Much has been made in the past year about the prospects for democracy in the Arab world after the unexpected revolutions that began in Tunisia spread like wildfire throughout the rest of North Africa and the Middle East. The US-based NGO Freedom House touted the accomplishments of the Arab Spring in its annual report, Freedom in the World 2012: “In a region that had seemed immune to democratic change, coalitions of activist reformers and ordinary citizens succeeded in removing dictators who had spent decades entrenching themselves in power.” More than one year after it all began, does the democratic hype really live up to the revolutionary reality?
To better understand this question, consider how these revolutions have played out differently in different Arab states. In Bahrain, for instance, popular demands among the majority Shiites for representative government, constitutional democracy and respect for human rights have been stonewalled by the dominant Sunni monarchy, mainly because of external intervention on behalf of its Gulf Arab neighbours and its geopolitical alliance with the United States. To its credit, the Bahraini government did authorize an independent commission to investigate the causes, killings and injustices of the so-called Pearl Revolution. Released in late 2011, this report has been surprisingly candid in detailing human rights abuses committed by the regime and making public policy recommendations for the minority monarchy to reform its politically unrepresentative system. The Bahraini case shows us how the revolutions in some countries have simply failed.
In other places, mass protests have yielded modest reforms on the part of benevolent autocrats – progress, to be sure, but nothing like a genuine revolution. This reaction is typical of the more progressive monarchies of the region, like Morocco and Jordan, which have shrewdly managed limited reforms and maintained steady levels of popularity, thus ensuring their own survival. The sheikhs and emirs of the Gulf, as in Kuwait and Oman, have made modest reforms too, just not the political kind. Together with Saudi Arabia, these oil-rich countries spent at least $150 billion on their citizens in new economic grants and subsidies, effectively bribing their own people into submission – and since September 2011, that sum has only increased. Here, evolution is a much better descriptor of the changes taking place than revolution.
Then there are the cases of ongoing revolutionary turmoil, the most prominent examples being Yemen and Syria. After agreeing and to step down and then reneging on that commitment more times than most care to count, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seems to have finally ended his 33-year rule after he bid farewell to the country and headed to the US for ‘medical treatment.’ Even with national elections scheduled for later in February, Yemen needs at least $15 billion to survive the transition to democracy – an impossible feat for a country wracked by mass poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, unemployment, separatism and terrorism. Similar forces are fueling popular outrage in Syria, with the various opposition groups coalescing around their opposition to four decades of the al-Assad family’s authoritarian rule and increasingly bloody crackdowns. The stability and legitimacy of these regimes is extremely tenuous, and the political destinies of these countries are extremely fluid as a result at this point in time.
What about the post-revolutionary scenarios? In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, it is now possible to discuss free and fair elections, civilian government as opposed to military control, independent judiciaries, freedom of the press, the rule of law and constitutional principles as never before. In Tunisia the Salafi Islamist hardliners are beginning to openly challenge the ruling Ennahda Party’s moderate Islamist dedication to these principles. The Transitional National Council in Libya faces enormous challenges preparing a country with no representative political institutions and no history of democracy for elections this summer while maintaining law and order, battling the remnants of pro-Qaddafi troops, unifying dozens of armed tribal factions, and facing fresh allegations of torture. Although elections have been held in Egypt, they have handed Islamists with questionable commitments to democratic values over two-thirds of the seats in Parliament and glossed over the civil-military tensions between Egypt’s government and the ruling generals.
To get back to the original question, democracy as we know it in the West is far from assured in any of these revolutionary countries. Many of them are still undergoing traumatic transitions in which the removal of the old guard has not yet given way to a stable post-authoritarian political order. In other cases, a dictatorial figurehead has been substituted for an equally oppressive administration, dashing public hopes for democratic governance. Only in a select few country cases does genuine transformation of the entire system of governance seem to be on the horizon, and even then a hybrid Islamic democracy (Tunisia) or a reformist democratic Islam (Morocco) might better reflect the will of the people.
Who knows if a full-fledged, representative democracy is the inevitable end-result of all these protests, uprisings and revolutions? As many of these national leaders crackdown on dissent and adapt to survive, it is simply too early to say if entrenched authoritarianism will surrender to the forces of popular self-determination or continue fighting the losing battle for despotism. The two new Islamist prime ministers of Morocco and Tunisia publicly defended the prospects for Arab democracy at this year’s annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Only time will tell if other states in the region emulate the Tunisian and Moroccan models of democracy in this second year of the Arab Spring. Regardless, an astonishing amount of progress has already been made since that first domino fell in the fateful month of January 2011 that it is difficult in these revolutionary times not to be optimistic – at last – about the future of the Middle East.