Even the most starry-eyed idealist would admit that much of the optimism of the Arab spring has faded. Exuberant revolution has passed into economic malaise, political stagnation and, worst of all, horrendous violence.
None of this is because the pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and north Africa were misguided. They removed dictators, they gave ordinary men and women a voice, and perhaps most important of all, they put the problems of an oppressed, forsaken people on the global political agenda – people just like those who, before Wednesday’s ceasefire, were being killed and maimed by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.
There was no idealism whatsoever in the rockets being fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip, or in the bombing of a bus; but nor is the the American-backed Israeli war machine anything to be optimistic about. On the contrary, the ever-present possibility of Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu launching another military operation encapsulates the abject cynicism involved. Children and pregnant women are among those who died in the rubble of a blighted city. A ground offensive in Gaza would have been even more barbaric, ensuring more civilian deaths, more hatred on both sides and – ultimately – more violence.
If we are learning anything from the latest round of woefully predictable slaughter it is how a festering problem got worse, not better, during the Arab spring.
For generations the question of a Palestinian homeland was a flagship cause – one that united Arabs wherever they came from. But as nationalist democratic movements sprung up across their region, and Arabs quite rightly fought for their own domestic rights, the Palestinian cause was put to one side.
Earlier this year Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, summed up the problem with the words: “Our cause has been marginalised to an extent unsurpassed for decades.” What Fayyad also stressed was how Palestinians first introduced the notion of Arabs rising up against their oppressors. The Arabic term “intifada” means “shaking off” or “uprising” and first entered popular usage during the 1987 Palestinian rebellion against Israel. It was as easily applicable to the Arab spring as it is to those living in Gaza.
There are now signs of change, however. Political leaders who replaced US-backed despots after the Arab spring are openly supporting Hamas, the Islamic movement that has governed Gaza since June 2007. Mass rallies have been held across the region, with Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki expressing “solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people” in a conversation with Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Gaza. Libyans, who suffered under Colonel Gaddafi for 42 years, have also shown overwhelming support. There are millions in Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, calling for the spirit of Tahrir Square to be evoked among Palestinians – pleading for a repeat of the radical action which saw the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak toppled.
Mubarak was an avowed enemy of Hamas, obtaining constant American support through maintaining peace with Israel. He will always be remembered for keeping the Rafah Crossing shut in 2008 – an act backed by Israel and its US allies, which led to hundreds dying because they could not be brought into Egypt for medical treatment.
It was also in 2008 that Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni actually declared war on Gaza from Cairo – a ruthlessly pragmatic gesture which infuriated the majority of Egyptians. Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s new president, in contrast, frantically stepped up diplomatic efforts to resolve the Gaza crisis.
Terms of the ceasefire brokered by Morsi are necessarily restrictive and it is, of course, a fragile truce. The crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip by Israel remains, for example, and there are ongoing humanitarian concerns for the near 2 million Palestinians living there. But the vital end of the murderous shelling and a reinvigorated peace process led to Morsi rightfully being praised by both the United Nations and the US.
As a recent revolutionary who was twice imprisoned by Mubarak, Morsi well knows how the Arab spring galvanised thought and action in a world where freedom seemed an impossibility. Its spirit will be as important as ever as the oppression of the Palestinian people regains its status as the most pressing problem in the Arab world today.
• This headline was changed from Gaza rocket attacks have returned Palestine to the top of the Arab agenda on 23 November 2012