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The Arab Spring’s failure in democratic transition

May 2, 2018 at 3:40 pm

People come together during the Tunisian Revolution that took place in January 2011 [Chris Belsten/Flickr]

When the Arab revolutions began in Tunisia in 2010, political scientists called them by many names, based on their backgrounds and what message they wanted to convey by the political, social and economic terminology that they coined. Some Arab activists preferred to use the term “Arab revolutions”, while the “Arab Spring” or “Arab uprisings” was used commonly in Western studies. There are also those who used “Arab awakening”, which is the title of the book written by former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher; that is certainly an expression that carries Western religious connotations from the Reformation era.

Just as scholars and historians differed in the use of the most politically descriptive term for the Arab revolutions, they also differed earlier in choosing the most appropriate or accurate description for “Arab tyranny” or “Arab authoritarianism”. Specialist Western studies use various terms, such as “authoritarian regimes”, a concept expanded by Alfred Stephen, to include the authoritarian regimes in Haiti, under the rule of Jean-Claude Duvalier, the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo, or the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos. He defines such regimes as systems, individuals and institutions that are permanently subject to being “unpredictable” and despotic, in the sense of abolishing all forms of pluralism and building an absolute individual rule. Meanwhile, Juan Linz defines authoritarian regimes in his book published in 1964 as “Political systems with limited, not responsible, political pluralism, without elaborate and guiding ideology, but with distinctive mentalities, without extensive nor intensive political mobilization, except at some points in their development, and in which a leader or occasionally a small group exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones.”

Later, in the 1990s, there were attempts to classify the authoritarian Arab regimes after the interpretive failure of the old classification, which was based on distinguishing between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. It was then that talk about so-called hybrid systems began. Such systems are those that maintain their authoritarian character but include different elements of limited political pluralism, such as pluralistic elections as a formality, both at the parliamentary and presidential level, or partisan pluralism, also as a formality, without giving absolute control to one party. We then began to distinguish amongst ourselves between competitive and non-competitive hybrid systems. We found this in the Arab world through partial openness to multiparty elections in Egypt and Yemen, for example, but they did not change the political structure of the regime.

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Then, in his book Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World, Steven Heydemann tried to analyse five features that Arab dictators introduced to try to circumvent the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most Eastern European countries were transformed into democratic political systems by means of five major features: constitutional amendments allowing partisan and electoral pluralism, giving a role, albeit a limited one, to civil society, making limited economic reforms towards a free economy, and giving bigger roles to women. Several first women, such as Suzanne Mubarak in Egypt, Asma Al-Assad in Syria and Laila Taraboulsi in Tunisia, played a role in presenting a new image of Arab women and first ladies. All of these partial changes were accompanied by a strong desire to transform authoritarian regimes into family systems through guaranteeing the inheritance of political succession by introducing constitutional amendments that allow children to inherit authority by raising them to higher political positions and giving them greater executive powers which permit them to take over the government after the death of the incumbent president.

These partial reforms delayed the Arab revolutions, but it was only a matter of time before they broke out in several Arab countries. From 2010 to 2013, the revolutions experienced a period of political confusion, such as security vacuums, economic difficulties and social protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, as well as Yemen to a certain extent. This was the search for an appropriate model. It was also represented by the failure of negotiations between the conflicting political forces to agree on the rules of the democratic political game. After 2014, we witnessed the systematic formation of the so-called counterrevolution or “deep state” with Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s rise to power in Egypt; the return of the old guard, represented by the Nidaa Tounes Party in Tunisia; the emergence of a military situation represented by Khalifa Haftar in Libya; and the fragmentation of the Gulf Cooperation Council with regards to the weight of political Islam and its role, specifically that of the Muslim Brotherhood. The revolutionary forces no longer had a plan that they could execute or social backing that would defend such a plan. The best description for this stage is the revolutionary forces’ decline and the rise of the concept of a civil war as the only option, as happened in Syria and Yemen. Meanwhile, in Egypt and Tunisia, this concept was used as a means of intimidation and fear-mongering in order to justify what was happening in the country.

Image of the Egyptian revolution that took place on 25th January 2011 [Egypt Is The Gift Of The Nile/Facebook]

Crowds come together during the Egyptian revolution that took place on 25th January 2011 [Egypt Is The Gift Of The Nile/Facebook]

After 2017, the Arab Spring turned into a full autumn, and civil war as opposed to democratic transition seemed to be the only option for the Arab revolutions. Based on this, Al-Sisi became the leader capable of restoring stability to Egypt, regardless of the humanitarian and human costs in the form of victims and political detainees. Meanwhile, in Libya, Haftar became a symbol of the complete decline and collapse of the revolutionary forces. As for Syria, Al-Assad was a blatant example of the regime forces’ rawness in killing, torture and annihilation. Militias outside the scope of the state began to emerge, such as Daesh in Syria, Iraq and Libya, Al Qaeda in Yemen and Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen.

Compared to other regions of the world, especially Eastern Europe and Latin America, five major factors played a key role in the so-called failure of the democratic transition process in the Arab countries. For start, the old regime did not help the new system to give birth. Instead, the remnants of the old regime played a major role in hindering and thwarting change. Even if such hindrance meant creating non-state militias — such as the Shabiha, Houthis, Hezbollah, Daesh and others — in order to play a role in causing confusion and leading to the failure of the transformation process. The “round table” did not appear, as was the case in Eastern Europe, which reflected the political negotiations between the conflicting forces, in order to achieve democratic transformation.

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There was also the role of the army in the transformation process. The more professional and proficient the army is, the more of a facilitating role that it plays in the democratic transformation process. This is a lesson learned from the democratic transformation in Latin America after years of military dictatorship there.

Furthermore, the size of the middle class has to be taken into consideration, along with its role. The bigger the middle class, the easier and smoother the democratic change is likely to be.


The foreign factor and international influence cannot be overlooked. The Arab Spring revealed the fact that democracy is not on the agenda of Western countries for this region, especially US foreign policy. This does not mean that it is hostile to democratic transformation in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region, but rather that it does not encourage it with sufficient resources and political influence. This is contrary to Washington’s role in pushing for democracy in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Finally, we have to contend with the complete lack of regional organisations. The EU played a key role in setting the principles and conditions for the Eastern European countries to join the European alliance, unlike the Arab League. That, ultimately, has turned out to be a useless autocratic organisation.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 1 May 2018

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.