The Arab spring – Has it failed?

Despite the chaos, the blood and the democratic setbacks, this is a long process. Do not give up hope

The Economist
Jul 13th 2013

ROUGHLY two-and-a-half years after the revolutions in the Arab world, not a single country is yet plainly on course to become a stable, peaceful democracy. The countries that were more hopeful—Tunisia, Libya and Yemen—have been struggling. A chaotic experiment with democracy in Egypt, the most populous of them, has landed an elected president behind bars. Syria is awash with the blood of civil war.

No wonder some have come to think the Arab spring is doomed. The Middle East, they argue, is not ready to change. One reason is that it does not have democratic institutions, so people power will decay into anarchy or provoke the reimposition of dictatorship. The other is that the region’s one cohesive force is Islam, which — it is argued — cannot accommodate democracy. The Middle East, they conclude, would be better off if the Arab spring had never happened at all.

That view is at best premature, at worst wrong. Democratic transitions are often violent and lengthy. The worst consequences of the Arab spring — in Libya initially, in Syria now — are dreadful. Yet as our special report argues, most Arabs do not want to turn the clock back.

Putting the cart before the camel

Those who say that the Arab spring has failed ignore the long winter before, and its impact on people’s lives. In 1960 Egypt and South Korea shared similar life-expectancy and GDP per head. Today they inhabit different worlds. Although many more Egyptians now live in cities and three-quarters of the population is literate, GDP per head is only a fifth of South Korea’s. Poverty and stunting from malnutrition are far too common. The Muslim Brotherhood’s brief and incompetent government did nothing to reverse this, but Egypt’s deeper problems were aggravated by the strongmen who preceded them. And many other Arab countries fared no better.

This matters, because, given the Arab spring’s uneven progress, many say the answer is authoritarian modernisation: an Augusto Pinochet, Lee Kuan Yew or Deng Xiaoping to keep order and make the economy grow. Unlike South-East Asians, the Arabs can boast no philosopher-king who has willingly nurtured democracy as his economy has flourished. Instead, the dictator’s brothers and the first lady’s cousins get all the best businesses. And the despots — always wary of stirring up the masses — have tended to duck the big challenges of reform, such as gradually removing the energy subsidies that in Egypt alone swallow 8% of GDP. Even now the oil-rich monarchies are trying to buy peace; but as an educated and disenfranchised youth sniffs freedom, the old way of doing things looks ever more impossible, unless, as in Syria, the ruler is prepared to shed vast amounts of blood to stay in charge. Some of the more go-ahead Arab monarchies, for example in Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait, are groping towards constitutional systems that give their subjects a bigger say.

Fine, some will reply, but Arab democracy merely leads to rule by the Islamists, who are no more capable of reform than the strongmen, and thanks to the intolerance of political Islam, deeply undemocratic. Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brother evicted earlier this month by the generals at the apparent behest of many millions of Egyptians in the street, was democratically elected, yet did his best to flout the norms of democracy during his short stint as president. Many secular Arabs and their friends in the West now argue that because Islamists tend to regard their rule as God-given, they will never accept that a proper democracy must include checks, including independent courts, a free press, devolved powers and a pluralistic constitution to protect minorities.

This too, though, is wrong. Outside the Arab world, Islamists — in Malaysia and Indonesia, say — have shown that they can learn the habit of democracy. In Turkey too, the protests against the autocratic but elected prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have more in common with Brazil than the Arab spring. Turkey, for all its faults, is more democratic today than it was when the army lurked in the background.

The problem, then, is with Arab Islamists. That is hardly surprising. They have been schooled by decades of repression, which their movements survived only by being conspiratorial and organised. Their core supporters are a sizeable minority in most Arab countries. They cannot be ignored, and must instead be absorbed into the mainstream.

That is why Egypt’s coup is so tragic. Had the Muslim Brotherhood remained in power, they might have learned the tolerance and pragmatism needed for running a country. Instead, their suspicions about democratic politics have been confirmed. Now it is up to Tunisia, the first of the Arab countries to throw off the yoke of autocracy, to show that Arab Islamists can run countries decently. It might just do that: it is on its way to getting a constitution that could serve as the basis of a decent, inclusive democracy. If the rest of the Arab world moves in that direction, it will take many years to do so.

That would not be surprising, for political change is a long game. Hindsight tends to smooth over the messy bits of history. The transition from communism, for instance, looks easy in retrospect. Yet three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe was overrun by criminal mafias; extremist politicians were prominent in Poland, Slovakia and the Baltics; the Balkans were about to degenerate into war and there was fighting in Georgia. Even now, most people in the old Soviet bloc live under repressive regimes — yet few want to go back.

Don’t hold back the tide

The Arab spring was always better described as an awakening: the real revolution is not so much in the street as in the mind. The internet, social media, satellite television and the thirst for education — among Arab women as much as men — cannot co-exist with the deadening dictatorships of old. Egyptians, among others, are learning that democracy is neither just a question of elections nor the ability to bring millions of protesters onto the street. Getting there was always bound to be messy, even bloody. The journey may take decades. But it is still welcome.

  1. #1 by Winston on Monday, 15 July 2013 - 10:02 am

    In the case of Syria, the Western powers must be kicking themselves in the ass.
    Right from the start of the revolution, the Free Syrian Army has pleaded for the West to provide them with weapons and impose a no flight zone so that their government cannot bomb and strafe them at will.
    But they have procrastinated.
    Now, there is a new element in the fight for freedom that may well unsettle everything that the Syrians are fighting for.
    In the form of El Queda!
    Initially, these fighters from overseas were welcomed by the Free Syrian Army.
    But soon it was apparent that their purpose in helping was to impose their own version of Muslim extremism which is the most extreme of the extreme!
    And those in areas taken over by them were feeling the new form of extremism!!
    Now, the FSA has to fight on two fronts instead of one.
    If the Western powers have acceded to their requests for support, especially the imposition of a no fly zone, the whole revolution may have already been wrapped up!!!

  2. #2 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Monday, 15 July 2013 - 10:06 am

    Errrr … monsterO’mamak said that we are not ready for democracy.

    22 yrs as PM and 10+ yrs as shadow PM, he had a mighty long time to prepare us and to get us ready for democracy. And what was his judgment? Still not ready? That is as good as pronouncing his own decades long effort a great failure, I say!

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Monday, 15 July 2013 - 1:00 pm

    The Economist views issues from prism of western values of democracy – so immediate convulsion /violence ensuing from Arab Spring is no set back because millions will support democracy and human rights which will triumph eventually. How far that is true? Millions want Islamist Muhammad Morsi to go but millions also support him and against his ouster. Democracy human rights gender rights transgender rights personal liberty on political choice to dressing, equality of men and religions and belief system are all an almagam of values interwoven seamlessly and not so easily compartmentalised. For eg if Taliban believe in women not being educated, should stay home to take care of heath can they believe in human rights civil liberty or democracy? Citing Turkey is bad example because it has a secular system since Kamal Attaturk’s time before commencement of world war II. And to say “outside the Arab world, Islamists — in Malaysia and Indonesia, say — have shown that they can learn the habit of democracy” makes one wonder if it has done its research!

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Monday, 15 July 2013 - 1:03 pm

    Economistt makes an apology for Arab Spring – that its “uneven progress, may be its because there is no leader who is “philosopher king” like Augusto Pinochet, Lee Kuan Yew or Deng Xiaoping to push through “authoritarian modernisation:” So we’re left to wonder: this Arab Spring is not working even though the Economist implies that these masses yearn for democracy – is it because there’s no“philosopher king” leader like an Augusto Pinochet, Lee Kuan Yew or Deng Xiaoping? Now the very idea of a“philosopher king” leader contradicts the idea of a leader upholding democratic values. What exactly is the Economist driving at? It does not seem to recognise or wish to acknowledge that in these countries it reviewed there are a lot of people who may talk about their wish for democracy when every other tenet of belief that they hold contradicts it and they using the word democractic for their own agendas. Why even Hitler described his Nazi movement as democratic, so did Mussolini or Stalin or even Mao and Ayatollah Khomeini!

  5. #5 by bryanbb on Monday, 15 July 2013 - 9:25 pm

    What happened in Egypt may be due to the sentiment that Morsi has betrayed the Egyptian revolution.
    Worsening safety for women, breakdowns in the rule of law, crackdowns on cultural activity and police abuse – the Arab Spring wasn’t meant to end like this. Morsi went overboard in trying to Islamized the largely moderate Egyptians
    Islamists use whatever means to use their religious tenets to dominate and social control not only their own kind but the rest of the society who may not be Muslims. Domination and Jihad seems entrenched in their psyche.

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