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Disorganized urban liberalism couldn’t compete with the politics of tribe—or Islamism.

Dec. 16, 2015

Thursday marks a bitter anniversary in the Arab world. On Dec. 17, 2010, a Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after the authorities confiscated his goods and beat him. The incident sparked an uprising that within weeks would topple Tunisia’s venal autocracy. Protests spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Despots from Morocco to Mesopotamia felt the heat of popular anger. Many couldn’t withstand it.

Yet today the Middle East is less stable, and less hopeful, than it was before the Arab Spring. Five years ago, the denim-clad, smartphone-wielding Arab liberal became the region’s avatar. Now the knife-wielding jihadist and the refugee have risen to prominence instead.

Each Arab Spring country is unhappy in its own way. Tunisia is the only success story among the bunch, having adopted a secular constitution and completed several peaceful power transfers. As Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s moderate Islamic Ennahda party, recently told me, “We’ve remained on the bridge of democratic transition while others have fallen off.” True, but the birthplace of the Arab Spring is also the world’s top exporter of fighters for Islamic State, or ISIS.

The situation in Egypt is similarly mixed. The country is once more ruled by the officer corps and back to its pre-Revolutionary funk: repressive and paranoid, yes, but also stable and on the path of economic reform.

Things are far worse in Yemen and Libya, which have ceased to exist as unified states. Yemen has disintegrated into its sectarian constituent parts, forcing neighboring Sunni powers led by Saudi Arabia to intervene militarily to prevent the Iranian regime from turning the country into a Shiite satellite. Libya is a lawless playground of smugglers and ISIS. Then there is Syria, with its barrel bombs, 250,000 dead, and four million refugees.

At the height of the movement, I edited an anthology of essays by young Middle East dissidents. The essayists described an Arab world where men and women were equal, blasphemous cartoonists were tolerated and gay people could live openly, among other fantasies. The book’s now-cringe-inducing title: “Arab Spring Dreams.”

How did dreams turn into nightmares? The standard account has it that by crushing or co-opting opponents, secular autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak empowered Islamist outfits that were the only remaining channel for dissent. Once the dictators fell, the liberals were quickly sidelined as Islamists and remnants of the old order battled for dominance.

It’s a theory riddled with contradictions. For one thing, it underestimates political Islam. As early as the 19th century, Islamist intellectuals had called for restoring Islam’s lost glory and expelling Western pollutants. To say that the movement’s grip on the region is a reaction against secular dictatorship is to deny Islamists’ agency and inherent ideological drive.

Secular Arab nationalism had already exhausted its energies by the time Mr. Mubarak and colleagues were overthrown. But as the rise of ISIS shows, Islamism represents a longer historical wave only beginning to crest. Many in the West imagined removing the dictators would also diminish Islamism’s attraction. Events didn’t pan out that way.

Nor could Arab liberals forge a third way. The “Revolution 2.0” model of leaderless, social-media-driven protest was effective against unpopular regimes. But it proved insufficient for winning power, and the liberals failed to articulate a coherent ideological alternative with broad appeal. Had they spent half as much time learning from Israel how to plant democracy in Middle East soil as they did demonizing the Jewish state, today the liberals might be in a better position.

The biggest Western misstep was to treat the quest for freedom as somehow separate from the contest for geopolitical mastery. In Egypt, the Obama administration was likely powerless to prevent the pro-Western Mr. Mubarak’s downfall, but the White House in the subsequent months did little to shape the outcome of the revolution. Washington favored all actors equally, as though Egypt were Luxembourg and the Muslim Brotherhood just another center-right party.

In Libya, the U.S. removed Moammar Gadhafi under a legal abstraction—the responsibility to protect—then swiftly abandoned a country with few viable institutions to its tribal furies.

In Syria, President Obama declared that Bashar Assad “must go,” and then watched impassively as the Iran-backed tyrant continued to kill and gas his own people, triggering a refugee crisis that has overwhelmed Europe.

The slaughter has continued for nearly five years. In the long term, the most perilous consequence isn’t the birth of a terror state stretching across Syria and spilling into Iraq but the destruction of U.S. credibility. The Arabs know you can’t impose order without being present and engaged in their world.

As for ordered liberty, five years after Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated, the freest Arabs still are those who are citizens of Israel. Millions fleeing other parts of the region are rendering their own judgment about the state of Arab civilization. The intellectuals and activists don’t dare imagine another uprising because they know that, given an opening, large numbers of Arabs will demand Shariah law, repression of women, and ethnic and sectarian revenge.

Perhaps that’s an unfair judgment, but it follows from a political culture that prizes honor, tribe and piety above reason and compromise. Viewed in that light, it isn’t just the years since the Arab Spring that the region has wasted, but the whole century since it was freed from the Ottoman yoke.

Mr. Ahmari is a Journal editorial writer based in London.

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