The failure of the Arab Spring

The failure of the Arab Spring
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More than eight years ago, millions of Arab citizens tuned to Al-Jazeera as it delivered round-the-clock coverage of the “Arab Spring” revolutions. For the first time, it seemed, people were taking charge of their own destiny, with no demagogues in command and no foreign interference.

The images of relentless demonstrations and entrenched autocrats being ejected one by one were gripping, as was the bewildering speed of events. The questions of who would replace them or what kind of political system would be put in place didn’t seem pertinent at the moment.

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Eight years later, it is tragic to see how little has been gained despite all the efforts and sacrifices for dignity and justice. Except for Tunisia, Arab autocrats from Morocco to Bahrain adjusted their seats, rolled back the few concessions they were forced to make and resorted to business as usual.

The failure of the Arab Spring is not just a story about frustrated aspirations or authoritarian survival. The deeply troubling story here is the region’s weak support for modern democracy beyond the promise of majority rule and social justice. Only weeks after the overthrow of the dictators, the creative artistic energy, progressive principles and forward-looking cultural ethos that animated young men and women in Tunis, Cairo and Sanaa were already forgotten.

Almost in all countries, the political process culminated in power jockeying among the same political contenders: kings with medieval divine rights, new military-backed strongmen, senior state technocrats and profoundly retrograde Islamist leaders.

In hindsight, the democratic ideals of the Arab Spring never stood a chance. Apart from a narrow circle of activists, demands for civil rights, individual liberties and fundamental freedoms didn’t have a popular base, and none of the major political actors felt compelled to embrace them.

The Arab people’s focus on the social benefits and majoritarian component of democracy is not surprising. Much of the region’s social ills -- such as poverty, inequality and high unemployment -- have to do with the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of tight knit elites whose decisions serve their narrow interests at the expense of the majority.

The most passionate lament of the Arab Spring was nepotism, and the primary demand of protestors was the decoupling of political and economic power. However, such a minimalist understanding of democracy can be a trap. One of its pernicious consequences is what my colleague, Stephen King, and I call “the lure of authoritarianism.”

This simply means that the instrumentalist use of democracy to solve social problems can easily give way to authoritarian adoration. It leads to the election of autocrats who promise meager material goods wrapped in conservative social and cultural clichés. In a context, where there is no free press, independent judiciary or robust civil society, this outcome is devastating for fundamental democratic rights.

Our surveys of the political evolution of five North African nations after the Arab Spring find the lure of authoritarianism to be driven by three main considerations.

The first is the quest for security and stability. The collapse of state authorities and ensuing civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen have given wind to the autocrats’ old claim that only they can preserve law and order in the region.

A second important finding is that the region’s economic and demographic dynamics will continue to elevate the satisfaction of immediate social needs over individual freedoms or minority rights.

Finally, the strong grip of conservative social and religious norms on society frustrates any serious attempt to find a progressive path. This problem is most notorious in debates on gender relations, religious issues and freedom of expression.

The exception to these three broad patterns is Tunisia, where the authoritarian temptation is for the moment held in check by a more robust secular civil society.

The Trump administration’s policy of embracing Middle East autocrats is obviously not helpful. The president’s hard-headed support of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, despite strong evidence connecting him to the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, emboldens dictators. And Secretary of State Pompeo’s tribute this month to Egypt’s new dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, flattens the hope of democracy advocates.

“Governments that protect (democratic) rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure” warned President Obama in his 2009 Cairo address. That was less than two years before the popular uprisings shook the Arab world. These words carry greater meaning and urgency today.

Abdeslam E. M. Maghraoui is associate professor of the practice of political science at Duke University. He is coauthor with Stephen King of the forthcoming book, “The Lure of Authoritarianism: The Maghreb After the Arab Spring.”