With the on-going examples of Syria and Egypt, and the seeming failure of the more hopeful revolutions that took place in Libya, Yemen and Tunisia, a person could not be blamed for thinking that the Arab Spring has failed. The Crossroads Report, published by Freedom House in September of last year, found that the gains made in the Middle East and North Africa after the uprisings in early 2011 have notably declined. Some argue that the Middle East is simply not ready to change, while others point to the lack of democratic institutions that will lead to the inevitable decay of people power into anarchy, or provoke the re-imposition of dictatorship. Others argue that the one constant force in these regions, Islam, cannot accommodate democracy, and so the regions would have been better off had the Arab Spring never happened.
The above views are at best premature, and at worst, just plain wrong. Transitions into democracy are often lengthy and violent, and despite the awful consequences evident in Libya and Syria, an Economist special report from earlier this month, has shown the majority of Arabs do not want to turn the clock back.
Those who claim failure need to simply look over their history. In the 1960’s, Egypt and South Korea shared similar life expectancy and GDP, but today, the situations of each nation could not be different – Egypt’s GDP per head is now a mere fifth of South Korea’s. The Muslim Brotherhood’s brief government did nothing to help this situation, and Egypt’s deeper problems were aggravated by Mubarak, and those before him. Other Arab states have not fared better.
Many feel that the answer to these problems would be an Arab version of a Pinochet, a Deng Xiaoping, or a Lee Kuan Yew to help the economy grow. However, unlike the South East Asians, the Arabs boast no ‘Philosopher King’ who has helped nurture democracy, and, instead, nepotism has been the norm. Today however, as the educated and disenfranchised youths are sensing freedom, the old way of doing things is looking ever more impossible, unless, as in Syria, the ruler is prepared to shed vast amounts of blood to stay in power.
Some will argue that any Arab democracy will simply lead to Islamist rule, where reform will be just as difficult to come by as under the dictators of the past. Secularists argue that Islamists tend to see their rule as God-given, and will never accept that democracy requires checks and balances, a free press, independent courts, etc.
Again, this opinion is wrong. Malaysia and Indonesia have shown that democracy amongst a non-secularists government is possible, whilst Turkey, for all its faults, is more democratic today than it was when the army loitered in the background.
The problem with Arab Islamists is that for years they have experienced no democracy, operating within an atmosphere of repression, where movements have survived only by being conspiratorial and organised. This is why the recent overthrowing of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi is such a tragedy. More time for his government might have seen a growth in the tolerance and pragmatism required to govern a country. But instead, a further cloud of suspicion has fallen over democratic politics. The onus now falls on Tunisia to show that an Arab Islamist democracy can succeed. It could be argued that this has begun; Tunisia is on its way to developing a constitution that could serve as the basis of a democracy, however, the process will be lengthy.
The real awakening that took place during the Arab Spring was as much a mental movement as a physical movement – a revolution in the mind, as much as on the streets. There is a need to learn that democracy is not simply about elections and protests, but includes a whole host of further factors. Democratisation was always going to take time, and was always going to be messy. Traversing the river may take decades, but an impossible task? I think not. To call the Arab Spring a failure would not be fair, the Arab Spring was a necessary first step in what will be a long walk to Arab democracy.