Morning Brief

In the Arab Spring, the will of the people was the only asset for change

How the structure of society and the region, as well as the inappropriate influence of external factors played the biggest role in the failure of the democratic wave.
Published by
Central Office
on July 10, 2022
on July 10, 2022
Image Source:
Image Description:
Protester during the Egyptian Arab Spring (2011, Tahrir Square, Cairo)

The resistance of the Arab world to the waves of democratization and the preservation of authoritarianism as the only feature of the social contract between the ruling class and the people is not because of a lack of democratic prerequisites in an environment considered "infertile" to their flowering, but rather due to the structural nature of the Arab societies that now demand change (Bellin, 2012, p. 128). The process of democratization is facile in a society with a democratic culture given by a democratic past, democratic neighbours, a role for a bourgeoisie in the transition from autocracy to democracy, and a free market economy without state intervention (Moghadam, 2021, p. 29). These were completely absent in the Arab world where civil society was always suppressed (political activists arrested and public gatherings forbidden), there was no space for the role of the bourgeoisie in the transition process because of the military and the Islamists filling in, the economy is far from being market-based when the state-led economic development was the regional norm as part of the Middle East`s `developmentalist ethos`, while the lack of any democratic neighbour made the "diffusion process" untappable (Bellin, 2012, p. 138) (Moghadam, 2021, pp. 31-32) (Gerges, 2014) (Gelvin, 2020, pp. 275-276). Moreover, these peculiarities led to the preservation of authoritarianism in the Arab world, which contributed to the lack of a democratic culture which in turn led to the inhibition of the democratization process. This vicious circle has contributed to autocratic endurance in the region. When it comes to the nature of the regimes, the status quo has for years been empowered by the existence of a strong coercive apparatus (Bellin, 2012, pp. 128-129). The existence of this apparatus which in the most `delicate` moments for the regime is limited to the military as the guarantor of last resort, has been an inhibitor for the expression of the decades-old grievances among the population, especially when the people were not aware of the truly intentions of the military (Bellin, 2012, pp. 128-135). In those countries where the military did not intervene and "sacrificed" the regimes (Tunisia, Egypt) for keeping its institutional (not patrimonial) mandate clean, local and international voices may claim that "authoritarianism" ended with the Arab Spring (Bellin, 2012, pp. 128-135). But of course, this was a dogmatic myth as the Arab Spring never truly ended but signalled the return of contentious politics (Gerges, 2014).

The Arab Spring represented a return to the pan-Arabism of the end of the First World War when the ideologically diverse forces of society united in a cross-class manifestation with a common purpose (Arab emancipation), and against the same enemy (once foreign intruders, now indigenous authoritarian despots) (Gerges, 2014). Ideologically rival groups, such as Islamists, secularists, nationalists, leftists, and socially different classes, such as both urban and rural workers, put an end to their differences and joined ranks (Gerges, 2014). All those managed to minimize their differences when a common goal was set in motion, but once the autocratic rulers (Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Saleh) were overthrown, the once united front started to struggle from the inside (between religious conservatives and liberals) over the distribution of power and the identity of the post-authoritarian state (Gerges, 2014). Therefore, what have been expected to be "free and liberal" states became the theatre of new inter-ethnic, inter-religious and inter-ideologies civil wars (Gerges, 2014). Solidarity have been replaced by decades-old political mistrust and the traditional struggle of the 50s-60s between Islamists and Nationalists re-emerged in a post-Arab Spring new cultural war (Gerges, 2014). Moreover, the fact that the above-mentioned coercive apparatus split along ethnic (Syria, Yemen) and tribal lines (Libya) during the protests, worsened the situation on the ground (Gerges, 2014) (Bellin, 2012, pp. 133-135).

The overthrow of a despotic regime and its replacement with another form of authoritarianism brought into question the one way to break this vicious circle and implicitly two external factors to blame for such a lack of democratic transitions. On the one hand, all Arab countries are to be found in an undemocratic neighbourhood which makes a pro-democracy exogenous variable of the neighbourhood effect impossible in practice (Moghadam, 2021, p. 32). On the other hand, there is a lack of a pro-democracy super-power (the US, the EU, or both) to act in an non-intrusive and non-exogenous-influenced, but only locally-assisting, way to contribute to the making of a local democracy based on empowering endogenous factors like an internal socioeconomic development rather than external-set agenda, in order to assist the transit towards a truly democratic and liberal society in one post-Arab state (Moghadam, 2021, p. 31) (Moghadam, 2021, p. 35). Once a truly liberal and democratic country emerges from the Arab Spring, the power of contagion/diffusion will set in motion throughout the region as the populations will have a transnational `analogic thinking` based on their sense of commonality (shared history, culture, and institutions) (Bellin, 2012, pp. 140-141). Therefore, the proximity to a truly democratic neighbour will have such a regional effect that there will be no need for the US or the EU in instance to engage in acting in other post-Arab Spring societies, being only spectators to what will be a "democratic spillover" throughout the Arab world.



Moghadam, V. (2021), Pathways to Democratization: The Arab Spring in Comparative Perspective. In After the Arab Uprisings: Progress and Stagnation in the Middle East and North Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gerges, F.A. (2014), The Arab Spring popular uprisings – myth and reality. Open Democracy.

Bellin, E. (2012), Reconsidering the robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East: lessons from the Arab Spring. Comparative Politics 44:2.

Gelvin, L. James (2020), The Modern Middle East, Oxford University Press (Fifth edition).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Short description


© Copyright 2021 |