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Dr Johan Franzén Headshot

The Fallacy of the Arab Spring

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There was no Arab Spring - nor is there necessarily an Islamist Winter. Ongoing events in Syria, and recently across the Middle East, are the last in a long historic process of protest, opposition and revolution. But the outcome will not be democracy as we know it in the West.

The rapid democratisation and Westernisation in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War signalled a casting off of the Soviet yoke. But this is not an Arab 1989.

That is not to say that people in the Middle East do not want democracy - they do. But it is unlikely to be a Western, liberal, type of democracy.

It used to be said that the Middle East could not successfully adopt democracy. Western commentators argued that it was incompatible with Islamic principles, and that people were too divided on sectarian or ethnic grounds.

When protests started early last year these arguments rapidly disappeared from the debate. And rightly so, because there should be no Western doubt that the majority in Middle Eastern states want democracy.

That said, it is wrong to characterise what has happened in the region as an 'Arab Spring' or an 'Arab Awakening'.

The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, these events are far from uniform, and secondly, popular protest, revolts and revolutions are nothing new in the Middle East.

What we are witnessing is the culmination of a long historical process.

In some countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt, popular revolutionary movements toppled authoritarian leaders that had been in power for decades.

Hosni Mubarak had been President of Egypt since Anwar al-Sadat's assassination by Islamists in 1981. Meanwhile in Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali came to power after ousting Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987.

Their overthrow by popular power in early 2011 created hope of a smooth democratic transition.

But Mubarak had been no 'dictator' in the literal sense. He was the figurehead of a military that, ever since the revolution that brought them to power in 1952, had developed into a political class.

Consequently the decision to sacrifice Mubarak when faced with enormous popular protests in February last year, seemed like a good strategy to secure the long-term interest of this military elite.

This helps explain the enormous difficulties the incipient democratic process has encountered over the past year and its uncertain outcome in the long run.

In Libya, outside military assistance helped topple Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi. But in Syria another authoritarian regime under Bashar al-Asad holds on to power a year after protests started.

The political stance of the outside world has been the defining factor in both cases.

In Libya, the abstention of Russia and China in the UN Security Council enabled the passing of Resolution 1973 that allowed for the protection of civilians in the conflict. In Syria, a similar route has been vetoed by Russia and China.

In Bahrain, the Western world turned a blind eye as Shi'i protests against the Sunni regime were crushed by the military of neighbouring Saudi Arabia - a country in which the King was forced to commit to spend billions on social welfare to placate internal dissent.

In Jordan, the constitution has been revised and successive governments sacked by the King, as has also happened in Morocco.

In Algeria and Iraq, popular protests raged without clear impact on the political process. In Lebanon people took to the streets to protest against the government.

There is no doubt that events over the last year were interlinked and that a domino effect took place. Nor is there doubt that the regimes were undemocratic and authoritarian, or that people in the region have a genuine desire for democracy.

What is in doubt is whether this is something new.

Taking a long-term view, the modern history of the Middle East is that of ongoing protest, opposition and revolution.

When the modern political system was shaped by Western powers in the aftermath of the First World War, several new 'mandates' were created under the auspices of the League of Nations. They were immediately opposed by people in the region. Revolts broke out in Egypt in 1919, in Iraq and Palestine in 1920 and in Syria between 1925-7.

In the 1950s the monarchies that had been installed by Britain in Egypt and Iraq were overthrown by revolutionary Free Officers who created the systems that would eventually develop into the authoritarian regimes that existed until recently.

In 1969, the same fate was afflicted on the Libyan King by a young Qadhdhafi.

And in 1979 it was the turn of the Iranian Shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, and the Islamic Republic saw the light of day under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini.

These regimes were in turn opposed as soon as they became authoritarian and lost touch with the public, and for decades people in the region have been resisting and protesting against unrepresentative and oppressive regimes.

But the nature of these regimes is that they do not allow oppositional movements and so these groups were forced underground. To the outside observer it seemed there was a quiet acquiescence on the part of the general public.

But opposition and protest and the desire for democratisation were always part of the unofficial politics of the Middle East.

This could be seen in massive bread riots in Egypt in 1977 when Anwar al-Sadat implemented an IMF-sponsored liberalisation of the economy that terminated state subsidies of basic foodstuffs.

In 1981, the same year as al-Sadat was assassinated, Bashar al-Asad's father, Hafez, massacred 20,000 people in Hama to quell a long-running rebellion led by the Muslim Brothers.

In 1991, Kurds and Shi'is rose up against Saddam Hussein's regime in the aftermath of the Gulf War - only to be brutally crushed.

Numerous other examples could be cited. The point is that people in the Middle East don't accept authoritarian rule any more than other peoples around the world, and ever since the modern political system was created out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, people have been resisting oppressive and authoritarian leaders.

Recent events are the culmination of a long historic revolutionary process, the outcome of which is far from certain.

Around the Web

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