Photograph of person pointing at some political graffiti
The day after the revolution. Political graffiti during the Arab Spring. Photo ©

Pixabay, adapted from the original.

December 2017

Alison Baily, British Council Senior Policy Advisor on Security and Stability, reviews ‘Democratic Transitions in the Arab World’ (Editors Ibrahim Elbadawi & Samir Makdisi, Cambridge University Press, 2017) and examines whether hopes for democratic change and a new social contract in the countries affected by the Arab Spring have been crushed – or merely delayed.

Back in 2011 the Arab world appeared to be set on an unstoppable course towards democratization. Hopes for a new era of stable and democratic rule were high as mass protest movements led to the end of longstanding authoritarian regimes. However, these hopes quickly foundered as transition processes faltered, authoritarian forces doubled down, and conflict sprang up in the ensuing power vacuum in parts of the region. Popular enthusiasm for democracy weakened as the need to restore or maintain stability in the face of regional conflicts took precedence over transition processes that had often failed to deliver on expectations of better living standards and more representative government. Over six years after the uprisings began, only one Arab country, Tunisia, has achieved democracy status in the EIU’s annual Democracy Index. Current conditions in much of the rest of the region would indicate that the brief window of opportunity for democratization has firmly shut. However, a new volume of research suggests that the events of 2011 form the start rather than the end of a long road to a more democratic and more stable form of government for the region.

A new volume of research suggests that the events of 2011 form the start rather than the end of a long road to a more democratic and more stable form of government for the region

Democratic Transitions in the Arab World takes the long view of the 2011 uprisings. A collection of articles by academics from the region places these momentous recent events in the context of the region’s post-independence social and economic development, and also compares them against democracy transitions that have taken place in other regions of the world. Drawing on a research project at the American University of Beirut (AUB), the volume identifies the forces that are both driving and inhibiting democratic transition in the Arab world. Interestingly, it also lays out what it sees as the prospects for stable democracy in the region, and the changes that will need to happen to get there.

After the revolutions

In the first section of the book, the editors, Ibrahim Elbadawi and Samir Makdisi, recap their earlier research exploring the Arab world’s so called “democratic deficit”. They argue that the region has lagged behind the rest of the world in terms of its democratic development due to a combination of oil wealth and conflict, which has enabled anti-democratic forces to buck global trends towards democratization despite the rapid economic and technological modernization in the region. Yet they have not been able to stop radical social change which has placed increasing pressure on the status quo. One of the common factors that drove the 2011 uprisings was the emergence of a large and dynamic youth population that felt excluded by a political and economic system that was generating increasing levels of inequality and declining levels of secure employment. Better education and the Internet had created a generation that was more aware of its social rights, and the failures of the current political and economic order, and, as a result, was hungry for change.

But why then did the uprisings take such different courses in different parts of the region? The second section of the book seeks to answer these questions with a range of country-based case studies from researchers involved in Elbadawi and Makdisi’s project on democracy and development at AUB. 

One major conclusion the volume makes is that these different outcomes came down to two issues – the choices made by the political elites; and the different strengths of the social movements that were pushing for change in each country. Tunisia made the best progress because of the resolve of its political parties and civil society to work together and make compromises to save the country and benefit the common good. It has shown a political culture that is able to manage disagreement and reach consensus despite sharp divergences in viewpoint and deep social divides. The volume cites the aftermath of the 2014 elections as a major step forward for democracy in Tunisia – when the Islamist party accepted its defeat to the secularist majority; and when the secularist party itself was able to work with the Islamist runners up. It argues that the foundations for Tunisia’s democratic success compared to other uprising countries like Syria and Egypt can be found in its relative social and economic strengths, notably its successful economic diversification and its high education levels, which in turn created civil society movements that were able not only to challenge the status quo, but also forge agreement on what would replace it.

Elsewhere in the region, protesters from Tahrir Square to Benghazi saw their movements’ initial gains swept away. Transition processes were undermined by a failure to agree consensus on the new social contract, and by the flaring of sectarian and Islamist/secular identity politics. In the resulting vacuum, counter-revolutionary forces were able to reassert the entrenched regime interests. The volume argues that Egypt’s transition reflects a wider point about democratization globally – in line with experience in Latin America and post-Soviet bloc states, the establishment in post-uprising Egypt of a multi-party electoral system and free elections has not in and of itself guaranteed a transition towards full democracy; a new social contract and fairer economic model is also needed. It points to Egypt’s deep levels of social and economic exclusion, political polarization, and the inhibiting effect of regional conflict as key barriers to further democratization.

Causes for Optimism?

Looking to the future, the academic authors make some bold predictions about the prospects for democracy in the region. Standing back from the current conflict and polarization, they strike an optimistic note about the future, assessing that current upheavals will lead to a more inclusive system of government in the long run. They argue that modernising influences – notably the growth of the middle classes and improving education levels – will combine with other factors, such as long-term declines in the oil price to propel the region towards more inclusive and citizen-centered systems of government. Tunisia’s pioneering role in regional democracy is emphasized – its youth and civil society activists are seen as positive forces that will drive political elites to complete the transition, particularly through the creation of a more inclusive economic model. [QUOTE] Civil society is also seen as likely to help sustain the momentum for reform in Egypt’s more prolonged democratic transition. 

Civil society is seen as likely to help sustain the momentum for reform in Egypt’s more prolonged democratic transition

While some of the volume’s predictions seem over-optimistic given the current context, its findings do provide a timely reminder to Western policymakers that the social and economic changes occurring in the region are likely to shape the future far more than immediate security and humanitarian priorities that dominate our headlines, from Daesh to the refugee crisis. In the final analysis, it is this new generation of youth and their ability to agree a new social contract with the political elite that will ultimately decide the region’s long-term democracy prospects, and the greater prosperity and stability which comes with it. 

Alison Bailey, British Council Senior Policy Analyst, Security and Stability

See also