Eight years ago, the Arab Spring brought hope about the viability of democratic governance in Muslim Arab countries. However, the popular uprisings that erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria in 2011 have produced mixed results
Eight years ago, the Arab Spring brought hope about the viability of democratic governance in Muslim Arab countries. However, the popular uprisings that erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria in 2011 have produced mixed results. Libya, Syria, and Yemen have been trapped in military conflict. Tunisia is proceeding with a slow transition to democracy.
While Egypt witnessed an initial push toward a democratic transition, with its first duly elected President, Mohamed Morsi, it ended with a military takeover following the failure of the brief Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology in Egypt, offered several reasons behind a failing Arab Spring in Egypt. “Revolutionaries agreed about the goal of removing the corrupt regime of Mubarak but failed to agree on what is next. State institutions remained in the hands of Mubarak’s regime remnants who rushed to early elections that ended with Muslim Brotherhood failure.”
He said the army was ready to take over and convinced the public that stability was the priority, not democracy.
“President al–Sisi played the same old trick; mega projects and stability to give people hope that Egypt is on the right track compared to civil wars in Libya and Syria.”
Ambassador David Mack is the former deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East. He compared the role of institutions in Arab Spring countries.
“Egypt and Tunisia had sets of considerable institutions; the problem was [that] in Egypt the military dominated all the others. A military alternative was the obvious one in the minds of many Egyptians,” said Mack. “Fortunately, in Tunisia, there were other alternatives to turning toward the military. The Tunisian military performed its part of helping the country get on its feet after the fall of Ben Ali.”
Mack says while Libya has plenty of resources, it failed miserably since the revolution of 2011 because it started with almost none of the public institutions that democracy needs. In addition, it has not been able to build them, with the country divided between warring factions.
Counterrevolution from the Gulf
Professor Sadek pointed out the role of foreign and regional powers, especially the United Arab Emirates, in supporting counterrevolutionary forces in the Arab Spring.
“Our region is notorious [for] having long-serving dictators who poured money into domestic forces inside Arab Spring countries to obstruct the transition to democracy.”
He said the failure of the Arab Spring in Syria and Yemen was the product of proxy wars that involved non-democratic powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and the UAE.
Experts agree that the Arab Spring showed that democracy promotion is not on the Western countries’ agenda for the region.
But Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, says regardless of the lack of Western support, any transition to democracy needs patience.
Democracy is not a goal in itself but it is the only way to make sure that the government is accountable to the people, but it takes time.
“Democracy is not a goal in itself but it is the only way to make sure that the government is accountable to the people, but it takes time. These problems that we inherited over 60 years are not going to be fixed in one or two years because reforms take time,” Masmoudi said.
A recent public opinion poll in Egypt and Tunisia shows that many people there are not optimistic about their countries’ futures.
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, which did the poll, noted that confidence in public institutions is quite low. He said only 26 percent of Tunisians had confidence in the police, 25 percent in the parliament, and 10 percent in the media. He said the Egyptian confidence levels were not much better, especially regarding the army.
“After the military takeover, there was an initial wave of support,” said Zogby, “but numbers have continued to go down, and the country right now is probably very decidedly divided on the question of whether the government is performing well.”
Zogby says the top priorities for Tunisians and Egyptians are job opportunities, ending corruption, and improving education and health care. Democratic transition was not a top priority.
Future of Democracy in the Arab World
Regional experts have different expectations for a slow transition to democracy in the Arab World.
Some, like Professor Sadek, believe that the Arab Spring shock convinced Arab rulers that they could no longer rule the same way as before the popular uprisings took place.
But others see a bleak future for democracy in the region. They said that the Arab Spring ended with the rise of the deep state in Egypt, the return of the old guard, represented by the Nidaa Tounes Party in Tunisia, and the emergence of the strongman model of General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. They see no future for democracy in Syria and destroyed infrastructure in Yemen that has a tribal society that will need decades to develop a culture of democracy.
However, Masmoudi at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy says one of the major successes in Tunisia was the new constitution and elections law, which prevents any party from having the majority in the parliament. Under the law, no party can have more than 40 percent of the seats in parliament.
Masmoudi says there is a move in Egypt to change its 2014 constitution to allow President Abdel Fattah al Sisi to stay beyond the current limit of two terms.
On the other hand, Masmoudi says there is a move in Egypt to change its 2014 constitution to allow President Abdel Fattah al Sisi to stay beyond the current limit of two terms. He asserts that amending the constitution in this way is a step backward, essentially repeating the past mistakes that allowed former President Hosni Mubarak to rule Egypt for 30 years, until he was forced out in the Arab Spring, and ultimately replaced by the first duly elected President, whose one-year term was terminated by a coup d’état.
While there has been some progress toward democracy in the Arab world, the results so far are a mixed bag, constitutional reform is elusive, and there is clearly a long way to go.