champions of high ideals would do well to prepare for the consequences of those ideals crashing against the harsh reality we find in other corners of the world.

[Image Credit: Mstyslav Chernov]