In Washington, consensus on ‘Arab spring’ failures, few solutions

One of the main reasons for the failure of the “Arab spring” was that the Arab countries suffered from divided societies.
Sunday 24/02/2019
A supporter of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stands behind the president’s portrait in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. (AFP)
Post-‘Arab spring’ politics. A supporter of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stands behind the president’s portrait in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. (AFP)

Eight years after the “Arab spring,” think-tank writers and others in the Washington policy community continue to grapple with the uprisings’ failures — with Tunisia being the exception.

One consensus that has developed is that hoped-for democratisation did not come about because authoritarian states were weak or had weak institutions. In other words, despite the perception that those states were strong because they were ruled by strong men, they were, in fact, very brittle because, with the exception of the military establishment in some cases, institutions such as legislatures, the judiciary and civil society were often appendages of the ruling regimes and not independent actors.

Another point of consensus is that “revolutionaries” — often university-educated, middle-class young people — were good at mobilisation through social media but did not understand how power works and how to create political forces that could rule the state.

The case of Egypt is often cited. Young people who rallied people to go to Tahrir Square and often out-foxed police had a disdain for parliamentary politics. They apparently believed that, by being an outside pressure group, they could keep the replacement government on a democratic path. They forgot the lesson from other revolutions that bringing down a regime requires a group to take over all levels of power.

This episode leads to the third point of consensus: in many cases, the old regimes that experienced the “Arab spring” never really went away. While several so-called strongmen were ousted, much of the apparatus under them remained. After giving lip service to the dawn of a new era, state functionaries regrouped and either restored the old order or threw their weight behind various factions in subsequent civil strife.

After these points of agreement, the consensus stops. Some analysts say one of the chief reasons for the failures — again with the exception of Tunisia — is that the states lacked a strong middle class and, as European history has shown, without the strength of the middle class, a new liberal order has little chance of succeeding.

Others challenge that assertion by noting it was not the size of the middle class that mattered but that people in this economic class were divided ideologically between Islamists and secularists. Each of these groups had fundamental differences in their outlook and the role of the state and their visions for the future could not be reconciled.

For many Islamists, long suppressed by the authoritarian state, now was their moment, and they were determined to take advantage of their organisational abilities — not just in mobilising adherents but getting them to the polls — to implement the Islamist project.

For secularists, this project was a mortal threat. If the state fell under Islamist control, the nature of society would change dramatically and personal freedoms would be curtailed.

Others point out that one of the main reasons for the failure of the “Arab spring” was that the Arab countries suffered from divided societies, not just between Islamists and secularists. They point to sectarian and ethnic conflicts and subnational loyalties. These identities were suppressed by the authoritarian regimes, or one was favoured over others, but when the lid of authoritarianism was removed, it was time to settle old scores.

The resort to violence was not surprising, some writers said, because the art of political compromise was absent. Instead, politics became not only a zero-sum game but an existential one. In Syria, Libya and Yemen — countries fragmented into armed zones — the result was terrible human suffering.

The role of the international community is also contentious. Some writers fault the United States and the European countries for not providing sufficient economic and political support for the “Arab spring” to succeed. They cite the lack of a Marshall Plan for the Arab world and note that the problems of high youth unemployment, government corruption, the breakdown of the social contract and lack of accountability — often cited as the causes of the “Arab spring” — were not ameliorated by the international community.

Other writers challenge the idea that having the Western world insert itself more heavily would have solved the region’s problems. They argue that such intervention would not have ended the conflicts between secularists and Islamists; perhaps it would have made them worse. Nor could they have diminished the economic problems in those countries without a major revamping of the government’s role in society. This can only be done by elements within the countries.

Why Tunisia succeeded — though it still has major problems — compared to other Arab countries has been the subject of different interpretations. Some writers have emphasised the relatively small size of the armed forces, others the substantial size of the middle class and still others noted the strength of the trade unions. The one consensus is that Tunisians have done a much better job of pursuing political compromise than any others in the region.

Interestingly, there seems to be consensus among Washington policy writers that, unless existing authoritarian regimes reform, another political explosion is going to happen. They give sound advice on what needs to change: creating more private sector jobs, a new social contract, a reformed educational system that emphasises independent thinking and more government accountability. The problem is how to get from point A to B and to convince the current leaders that such policies are worth pursuing.