Analysis

The Arab Spring and the failure of the fourth democratic wave

The failure of the 2011 Arab Spring to successfully challenge authoritarianism was not a product of the lack of some democratic peculiarities in the Arab world, but rather the product of several variables inflicted on the region, mentioning both the structure of Arab societies and their ruling regimes.
Published by
Central Office
on June 3, 2022
on June 3, 2022
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Cairo: Protesters gathered during the 2011 Arab Spring in Egypt demanding the overthrow of the Mubarak regime

Throughout the Arab world, the 2011 Arab Spring witnessed popular demonstrations for more human rights, end of corruption, end of patronages, better representation and social and economic justice embraced in a cross-class, non-sectarian and non-ideological social and political movement demanding a single, true ideal: change.[1] But exactly this "change" expected by everyone would become the barometer of the democratic failure of what was known as the fourth democratic wave and of course the only one so far that has entirely failed to deliver any democratic expectations.[2] [3] The post-Arab Spring was the result of an endurance of power in the region, but not a truly democratic one.[4] In the states where the regimes were "successfully" challenged (Mubarak in Egypt, respectively Ben Ali in Tunisia), the post-revolutionary moment culminated with the return of authoritarianism under another face. Where demands for regime change have culminated in maintaining the status quo (the Gulf monarchies), the state`s surveillance has increased even more, and in the less "fortunate" ones such as Syria, Libya and Yemen, the entire political, military, and civilian society imploded into a civil war.[5] The failure of the 2011 Arab Spring to successfully challenge authoritarianism in the region was not a product of the lack of some democratic peculiarities in the Arab world, but rather the product of several variables inflicted on the region, mentioning both the structure of Arab societies and their ruling regimes.[6] [7]

A successful democratization process involves a link between economic development and democracy, a democratic culture, a democratic neighbour, a free and active civil society, a free-market economy, and an elevated educational curriculum that contributes to the cultivation of constructive civic values ​​among which political participation, raising awareness of political issues and cultural progressivism and modernization.[8] Looking at the Arab world (before and after the Arab Spring), it is difficult to find any state in which at least one of these characteristics predominates. Throughout the region, economic development was modest, civil society was always suppressed, civic education was deplorable, the economy was far from being free-market-based as the state-led economic development was the regional norm, while the lack of any democratic neighbour made a "diffusion process" untappable.[9] [10] [11] 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, before as well as after the Arab Spring. The peculiarities of Arab regimes contributed to the unsuccessful challenge of authoritarianism after the 2011 uprisings.[12] For example, the institutional autonomy of the military, judiciary, and security services (the "deep state") in both Tunisia and Egypt was both a blessing of centuries-long state-building process, and a curse for those who demanded change. During uprisings, the fact that those institutions were separated from the despotic executive contributed to their non-interference against protesters, which in turn encouraged the population to protest with impunity until Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia stepped back.[13] [14] But once moderate Islamists parties (Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) won the right to form governments in a post-uprisings new political environment, the same "deep state" allied with the remnants of the old regime and secular parties opposing the new administration in order to challenge Ennahda and the Brotherhood and even depose and ban the latter from politics, put forward a new constitution favourable to the "deep state", and established a new form of authoritarianism even worse than the one it refused to rescue.[15] In the case of Libya and Yemen the fragmentation of the state along tribal lines during the uprising and the lack of a functioning government afterwards, set in motion a resurgence of terrorism and a humanitarian crisis rather than the democratic outcome expected by the people.[16] [17] As for Syria and the Gulf monarchies, the "family/sect-based apparatus" in which members of either the same family or religious sect as the ruling class were placed in important positions in key institutions, making the possibility of state institutions to confront each other (the "deep state" against the government) narrow, leading to the survival of the regime during uprisings and its consolidation in the period immediately after.[18] [19] But by doing this the ruling class `sectarianized` the post Arab Spring society as the majority population in these countries felt oppressed by a regime associated with a religious minority (Alawites in the case of Sunni-majority Syria and Sunnis in the case of Shia-majority Bahrain).[20] [21] No successful challenge to authoritarianism could flourish in an increasingly violent environment where the ruling class exploited sectarianism to cling to power.

The nature of both Arab societies and regimes contributed to the incapacity to successfully challenge authoritarianism in the region, but this failure must not be limited to these alone. The political incapacity to institutionalize the very nature of the social and political movement in order to maximize the gains made during the protests, can easily be found as a reason for the democratic failure.[22] During uprisings, ideologically rival parties, such as Islamists, secularists, nationalists, and leftists put an end to their differences and joined ranks. All those managed to minimize their differences when a common goal was set in motion, but once the autocratic rulers were overthrown, the once united front started to struggle from the inside over the distribution of power and the identity of the post-authoritarian state.[23] The example of Egypt is striking here as the distrust between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and other political factions (liberals, nationalists, and secularists) led to fear and paranoia among the Islamists and their refusal to share power in a post-Mubarak new administration. The political crisis (combined with an economic malaise) led to a return of the people on the streets followed by a military intervention and the installation of an authoritarian regime favourable to the "deep state", with the secular and liberal political forces found either unprepared or unorganized to gain momentum.[24] The return of the "deep state" to the detriment of other political representatives, was caused by the tactics applied by the latter in the fight against the elements of the past. All those demanding change have led a `direct confrontation` with the old order to the detriment of a `gradual confrontation` in which the forces of change meticulously would have tried to infiltrate over time within the institutions and other structures of the state. Once the direct confrontation was set in motion (the Arab Spring), the old guard would have found itself in a more difficult position to regroup with the help of state institutions it expected to dominate once the elements of the new order have reduced that dominance over the years.[25] Secondly, it was the civil failure to institutionalize the differences found within a diversified protest movement. The leaderlessness, organizationless and spontaneity of the social and political movement was ideal in the way that it was immune to any regime counteractions, but, at the same time, the perfect recipe for political failure in the absence of hierarchy, leaders, internal organization, and a clear long-run political agenda to provide a truly democratic answer after "successfully" challenged authoritarianism.[26]

 

[1] Fawaz A Gerges, The Arab Spring popular uprisings – myth and reality, Open Democracy, 27 March 2014 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/arab-spring-popular-uprisings-myth-and-reality/.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Valentine Moghadam, (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. doi:10.1017/9781108555357.002., p. 38.

[4] Ibidem, p. 32.

[5] James, L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East – A History-, Oxford University Press, Fifth edition, 2020, pp. 342-345.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Valentine Moghadam, (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. doi:10.1017/9781108555357.002., pp. 29-30.

[8] Ibidem.

[9] James, L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East – A History-, Oxford University Press, Fifth edition, 2020, pp. 275-276.

[10] Valentine Moghadam, (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. doi:10.1017/9781108555357.002., p. 32.

[11] Eva Bellin (2012), Reconsidering the robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East: lessons from the Arab Spring, Comparative Politics, 44:2, pp. 137-138.

[12] James, L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East – A History-, Oxford University Press, Fifth edition, 2020, pp. 342-345.

[13] Ibidem.

[14] Eva Bellin (2012), Reconsidering the robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East: lessons from the Arab Spring, Comparative Politics, 44:2, p. 137.

[15] James, L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East – A History-, Oxford University Press, Fifth edition, 2020, p. 342.

[16] Ibidem, pp. 342-343.

[17] Eva Bellin (2012), Reconsidering the robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East: lessons from the Arab Spring, Comparative Politics, 44:2, p. 134.

[18] James, L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East – A History-, Oxford University Press, Fifth edition, 2020, p. 344.

[19] Eva Bellin (2012), Reconsidering the robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East: lessons from the Arab Spring, Comparative Politics, 44:2, pp. 134-135.

[20] James, L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East – A History-, Oxford University Press, Fifth edition, 2020, pp. 344-345.

[21] Eva Bellin (2012), Reconsidering the robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East: lessons from the Arab Spring, Comparative Politics, 44:2, p. 133.

[22] Fawaz A Gerges, The Arab Spring popular uprisings – myth and reality, Open Democracy, 27 March 2014 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/arab-spring-popular-uprisings-myth-and-reality/.

[23] Fawaz A Gerges, The Arab Spring popular uprisings – myth and reality, Open Democracy, 27 March 2014 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/arab-spring-popular-uprisings-myth-and-reality/.

[24] James, L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East – A History-, Oxford University Press, Fifth edition, 2020, p. 342.

[25] Ibidem, p. 346.

[26] Ibidem.

 

Bibliography:

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

Gelvin, L. James, The Modern Middle East, Oxford University Press, Fifth Edition, 2020.

Gerges, A. Fawaz, The Arab Spring popular uprisings – myth and reality, Open Democracy, 27 March 2014 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/arab-spring-popular-uprisings-myth-and-reality/.

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 (pp. 26-54). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108555357.002.

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