In Libya, armed militias have filled a void left by a revolution that felled a dictator. In Syria, a popular uprising has morphed into a civil war that has left more than 100,000 dead and provided a haven for Islamic extremists. In Tunisia, increasingly bitter political divisions have delayed the drafting of a new constitution.
And now in Egypt, often considered the trendsetter of the Arab world, the army and security forces, after having toppled the elected Islamist president, have killed hundreds of his supporters, declared a state of e mergency and worsened a deep polarization.
The region's old status quo, dominated by imperious rulers who fixed elections, ruled by fiat and quashed dissent, has been fundamentally damaged, if not overthrown, in the three years since the outbreak of the uprisings optimistically known as the Arab Spring.
What is unclear, however, is the replacement model. Most of the uprisings have devolved into bitter struggles, as a mix of political powers battle over the rules of participation, the relationship between the military and the government, the role of religion in public life and what it means to be a citizen, not a subject.
Middle East historians and analysts say that the political and economic stagnation under decades of autocratic rule that led to the uprisings also left Arab countries ill-equipped to build new governments and civil society. While some of the movements achieved their initial goals, removing longtime leaders in four countries, their wider aims — democracy, dignity, human rights, social equality and economic security — now appear more distant than ever.
In many ways, the Arab Spring has revealed and exacerbated deep societal splits, between secularists and Islamists and between different religious sects.
In Tunisia, the birthplace of the uprisings, the moderate Islamist party now in power has been unable to build sufficient consensus to draft a new constitution, and opposition leaders have been assassinated.
Political exclusion has also afflicted Egypt's transition. After winning postrevolutionary elections, Mohammed Morsi, the now-deposed president, and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood faced fierce opposition from those who accused them of perverting democracy as a way of monopolizing power.
Throughout the region, the upheavals have so far failed to address the demands of millions of ordinary citizens who had clamored for change — for jobs, food, health care and basic human dignity. If anything, their grievances have worsened.
The current turmoil has left many Arab activists disillusioned with the movements for which they had invested tremendous effort and often risked their lives. This is increasingly the case in Syria, where an originally peaceful prodemocratic uprising has evolved into a sectarian civil war, with extremist rebel groups that reject democracy playing an increasing role on the battlefield.
"In the beginning it was a real revolution — I was excited to work, I bought a weapon from my own pocket and sold land to buy ammunition," said Soheil Ali, who until recently led a small rebel group in northern Syria. "Now it is completely different."
Ali quit the fight in frustration over what he called corruption among the rebels' nominal leaders and the tendency of some groups to stockpile arms instead of fighting to topple their common adversary, President Bashar Assad.
Historians note that fundamental political change anywhere can take decades or generations. The Prague Spring of 1968 may have failed, for example, but it was a catalyst for changes in Eastern Europe that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
The European revolutions of 1848, a series of popular upheavals that were the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history, affected more than 50 countries but soon collapsed under the repression of military forces loyal to royalties and aristocracies. Nonetheless, they sowed the seeds of progressive political ideas that would help shape European history for the next hundred years.
Historians said that, given the repressive autocracies among Arab countries, the convulsions in Egypt and elsewhere were painful but inevitable. Others note that such turmoil often obscured subtle but profound societal changes. For example, Ziad al-Ali, a Cairo-based constitutional expert, said it had now become normal for citizens of Arab Spring countries to insult their rulers — unthinkable only a few years ago.
"This dynamic of free expression, of political liberalization where now you have lots of political parties and people expressing themselves freely," he said, "this will lead us in a positive direction in the long run."
© 2013 New York Times News Service