For my generation, 2011 came close to being our 1968. Like the latter, it was a year of political change, change that seemed dynamic and accelerated.
The world was on the verge of being transformed. It seemed as though undemocratic regimes, for too long a regrettable fixture of the Middle East, could be overthrown and replaced. More than that, there was a sense of real optimism. It seemed the weight of history had been lifted.
The Arab Spring personified the best of this forward-looking global trend and it gave hope to the rest of us. The struggles of ordinary people to liberate themselves from the monolithic forces of state oppression were inspiring and exciting and appeared to signal a sea change in international politics.
Such hopes proved premature. Five years on, this optimism has evaporated. Now the agents of political change are different. Retrograde forces have won the day.
The causes of this pall are numerous but they are linked. All of them contribute to the countries of the world – and especially the West – turning inward, placing domestic concerns above global ones and abandoning any sense of international obligation.
Most notably, this has been manifested in the form of anti-immigrant populism. This sentiment has always been present and has always exerted influence on contemporary politics but never so explicitly as in the last year.
Though the official campaign for a leave vote in Britain’s referendum on the European Union couched its terms carefully, the subtext of immigration was present in every argument, every debate, every apparently unconnected question about the National Health Service or infrastructure or our national character.
Other campaigners relied less on making implicit appeals to nativism. The Leave.EU campaign, for example, put immigration front and centre. That was the reason most people voted the way they did.
This has changed the nature of British politics. Now it is assumed that the electorate is hostile to immigration, that it does not want to accept refugees fleeing the disaster areas of the Middle East – or any of them at all.
In the United States, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency demonstrates the same impulse but at an even higher pitch. This is a man who said he wanted a ‘total and complete shutdown’ on Muslims entering the country. He wants to kill the wives and children of suspected terrorists. He wants to reinstitute torture and cannot imagine why anyone would have a problem with that.
This has necessarily challenged certain international norms but it is also a symptom of a wider moral malaise.
The dramatic nature of this change in emphasis can be seen in Western abandonment of the Syrian revolution and widespread regret – feigned or real – over the end of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. Defenders of these regimes, from both the left and right, are multiplying.
These people say Arab countries do not know what to do with democracy and that they cannot truly want it in any case. They suggest that war crimes committed by the Assad regime are either overstated or justified – a Western lie or a good thing too.
This position sums up the past year and will, in all likelihood, dominate 2017. A darker, colder world awaits, one in which other people – and other countries – matter less than would have been thought possible six years ago.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.