On the Prospects of a Second Arab Spring

By Daniel Ritter

In her recent book, Donatella della Porta explores the often disappointing outcomes of democracy-seeking social movements by asking “where did the revolution go?” The task she sets for herself is similar to the one bestowed upon the participants of this exchange, namely “to consider the pathways of movements after the period of mass mobilization.” In other words, what became of the large crowds that epitomized the 2011 wave of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, and, perhaps more importantly, are we likely to see them again anytime soon?

Six years have passed since determined Tunisians and Egyptians ousted two of the Arab world’s most entrenched dictators. In a matter of weeks, predominantly unarmed protesters removed Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak from power. Shortly after Mubarak’s fall I recall watching a Libyan exile tell Al Jazeera that it would only be a matter of days before Muammar Gaddafi met that very same end. Unfortunately, he was mistaken, as were all of us who hoped that the region would soon be on its way towards democracy.

Why didn’t the Arab Spring result in a resolute march toward democratization? The tendency among area specialists has been to explain the disappointing outcomes of the Arab Spring by pointing to national or regional factors. But while each nation – and each region – is in many ways unique, it is a mistake to neglect the international dynamics of the uprisings.

Some of the most recent scholarship on revolutions makes precisely this point. While the characteristics of the societies they affect are important, revolutions can rarely – especially not in our extremely interconnected world – be understood in isolation of the international contexts in which they take place. Both the causes of the Arab Spring uprisings and their long-term consequences have extensive international components. For instance, I have argued that the primarily nonviolent successes in Tunisia and Egypt can be explained by the two regimes’ international linkages, and, more specifically, by their close relationships with the democratic West. Being dependent on Western patronage, Ben Ali and Mubarak had strong incentives to avoid cracking down on unarmed, democracy-seeking protesters in front of a global audience. Meanwhile, the much less West-dependent leaders in Libya and Syria did not face such constraints and consequently found it significantly easier to order their security forces to brutally repress their own initially nonviolent demonstrators when the latter mistakenly assumed that events in Tunisia and Egypt signaled that their countries too were ripe for revolution. Also, Gaddafi and Assad drew important lessons from Ben Ali and Mubarak’s tactical errors, which further complicated the situation for the Libyan and Syrian protesters.

Seen from a geopolitical perspective, the early 2010s constituted a relatively favorable point in time for would-be revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt. Consecutive US presidents had made Middle Eastern democracy promotion central parts of their respective policies toward the region – George W. Bush through the imposition of a “Freedom Agenda” and Barack Obama through his 2009 “A New Beginning” speech – while the European Union conducted a “neighborhood” democratization scheme of its own. However, possibly even more important than American and European efforts to promote democratization was the fact that despite the global economic recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we still lived in a world in which liberal democracy and human rights were hegemonic norms that few nations, even among those opposed to Western domination, openly and actively opposed.

It was thus in the context of what John Foran calls “world-systemic openings” that unarmed protesters challenged the Western-aligned regimes in Tunis and Cairo. Framing their struggles in terms highly likely to find sympathetic audiences in Europe and North America – and employing a repertoire of contention fully compatible with democratic values and fundamental human rights – Tunisian and Egyptian protesters placed their leaders in a difficult bind: allow us to continue our protests and maintain the democratic façade you have erected, or repress us and risk losing the international support you have come to depend on for your political survival. Both the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes chose the former, choices that led to their respective downfall. In the absence of overwhelming repression, there was little to prevent those who until recently had been too frightened to participate from joining the protest movements. As the movements grew, the pressure on Ben Ali and Mubarak to step down became overwhelming.

Using the same reasoning, I suggest that the prospect of another unarmed regional protest wave in the image of the one we saw in early 2011 is highly unlikely. Compared to that point in time, 2017 does not provide would-be revolutionaries with a favorable international environment for civil resistance.

So what has changed? The most obvious change, albeit a recent one, is the introduction of a US president seemingly uncommitted to liberal values at home and abroad. But the decline of the liberal world order is not simply Mr. Trump’s doing. Somewhat ironically, the Arab Spring (but also the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the global recession the began in 2007) has itself contributed to the growing disrepute of liberal democracy. After all, if fighting for democracy leaves you with renewed repression (as in Egypt), anarchy (as in Libya) or unspeakable devastation (as in Syria), then is it, as Charles Kurzman asks in his contribution to this forum, worth it? How many Arab protesters outside of Tunisia would give 2011 another go?

But the consequences of the Arab Spring are not only seen within the region. The disastrous results of democratizing efforts in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria have provided authoritarians around the world with a persuasive script that can be effectively employed to discredit future pro-democracy movements, namely that any effort to introduce “Western” democracy will result in chaos. A more tempting course of action might therefore be to put your trust in the hands of a strong leader, be they those of Erdoğan, Putin, Xi, or anybody else with the capacity to preserve social order. With competitive authoritarianism emerging as an attractive alternative to liberal democracy, the world is unlikely to see a repeat of the jubilant scenes of early 2011 anytime soon.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, The Arab Spring Six Years Later

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