In every single country where Arab citizens have revolted against their regime, the main demand is for constitutional changes that protect the rights of individuals. Arab democratization will need time to succeed. It will take at least a decade to show if the change now under way is irreversible – as I believe it is.
— Rami Khouri.
In late 2010 and early 2011 popular protests in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which began as expressions of frustration over economic conditions, became social and political movements whose focus was on individual rights. In various countries, the ‘Arab Spring’ brought together Arabs who had long felt disenfranchised and wanted not only resolution to their immediate economic woes, but also, and more importantly, a government that recognised their right to fulfil their own destiny with dignity. Although such protests had occurred many times before in recent years, this time they reached a tipping point, their organisation facilitated and their message amplified by the Internet and its social media. This allowed protesters to discover commonalities with (and acquire information, momentum, tactics and slogans from) demonstrators in other countries, even though in each country the conditions and forces at work were different. Even more varied could be the outcomes in the short term. Nevertheless, I believe the secular character of the protests, focused on the rights of the individual, and the simultaneous increase in individual power brought about by the greater availability of information in the Internet Age, will ensure in the long term a transition in the MENA region towards greater human rights protection and democracy. This will not necessarily happen anytime soon, and when it does happen, it will likely not be in a form similar to Western democracy. But it will happen.
VOLATILITY AND VARIABILITY IN THE SHORT TERM
It is rarely easy to predict the future, particularly in the MENA region, and in the case of the Arab Spring this is especially true, as new political forces come into decision-making roles and new power dynamics emerge domestically and internationally. Much uncertainty remains about the political systems that will arise in each country in which there were protests. This is inherent in any transition from dictatorship to democracy; there are more possible types of democracy than there are possible types of dictatorship, because respecting the voices of many creates more options than submitting to the voice of one. And of course, all the options in the spectrum between democracy and dictatorship are also feasible. In fact, they would be in line with previous experience: Many regimes in the region were ‘liberalized autocracies’ (or ‘illiberal democracies’), characterised by a nominal political openness that had made them sufficiently palatable to Western governments, even though this façade of ‘openness’ was just another tool to retain power. Regardless of the degree of democracy that takes hold, different groups will come to exert influence over each new government. Crucially, any transition will occur in a context of high regional unemployment and economic shocks, which may overwhelm and challenge the legitimacy of any new government that arises, with the possible consequence of reversing the democratic gains of the protests and allowing other forces to hijack the Arab Spring amidst the pervasive economic discontent. Additional volatility can come from the responses of MENA governments that have managed to hold onto power but will never be the same. Moreover, all these changes will occur not in a vacuum but in an important geostrategic area, so there is a great deal of possible diversity in the responses of external powers. Altogether, the possible results are manifold, and threats from extremists abound.
In places like Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, the shift towards more inclusion and representation could lead to democratic institutions and freedoms (similar to those in the West), or to an Islamist takeover of power that may result in a curtailment of some of these freedoms. In Tunisia, there has already been criticism of the Islamist an-Nahda party now in power for overreaches in authority, for example with regards to the Tunisian media; the rise of fundamentalist Salafists as a political group has also raised concerns. Most recently, the assassination of Tunisian opposition politician Chokri Belaid has led to a political crisis that once again shows the fragility of Tunisia’s new democracy. In Egypt, the proliferation of parties that span the political spectrum (from Islamist to secular liberal) is a sign that a strong public sphere may exist, but violent clashes on Egyptian streets in recent months between Islamists and secularists belie an image of pluralistic stability. In Libya, the future rests on how exactly new state institutions are created from scratch, making anything between full autocracy and full democracy still possible – not to mention the possibility of Libya’s splitting into two different states. Moreover, the death in September 2012 of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya has again raised the concern that violent extremist forces affiliated with Al Qaeda are operating there outside the control of the nascent Libyan government structure. The same could happen in Syria after the end of the civil war, on top of all the horror that is likely to continue until al-Assad’s departure, including thousands of deaths, a refugee crisis in neighbouring countries and economic disruptions in the region. Western military and rhetorical support in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts, respectively, may contribute to the establishment of slightly more Western-friendly governments there, but not necessarily.
Moreover, the Arab Spring can have different effects in countries where the government was not overthrown. In the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, for example, presiding rulers can respond to the Arab Spring by either continuing or reversing their recent mild political reform efforts. And the 2011 protests that were successful in some countries may yet inspire other protesters in the MENA region and possibly promise more political upheavals in places like Morocco, Algeria, the Arabian Peninsula, or even in Iran, where the 2009 protests had many parallels with the Arab Spring protests.
Throughout the region, an economic crisis that includes widespread unemployment continues, and while some would say the Arab Spring may in some places have resolved political problems, the economic problems that were the starting point for the process painfully remain, and may not easily be resolved by governments across the region. This means that economic grievances could be both the starting point for the revolution, and the reason it ultimately fails in the short term. Indeed, it is even possible that meaningful changes towards greater democracy and human rights protection will occur first in countries where the government was not overthrown – where monarchs gradually introduce change – rather than in the revolution countries, where drastic short-term changes could lead to violent political and economic instability and a popular disenchantment with democracy that could last decades.
On top of the myriad potential responses to the Arab Spring from actors within the region, with possible widespread breaches of human rights and continuing conflict in the short term (which may last decades), the likely responses of actors outside the region are also not self-evident. Crucially, there is the inevitable variability in the possible interactions of the MENA region with the West. The United States has been criticised for supporting secular-minded dictators in the region to avoid Islamist governments that might threaten U.S. security interests, and indeed the United States still has security interests tied to the existence of strong MENA states with powerful domestic counter-terrorism tools. At the same time, the United States has a moral commitment to human rights and democracy and risks broadcasting a hypocritical stance if its interests are seemingly not in line with its values. The same is true of the European Union and other Western nations. Eastern countries such as Russia and China have criticised and attempted to block Western attempts to influence events in the MENA region on grounds of state sovereignty. This has sometimes been regarded as an excuse to defend governments with similarly tarnished credentials on democracy and human rights, or governments with dictators that held personal friendships with the leaders of Russia and China, such as those in Iran, Syria, or Libya. But the stances of countries like Russia and China may change as MENA dictators are replaced by democratically-elected representatives.
One obvious example that highlights what is at stake is the possibility of the Arab Spring undermining the Egyptian peace (and the Syrian détente) with Israel. A scenario where an internal security breakdown in Egypt allows extremist groups to engage Israel militarily has predictably concerned Israelis. So far, the Muslim Brotherhood Presidency of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt has helped to resolve some Hamas militants’ clashes with Israel in Gaza, and Egypt is financially encouraged by the United States each year to maintain its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Still, the situations in Egypt and (especially) Syria remain quite volatile, and from the perspective of the State of Israel, in its state of constant danger, any uncertainty is usually bad news. Not to mention the possible energising of anti-Israeli Islamists in other MENA countries.
DEMOCRACY AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE LONG TERM
Despite all this potential volatility, democrats and human rights advocates have reasons for optimism in the long run. First, the Arab Spring was not driven by Islamist forces. Contrary to what had been assumed by many Western observers, radical Islamists took little part in the demonstrations. Still, Islamist political movements are quite popular and have long been well organised in Arab countries, so they will be an inevitable part of the post-Arab Spring political order. This is why their promise to abide by pluralism as a fundamental principle is significant. In Tunisia, an-Nahda’s second-in-command, Abdelfatah Mourou, said in an Al-Jazeera interview in March 2011 that “the people may have different feelings… the only parties that will win will be those chosen by the people” and acknowledged the Tunisian people (not Islam or Muslims) as the central category of the Tunisian polity. In Egypt, although Muslim Brothers joined the protests, the Muslim Brotherhood as an organisation was not a driving force of the revolution. In Libya, representatives from the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group have said “there is nothing to fear. We are not al-Qaeda… We want a civil state that respects the law and rights… We will give back our weapons; we are not here to establish a Taliban-like regime through a coup d’etat.” This suggests the Arab world need not be an exception to the proposition that human rights and democracy can flourish anywhere.
Many have argued that it is the inclusion (rather than the exclusion) of the extreme (but still peaceful) Islamists in the political discussion that will ensure peace and progress: “The problem with political Islam, in Tunisia and elsewhere, is not that it is too political, but that it is not political enough […] What matters is to establish solid institutions that safeguard the possibility of robust public debate.” This would also force an internal debate within Islamist organisations, which are quite heterogeneous, including postures that span the spectrum from an extreme totalitarian Islamic ‘globalism’ to a more tolerant ‘live and let live’ philosophy. Indeed, in a more open forum where citizens’ voices and votes are respected, any Islamist groups seeking power will be forced to provide not only convincing rhetoric that matches the secular spirit and aspirations of the revolts, but also platforms with meaningful solutions. In addition, if elected, they will (for the first time in decades) be accountable to an electorate evaluating them on the basis of their work.
In addition to the secular nature of the protests, another lesson from the uprisings is that the mobilisation of people through the Internet works, and will continue to work. The Arab Spring, like previous movements for political freedom, relied on the expansion of information available to the general public. This greater availability of information, which for generations has been a force for democracy and the empowerment of the individual, has undergone a quantum leap with the arrival of the Internet, and will only increase in the future. In the words of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, “with information comes power, and with power comes choice. Smarter, resourceful citizens will demand a much better deal for their communities.” The Internet-savvy youth of the Arab Spring countries will not easily forget the power that came with information. This will also provide a role for democratic and rights-oriented individuals, organisations, and governments around the world, facing an observant audience, to lead by example in safeguarding the development of human rights and democracy in the region. The technology that facilitated the Arab Spring will not go away; instead, it will also flourish and bring new people and ideas into the public debate.
Finally, an important consequence of any youth-led movement is that it will remain part of the national consciousness for decades to come, as these youths grow into adulthood and middle age with the memories of the principles they fought for. Their new understanding of basic rights and technology is likely to endure. The youths who went out onto the streets to protest or who fought a civil war against injustice and indignity will continue to demand their rights, and later their children will also honour the struggle of their parents. Rather than holding decolonisation as the ultimate goal of revolutionary struggles and political activity, as the generation that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s had done, the current generation and the future one will believe in dignity and respect for every citizen.
The call for basic rights and the spread of technology are by their very nature self-sustaining and self-perpetuating phenomena. The recognition of basic rights such as freedom of expression and of assembly allows people to demand effectively a more inclusive definition of basic rights, and the right to vote allows them to make these rights into law. Similarly, the spread of technology facilitates the development and dissemination of further technologies by providing more advanced inputs and processes and by creating a culture of innovation. These phenomena – the focus on basic rights and the use of technology – which were critical to the success of the Arab Spring revolutions, are thus likely to expand in future decades.
Islam and democracy are not incompatible, as many theorists have argued, and as the experiences of countries such as Turkey have shown. But democracy is bound to be different in different Islamic countries. The key is that forthcoming changes in the transitioning countries occur in accordance with basic human rights, through the ballot box and an open process of public debate. Having experienced the Arab Spring, individuals in the Arab world have taken note of just how powerful the voices of the people can be when demanding basic rights that are not religiously or politically-based, but inherent to all humans. This rights-based dynamic and its consequent culture of cooperation and negotiation will serve not only to resolve domestic issues in these countries, but may in the long run also help resolve international disputes in the region. In the Western world, the eventual separation of Church and state and the establishment of present-day democracy and respect for human rights took centuries of conflict and bloodshed between different states and between different branches of Christianity, with setbacks and advances along the way. It is unreasonable to expect that in any region (particularly in one as unpredictable and geopolitically and religiously complex as the Middle East and North Africa) change will happen in a linear fashion, without obstacles. These challenges (and new difficulties that will arise) may delay temporarily, or even for decades, the development of truly democratic governments that respect above all the rights of individuals. Still, the Arab Spring will eventually have been a movement in the direction of greater democracy and the protection of human rights in the region.
Brumberg, D. (2002) ‘the Trap Of Liberalized Autocracy,’ Journal Of Democracy, Vol 13 (4). Pp.56-58.
Filiu, J. (2011) The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons From The Democratic Uprising, Oxford University Press.
Joffé, G. (2011) ‘the Arab Spring In North Africa: Origins And Prospects’ The Journal Of North African Studies; Vol 16 (4), Dec. Pp.507-532.
Khouri, R. (2011) ‘the Long Revolt’, The Wilson Quarterly, Summer.
Marzouki, N. (2011) ‘from People To Citizens In Tunisia’, Mer, Vol 41, Summer.
Schmidt, E. (2012) National Press Foundation’s 29th Annual Awards Dinner, March 7, 2012.
Tavana, D. (2011) ‘party Proliferation And Electoral Transition In Post-mubarak Egypt’, The Journal Of North African Studies, Vol 16 (4), Dec.; Pp.555-572.
Zakaria, F. (1997) ‘the Rise Of Illiberal Democracy’, Foreign Affairs, 76, 6; Pp.22-43