Tahrir Square in the early morning, November 2012, photo by Frank Schulenburg / Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

Ten Years of Arab Spring: Challenging Some Autocratic Myths

Ten years ago, Tahrir Square in the center of the metropolis of Cairo became a symbolic place of liberation from despotism. Mass rallies and demonstrations led to the fall of President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country autocratically for almost thirty years. At the time, many people believed in a sweeping democratic awakening in the Arab world, but this hope has been dashed. With civil wars and displacement in Libya, Syria and Yemen, militant Islamism and severe social polarization, and greater repression and human rights abuses in more Arab countries than ever before, the prospect of good democratic governance has become much dimmer.

Given this devastating preliminary record, it is understandable to ask whether too rapid a political liberalization has not ultimately had a destabilizing effect on societies that were not yet prepared for comprehensive democratization. Such a question can rightly point to the need for incremental change and the formation of normative consensus before opening up political competition. However, it also corresponds to three successive premises that underpin the repressive regimes’ rulership discourse.

• It was the political opening that paved the way for societal centrifugal forces, not the prior blocking of pluralism and consensus building.

• Therefore, social backwardness must first be overcome prior to liberalization. This entails the exclusion of political Islam.

• These modernization successes are most likely to be achieved under authoritarian regimes. They guarantee the necessary stability and efficient governance.

According to such a narrative, the Arab Spring is a regrettable and misguided, but now closed chapter in history. In contrast, this article views the Arab Spring as merely a particularly prominent manifestation of the ongoing quest for freedom, economic development and social justice, and, questioning the premises above, argues that this chapter is still being written.

The Arab Spring Beyond the Seasons

The demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other key locations in Arab metropolises were not a sudden, abrupt outburst of political will in otherwise consolidated autocratic structures. As can be seen from the time series of the Transformation Index BTI, they were preceded by a history of broken reform promises.

The peak of a tentative political opening in the Middle East and North Africa was already reached in the late 2000s, not in 2012 or 2013. The regional average for the status of political transformation in the BTI 2010 was 4.21 points on a scale of ten. Compared with other world regions, this was an extremely low average, but within the region, there appeared to be signs of stabilization in Iraq, as well as political liberalization at varying levels in Kuwait, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

These limited political liberalizations of the 2000s – from the Damascus Spring in Syria and the interfaith opening in Bahrain to the prospect of freer elections in Egypt and human rights hearings in Morocco – were not conceded benignly by those in power, but were the product of protracted battles by reformers.  A large number of these reform promises were then broken toward the end of the penultimate decade, culminating in the massively rigged Egyptian parliamentary elections of November 2010. It is precisely this disappointment with their governments’ inability to reform that provided the backdrop for the mass protests of the Arab Spring in early 2011.

At the peak of the liberalizing effects of the Arab Spring in early 2013 – with free elections in Libya, a more open system in Egypt and the democratization push in Tunisia –, the regional political transformation score was only 4.14 points, due to the onset of civil wars and stronger repression. Stateness and the rule of law had reached modest highs in 2009, while political participation rights showed their highest level after the Arab Spring in 2013.

Today’s outcome is sobering, with the lowest political transformation score of 3.60 points. Whereas at the end of 2010 all the Arab states still exhibited moderate to strong stateness, the BTI 2020 currently counts three failing states – Libya, Syria and Yemen – with ruthlessly waged, devastating civil wars and the displacement of a significant part of the populations. No other region of the world is as unstable and politically explosive. And while many people in Arab countries had at least some degree of political participation rights in the late 2000s, the BTI 2020 shows a dismal peak of harsh, highly repressive autocracies (13 of 19 countries surveyed in the BTI), where participation is strictly limited and the rule of law is completely undermined. No other region of the world is, as BTI regional coordinator Jan Völkel noted, so “firmly in the hard grip of autocrats.”

On regional average, all 17 criteria examined by the Transformation Index have reached a low point, without exception. The last ten years of political and economic transformation in the Arab world have seen some dramatic deteriorations: more repression, more corruption, more social exclusion, more inequality, more incompetence and cronyism. All from the lowest level. The threefold call for bread, freedom and social justice not only went unheard in many places, but most Arab people are even worse off than before.

This consideration of a longer timeline of regional developments is important because it relieves the protests and demonstrations of the Arab Spring of their supposed singularity. It reminds us that there was and is a continuous and persistent push by Arab civil societies to achieve a political opening.

Since then, many authoritarian governments have once again succeeded in suppressing social protest against the lack of political, economic and social prospects by means of sharply increasing repression. To attribute the deterioration of living conditions, however, to a supposedly premature or too rapid attempt at political opening, rather than to the current authoritarian rulers, is a particularly brazen attempt to distort history.

The Arab Spring Beyond the Dogmas

Democratic opening and Islamist social movements are closely coupled. On the one hand, there are hardly any secular democratic parties of any significance in the region; on the other hand, Islamist organizations are most closely intertwined with civil society and have demonstrated their social anchoring with a large number of social projects, advocacy groups and grassroots initiatives.

However, the democratic Islamist experiment has been fundamentally discredited or has brought itself into disrepute in many places in recent years. Democratically elected in June 2012, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party ruled in his one year in office, which was ended by a military coup, as many of his secular opponents had feared: not inclusively, but majoritanistically. The new constitution, drafted under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood, was in key respects illiberal, and when institutional, media and political opposition to his administration became too great, he tried briefly and unsuccessfully to rule by decree in the winter of 2012. The incompetence of his government, its authoritarian tendencies and the chaotic domestic political climate of a suddenly free political discourse were often used as evidence to warn against Islamist participation in government. Soon thereafter, however, it was rightly stated that while Morsi was no Mandela, he was also no autocrat, in contrast to the brutal military regime that still holds Egypt in its iron grip today.

The greatest disappointment from democratic Islamism took place outside the Arab world. To be sure, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initially made a significant contribution to Turkey's democratization. However, declining approval ratings, a lack of consensus-building, and ultimately a failed military coup prompted Erdoğan to rule in an increasingly majoritanistic and subsequently autocratic manner and also to pursue re-Islamization in society. In this way, the AKP confirmed the long-held suspicion that Turkish Islamists were only adhering to pragmatic democratic rules of the game as long as it was politically opportune, but were in fact pursuing dogmatic, religiously driven ambitions and would also enforce them against minorities.

The ideological balancing act of combining religious dogmatism with democratic pragmatism characterizes all Islamist parties. In times of societal polarization, deliberate exclusion or intra-party competition, there is also a temptation to be resolutely true to one's line rather than conciliatory. All the more impressive is the political behavior of Tunisia's Ennahda party, which, as the strongest party in the Constituent Assembly, was willing to compromise and withdrew two heavily contested key points from their agenda: the anchoring of the constitution in sharia law and the punishability of blasphemy. Ennahda emphasizes that it wants to operate as a Muslim democratic party patterned after Christian democrats and has so far been successful in preventing further polarization of the country between seculars and Islamists. However, such a moderate stance tends to be the exception among Islamist parties and highlights the need for a fundamental democratization of political Islam in the region to overcome societal polarization that threatens any political opening.

However, this also requires integrative partners who are willing to cooperate. In Tunisia, these are primarily the civil society guarantors of consensus-building, the unions, business associations and human rights groups. The BTI gives high marks to key elements of Tunisian consensus-building, such as the number of interest groups and their willingness to cooperate, the acceptance of democratic institutions and civil society participation in political decision-making processes.

The Tunisian example proves that the undemocratic exclusion of a substantial part of the population is not the inevitable price to pay for a venture into modernity. Integration or exclusion is a political choice, ostracization not a necessity. In contrast, the regimes in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt see their repressive course against Islamists not as a governance deficit in the sense of insufficient consensus-building and poor conflict management, but as an important building block for modernizing their societies.

The Arab Spring Beyond Authoritarian Promises of Modernity

The authoritarian rulers of the Middle East and North Africa have always claimed to be guiding their societies toward modernity. The presidential regimes, in particular, have done so in determined opposition to traditionalist political Islam. Ten years ago, however, as Tarek Masoud recently pointed out in a remarkable article in the Journal of Democracy, the democrats had a monopoly on grand social designs, while the autocrats merely offered subsidies and stability to preserve the status quo. Today, however, presidential, military and monarchical dictators, with the help of Western advisers and a plethora of vision papers, style themselves as the pathfinders to "dynamic economies, efficient bureaucracies, and modern societies" and are increasingly appealing in the face of slow-moving social change, numerous political setbacks, and a lack of economic prospects in many places. In particular, regimes in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt proclaim to combine economic efficiency with overcoming traditional patterns of behavior. To this end, they promise to replace state alimentation systems with increased economic participation by citizens and to install tighter anti-corruption policies, as well as to expand educational efforts and take measures to promote equal rights for women.

According to BTI data, however, there are hardly any major successes in the area of resource efficiency that can be classified along regime types and would speak for modernity and progress. The UAE, however, occupies an exceptional position, having succeeded impressively in recent years in pursuing a long-term strategy of successful economic diversification and - from a high starting level - combining even more efficient use of resources and even better policy coordination with a continuing good anti-corruption policy. At a significantly lower level, Saudi Arabia was also able to improve its governance in the fight against corruption and in the effective use of resources. Otherwise, however, numerous states that justify closed political systems with a necessary modernization course also lost ground in this area of governance quality, particularly Bahrain and Oman, but also Egypt and Jordan.

In a very similar way, this applies to economic and social progress. The number of countries with low socioeconomic levels, poor welfare state systems and a lack of equal opportunities has risen sharply not only because of the catastrophic conditions in the civil war countries of Libya, Syria and Yemen, but also because of declining trends in Bahrain and Oman, while most countries have stagnated at a low level or a few Gulf states and above all the UAE have maintained their relatively high level. Economic performance fell by two points within ten years in the two democracies of Lebanon and Tunisia, a clear slump, but this is also the case in Bahrain (-2), Jordan and Oman (-3 each), and also Egypt and Saudi Arabia (-1 each) are characterized by weak economic dynamics. This can no longer be blamed on the social and economic upheavals of the Arab Spring, but on inadequate economic and social policies in almost all countries except Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE.

In this respect, these regimes are probably less threatened by the danger of a "modernization trap" of having pursued economic and social progress so successfully under authoritarian leadership that more mature citizens are now also pushing for political liberalization. Rather, it is not clear how authoritarian regimes intend to resolve the contradictions of allowing themselves to be legitimized religiously on the one hand, but fighting political Islam on the other, modernizing economically on the one hand, but wanting to maintain their clientelist system on the other. It is much more likely that their own inconsistency substantially impairs the proclaimed progress and robs them of their output legitimacy. The promise of modernity in autocracies is thus a transparent rulership narrative, not a progressive project.


Thus, it is quite conceivable that instead the reform-oriented parts of civil societies will not only be able to set the future agenda for their countries, but also to push it through. In conclusion, I would like to point to four particularly hopeful cases that remind us that the next chapter of the Arab Spring is currently being written:

Lebanon, the second Arab democracy after Tunisia, is led by an inefficient and corrupt political caste that divides up the state's resources along ethno-religious lines as "spoils of war," as Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, recently pointed out at a Bertelsmann Stiftung discussion. At the same time, however, a civil society-based, cross-sectarian protest movement has gained massive momentum, denouncing clientelism and grievances such as inadequate waste disposal, hyperinflation and the banking crisis, as well as – in light of the devastating explosion of an ammonium nitrate stockpile in Beirut harbor in August 2020 – an overall gross negligence on the part of the government, and raising hopes for a push toward democratization. Civil society resistance to corruption and identity-based clientelism is also increasingly forming in Iraq, which in recent years has oscillated between democracy and autocracy in the BTI due to inadequate protection of civil rights and freedom of expression.

Finally, in Algeria and Sudan, the decades-long rulers Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir were forced to step down in spring 2019 as a result of mass protests. In both cases, civil society protest movements were not satisfied with cosmetic changes, but in Sudan insisted on a transitional government with equal representation (not just military) with the prospect of elections next year, while in Algeria, albeit with limited choices, a new president was elected, constitutional changes came into effect, and numerous high-profile corruption cases came to trial. It is evident that not only authoritarian rulers in numerous states refined and expanded their repressive mechanisms in response to the Arab Spring. Democratically minded and reform-oriented civil society movements are also demonstrating a remarkable learning curve. They have drawn their own conclusions from the experience of the last ten years and are answering the question raised at the outset of whether and how a rapid political opening can have a destabilizing effect, how democratization processes can be better prepared, in their own way – with broad, cross-sectarian coalitions and with a clear agenda for necessary reform steps that go beyond the exchange of government leaders and place gradual change ahead of rapid new elections.

Despite all the difficulties and setbacks, the constant of a democratic will to reform is evident. In this respect, Western governments and companies should not make the same mistake as in 2010 of equating the cemetery peace of authoritarian states with stability and supporting the status quo. Instead of relying unconditionally on stability, democracy would be the better alternative - for Arab societies as well as for their partners.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *