From Arab Spring to Arab Summer?

Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez
February 14, 2013
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.


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.


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.


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All by
Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez