Authoritarian reinstatement in the Arab world
Whatʹs left of the Arab Spring

Not much remains of the euphoric mood and the hopes that drove the Arab Spring. A return to pre-2011 conditions is however out of the question. Commentary by Loay Mudhoon

A brief glance at the political map eight years after the revolutionary dynamism that carried the Arab Spring movements should be enough to see that there is not much left of people’s hopes for a life led in democracy and dignity.

Instead of "bread, freedom and social justice", the outbreak of the Arabellion – the largest mass mobilisation of Arab peoples in recent history – was followed by chaos and destruction on a grand scale: Libya is facing the threat of collapse; the United Nations today describes the situation in Yemen – the poorhouse of the Arab world – as the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe. In Egypt, an unnerving, deceptive and deathly peace prevails.

At the same time, several flux-nations have mutated into arenas, venues for the staging of regional conflicts. After years of brutal fighting along purportedly confessional lines, the complex Syrian conflict has become a regional and international proxy war. What began as a peaceful popular uprising against the brutal tyranny of the Assad clan is now a global conflict.

Only in Tunisia, the motherland of the Arabellion, might the transition from dictatorship to democracy succeed, if, that is, the nation manages to get its economic problems under control. It goes without saying that the West should continue to nurture and support the Tunisian democracy model.

Authoritarian reinstatement

But how did it come to this? Why does so little remain of the euphoria of the Arab Spring, of the hope for a better life in freedom and dignity? There’s certainly a multitude of reasons – primarily arising from the legacy of the dictatorship and less from the culture of the nation in question. In order to fully understand this development, we need to remember one thing: The Arabellion did not trigger the crisis facing Arab nation states – it revealed it.

Free Syrian Army units near Afrin (photo: Reuters/K. Ashawi)
Expansion of the comflict zone: after years of brutal fighting along purportedly confessional lines, the complex Syrian conflict has become a regional and international proxy war. What began as a peaceful popular uprising against the brutal tyranny of the Assad clan is now a global conflict

The main cause of the crisis has been the colossal failure of the ruling (military) elites to promote modern statehood. After all, these elites control the state’s weak institutions as well as its resources, all too often using them to further their own interests. They have gradually disconnected themselves from the everyday lives of regular Arabs, from the woes of the majority of the population. The revocation of the social contract, first and foremost in Egypt, has again turned out to be devastating for the identification of Arab citizens with the state. 

And so, over the course of time, almost all "republics of fear" have not only become economically weaker, but also more repressive. Furthermore, Islamist parties have evolved into a counterweight within the state, while impeding development on a human level.

Arab regimes have deliberately fought off the other possibility, namely that of a liberal-civil order. Arab despots have never worried that much Islamists, knowing that in case of any doubt, the West would opt for them as the "lesser evil".

Reform standstill following the Arabellion

The authoritarian reinstatement of prior conditions that has taken place in many flux-nations since 2013 does not provide any kind of answer to the huge challenges of the present and the future in Arab nations.

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (photo: AFP)
Combining authoritarian rule and military might: following the failure of the Arab Spring, almost all "republics of fear" have not only become economically weaker, but also more repressive

This development is worrying inasmuch as the socioeconomic conditions that ultimately led to the Arab revolutions have dramatically worsened: today one in every three Arabs is under 23 and in the next 20 years the Arab world is going to need 50 million jobs – and no one knows where these are going to come from. In the context of this, it can be assumed that without far-reaching political and economic reforms, nations such as Egypt will soon be ungovernable.

This is precisely where western efforts should be focussed: Germany and its partners need to attach conditions to their offers of aid. These should include progress (however small) in stamping out widespread corruption, in the implementation of economic reforms for the middle classes and in the bolstering of civil society and the rule of law.

In the western capitals of the world, we should be distancing ourselves from the illusion of stability in apparently robust repressive states. After all, in reality, tyranny is never stable.

Loay Mudhoon

© 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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Comments for this article: Whatʹs left of the Arab Spring

Mr Mudhoon, I think you don't find any problems with your own analysis. On one side you are with a "West" that must "nuture and support" so-called democracy and on the other side you are blaming the failure on a "ruling military elite to promote a modern statehood." Don't you see your contradiction? Is it not the very same major "West" powers, in addition to the IMF, that have been supporting the Egyptian regime since 2013? What did the major Western power did for Syrian uprising and the Syrian regime? Saudi Arabia in Bahrain and Yemen? I guess you supported the "democratic" NATO intervention in Libya. Honestly, I don't see in your very short piece that you distinguish between the "revolutionary forces" and the "counter-revolutionary ones" since 10 December 2010. Could you please mention when since formal independence major Western powers supported "democracy". Was it in Egypt's under Mubarak, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia or Algeria?
Regarding confessionalism, what do you think of the support of rich Sunnis ("Sunni bourgeoisie, capitalists") in Syrian of the Assad regime? What was the weight of the Sunni soliders fighting with the Syrian regime before the active support of Hizbolah and others?
I think I agree with you only in one thing: the slogan of the beginning of the uprisings, especially in Tunisia. A slogan that was hijacked and changed to "Jasmin revolution", and then by Foreign Policy as "Arab Spring.".
I hope my comment will make you question some fundamentals and dig deeper in the wealth of research and analyses carried out the uprisings since its inception.

Nadeem17.11.2018 | 13:04 Uhr