The Arab spring: protest, power, prospect

The great contest between democracy and tyranny in the middle east and north Africa is unresolved. David Hayes asked openDemocracy authors to consider a number of questions:

*After three months of protest, changes of leadership, violence, and (in Libya) international intervention, where is the Arab spring going?

* What ideas are coming to the fore?

* Can a coherent pattern be discerned amid the flux of diverse events in a dozen countries?

* Is there a common dynamic, or merely a set of national trajectories with some shared features?

* How does and will the Libyan imbroglio affect developments elsewhere, and what does Libya reveal about the role of the United States, Europe, and the "international community"?

* How does Iran and its post-2009 situation relate to the Arab revolts?

* What does the current balance of forces - from Yemen to Syria, Egypt to Morocco, Bahrain to Tunisia - say about the political prospects over the next year?


Faisal al Yafai

Writing from the region as the Arab spring sparked, flared and spread, the words of Tolstoy come back to me: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It was always easy to predict the Arab world was ripe for revolution. As with communism in eastern Europe, the difficulty was identifying how and where it would ignite, and what would follow.

Others have unpicked the cocktail of political repression, economic stagnation and burgeoning populations that have brought several countries to revolution or attempted revolution. Yet few have asked why, given that these factors are shared by countries outside the middle east, the revolutions have not spread there. Why have the Arab revolutions been confined to the Arab world?

The answer is in Tolstoy's quote. Because as individually unhappy as many Arab and non-Arab states were and are, it was the cultural affinity of the Arabs, the amorphous feeling Arabs retain that they are somehow an extended family, that pushed Tunisia's revolution eastwards.

Egyptian protesters, Libyan rebels, Yemeni activists all saw themselves following explicitly in the footsteps of their fellow Arabs. The protests that are now rocking the rule of the Assad family in Syria started because a handful of schoolchildren in a southern city scrawled words that had first been heard in the hinterlands of Tunisia:Ash-shaab yureed isqaat an-nitham ("The people demand the fall of the regime"). This wasn't a slogan imposed by committee, but forged by consensus and could only occur because of the common language those countries share.

I have written before that the Arab revolutions have exposed this idea of Arabness as a cultural rather than political construct: of an Arabsphere closer to the undefined cultural affinity of the Anglosphere than a political union. Bound by language, geography, history and, crucially, a widely-believed identity story, this Arabsphere has provided the background to the revolutions, the force that sustains its - still evolving - momentum, so that neighbouring countries hear a clearly Arab accent in the voices calling for freedom and ask themselves, against the fear: if not now, when? 

At the same time, the Arab spring has laid to rest Arab nationalism, a political idea that rested on this cultural affinity. There is no new Gamal Abdel Nasser to define a political movement, no call for a supranational political union. If Egypt resumes leadership of the region, it will do so as a model to its neighbours, not as a father-figure. This familial link also means that whatever comes next, especially in Egypt, will probably not stay there. More reason to hope for identikit happy countries.

Faisal al Yafai is The National newspaper's chief columnist. He is currently in Tunisia reporting on the aftermath of the revolution. He can followed at:

Also by Faisal al Yafai: "What makes the Arabs a people?" (25 February 2009)


Shadi Hamid

In this second Arab spring, it is apparent that the euphoria of the opening phase, while well deserved, was somewhat premature. With Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak falling after just weeks of protests, there was a sense that “it could happen anywhere - and just as quickly”. But Arab autocrats have redoubled their efforts, growing both more stubborn and more emboldened in their efforts to preserve power.

The lesson many of them seemed to learn from Egypt and Tunisia was almost the exact opposite of what democracy advocates were hoping for. Ben Ali and Mubarak used force (at least 380 people were killed in Egypt) and lost. Perhaps, then, leaders would learn to pre-empt opposition demands by granting early concessions. Instead, in countries like Bahrain, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, they have granted fewer concessions while using even more force. Shooting into crowds has become frighteningly common. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is enthusiastically adopting the dubious role of leader of the Arab “counter-revolution”.

These revolutions, then, will take longer than was expected. Still, it’s worth remembering the main lesson of this opening period: autocracies don’t last forever. They are stable - until they’re not. And then it’s too late. Even if regimes manage to hold on to power, their stability is no longer guaranteed. With a new “protest ethic” taking hold in the region, the threat of the next revolt is now always present. The model is devastatingly simple: bring enough people into the streets and overwhelm the regime with sheer numbers. “No state”, observed sociologist Charles Kurzman, “can repress all of the people all of the time.”

In contrast to the courage of Arab protesters is the relative timidity and incoherence of the international community’s response to the changes underway. The west’s “stability paradigm” - the notion that interests could be exchanged for ideals - has collapsed under the weight of its inherent contradictions. While the intervention in Libya helped western nations gain some Arab goodwill, many in the Arab world are waiting to see if they will consistently apply the “responsibility to protect” with allied countries, such as Bahrain and Yemen, where civilians are clearly in need of protection.

No one is asking for another military intervention, but what about putting real political pressure on regimes to respect opposition demands? With the region’s various political stalemates, the role of external actors is - for better or worse - likely only to grow.

Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution

Also by Shadi Hamid: "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" (6 April 2009)


Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

The people are marching and the despots are falling. Therefore, this is the most profound period of post-Caliphatic history in the Arab-Islamic world. Yet it would be analytically naive and strategically mistaken to assume that the sweeping changes in Egypt and Tunisia will be copied throughout the region in a similar way and within a comparably “managed” context. Muammar Gaddafi and Bashir al-Assad in Syria are a different breed than Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali. They are certainly not the type of politician that would leave the stage without a fight.

Then there is the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, which has been turned into an island of fear by the most reactionary forces within the ruling al-Khalifa family. The Saudis are also in cohorts with the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen which has suppressed the demonstrations in the country for months now. The fact that Saleh is a trusted United States ally in the “war on al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula”, and that Bahrain hosts the headquarter of the US navy’s fifth fleet, complicates the democratisation of both countries further.

But if in the short term political power can be rescued by brute force, history has shown that states can’t be sustained through violence in the long run. Ultimately, it is the legitimacy of totalitarian rule that has been shattered in the region once and for all. No single-party system, no one-man dictatorship and no hereditary, absolute monarchy will remain unaffected, exactly because Arab and Muslim societies demand public accountability now. As such the power of the states has been constrained, even in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. This is a lesson in participatory, postmodern politics that should be heard far beyond the region.

And what about Iran? I maintain, from a principled analytical position, that the composition of the Iranian state and its relations with Iranian society is very different from the cases I have perused above. There is no all encompassing rule by a single-party, there is no one-man dictatorship, there is no absolute absence of popular accountability, there is no over-dependency on the “west”, there is no subservience to Israeli demands, there is no military that is not ideological committed to the state, there is not an absence of a base supporting that state, there is no real talk within the country about revolution and bringing down the system, even by the repressed opposition. Thus, judging from my perspective today, Iran continues to be in a post-revolutionary state, not in a pre-revolutionary one.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is lecturer in the comparative and international politics of the middle east at SOAS, London. His latest book is A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them beyond Orientalism (C HurstColumbia University Press, 2010). His previous books include Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic (C Hurst, 2008 / Columbia University Press, 2008)

Also by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam: “Postmodern Islam and the Arab revolts” (7 March 2011) 


Nadim Shehadi

We need to rethink much of what we know; the systems that are collapsing in the Arab world will take old ideas down with them together with much of the components that are built around the dictators. It is possible that the new generation leading the process will surprise us in many ways.

The Palestine-Israeli conflict will be approached differently and may be much less relevant to the new mood in the region. The youth may be as fed up with it as they are angry. This does not mean more compromise, far from it; it may mean a different kind of radicalism, looking for justice and dignity but also wanting to move forward. This is their father's and grandfather’s cause, so 20th century. It has dominated the lives of three generations, and is also part of the dictators legacy - used by the old regimes to suppress all kinds of political expression.

Islamists will be affected and may also be losing ground; some of them will miss the former rulers most because their identity and raison d’etre were constructed around them. Think of Yusuf al-Qaradawi going back to Cairo: he is the alter ego of Hosni Mubarak: same age, almost as corrupt, and definitely out of tune with the revolution's mood. Both are part of the same system, and one is worthless without the other. In a dictatorship even civil society and the opposition are tainted. Some elements will adapt to the new ideas and some may disappear.

Stereotypes based on images from the 1980s persist and will take time to lose their ground. For example, most “experts” are saying that the likely outcome in Syria is sectarian conflict and instability - thus clinging to the idea of dictatorship as the only option.

This is after all a battle of ideas, and the revolution has to occur in the eyes of the beholder. Old battles should also be abandoned. The new mantras should be: Libya is not Iraq, Syria is not Iraq, Yemen is not Iraq, Bush is gone. Can someone construct a rap song built on this?

Nadim Shehadi is an associate fellow of Chatham House, and an academic visitor at St Antony's College, Oxford

Also by Nadim Shehadi: "The Arab revolt: transformation to transition" (22 February 2011)


Jane Kinninmont

The Arab spring is changing opposition movements as well as governments. Islamist movements are no exception.

For the past ten years, western perceptions of and policies towards the middle east have been shaped - and distorted - by the “war on terror”. Policies have been directed by the response to a small but violent minority aligned with Al-Qaida. This has encouraged the west to strengthen ties with authoritarian governments that promised to crush Al-Qaida - despite the fact that many of those governments have taken every opportunity to squelch peaceful, mainstream opposition groups too. It is now essential for western policy-makers to rethink their approaches to the region. One of their dilemmas is how to deal with Islamist movements.

The broad-based protest movements that have sprung up across the Arab world have prompted some analysts to talk about a “post-Islamist moment”. Despite Iran’s rather desperate efforts to brand these movements as heralding a new wave of Islamic revolutions, protesters have come from a broad range of ideologies and have expressed demands that are pretty much universal: an end to corruption, no more police brutality, jobs, equality, justice.

The most successful protests - in Egypt and Tunisia - saw a striking display of unity across ideologies and (in Egypt) religious sects. But existing Islamist movements, especially the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are inevitably going to be major players in the post-uprising political landscape of the Arab world. Their role will vary in every country.

“Islamism” is a poorly defined word that encompasses a wide spectrum of approaches from the belief in theocracy to the idea that Islam should be a source of values. Supporters of democracy are right to be concerned about groups which claim a monopoly on truth, foment sectarianism or ethnic tensions, smear and bully their opponents or reject minority rights - but these negative tendencies are neither universal to or exclusive to Islamist groups. Indeed, some of the region’s Islamist groups seek to build models of Islamic democratic participation, looking to Turkey as a model. It is intolerance, rather than Islamism, that democrats should object to.

One of the factors that has hobbled efforts to experiment with political movements that are both Islamic and democratic has been the utter unwillingness of most Arab governments to permit real democratic participation.

Over the coming years, if meaningful, powerful, representative democracies are actually established in Tunisia and Egypt, there is likely to be a flowering of new political movements and new ideas for progress. The existing Islamist movements, formed during decades of repression, will face new options as a result - but also new internal challenges from a younger generation of activists, some of whom want more pluralism and openness within those movements themselves. This is already beginning to happen in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Western governments should also remember that before the Iranian revolution made Islamists the bogeyman, the west - and its regional allies - were more worried about the challenges from Arab nationalists, secular and leftist movements. For instance, the Gulf states used to worry more about the influence of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt than they did about Iran. Bahrain’s first parliament was dissolved (in the event, for more than quarter of a century) because Arab nationalist MPs refused to endorse a restrictive state-security law, four years before Iran’s revolution.

Alliances and interests shift over time. The Arab spring is a good opportunity for western countries to rethink their interests in the middle east. They need to engage with movements that are genuinely representative, not just leaders that are pro-western. In any case, the west will not be able to dictate the future political landscape of the region.

Jane Kinninmont is senior research fellow on the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. She is the author of a collection of poems, Seven League Stilettos (Ragged Raven, 2004)


Tarek Osman

Young Arab liberals created the momentum that stirred the wave of revolts sweeping the Arab world. Arab middle classes gave the critical mass that bestowed legitimacy and forced change. The Islamist movements - different variants across the Arab world - provided organisational skills and tenacity in the face of regimes’ violence. The collective endeavour was the result of more than half a century of successive failures that today’s Arab societies feel were imposed on them and are keen to escape their consequences. But the spirit of togetherness will falter when the oppressive regimes fade.

The coming decade in the Arab world will see the emergence of three different and competing political projects. The liberals will try to graduate into viable parties vying to govern. Young faces untroubled by any political legacy will revive the liberal experiment the Arab world lived in the first half of the 20th century and that Arab nationalism abruptly ended in the early 1950s. The Islamist movement, increasingly unburdened by the suppression they have been subject to for the past half-century, will offer their own narratives in the social foreground. The capitalists who have been on the rise across the region since the 1990s will try to reinvent themselves as agents of economic development, and downplay their erstwhile alliance with the corrupt regimes that sheltered them.

In the short-to-medium run, the Islamists will enjoy the easiest ride. The thirty-year rise of Islamism as an identity throughout the Arab world, coupled with the internal changes that the Islamist movements have undergone, have produced moderate variants that present their thinking in secular terms. This will give the Islamists an edge over their rivals. But with time, and as the internal divisions and ideological struggles within the Islamic movements materialise, the liberals and the capitalists will gain prominence. The second decade of the 21st century will be immensely important for the Arab world - and interesting for all observers.

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)

Also by Tarek Osman: "Egypt: after revolt, transition" (9 February 2011)


Ivan Krastev

“Though all revolutions are failures”, wrote George Orwell, they are not all the same failure”. So, if it is easy to predict that in the coming months many of the young people who were on the streets of Cairo or Tunis will feel betrayed, it is more difficult to predict what kind of failure the Arab revolutions will be.

The word revolution has the power to generate analogies. There were analogies of hope: Roger Cohen saw the protests in the middle east as the Arab 1989. There were the analogies of fear: some conservatives were quick to compare the political awakening of the middle east with Iran’s Islamic revolution. There were analogies of wisdom: for Anne Appelbaum the explosion of political energy in the middle east resembled Europe’s 1848. All these analogies were made not to explain but to try to shape the events.

It is time to move beyond the tendency to think through an analogical frame and look at the events in their own terms. What then can be expected?

First, in the months to come the political developments in the middle east and north Africa will slowly lose their regional character. What is happening in Tunisia will start to mean less for what is happening in Egypt, and vice versa. If until now political commentators have been tempted to talk about the Arab spring or the Arab revolution (in the singular), they will begin to use the plural more.

Second, some of the key actors that captured publics' imagination in these 100 days will be marginalised. The revolution can be tweeted but the transition cannot. The chances for a negotiated transition are worse in the Arab world in comparison with eastern Europe. The two major protagonists of the political awakening so far - the army and the social-media connected youth - will have major difficulties in finding a common language and delivering a consensual transition. The army is the most hierarchical structure, the youth movement the most non-hierarchical one. 

So, everything that was so admirable about the young people on the street will turn into vulnerability - lack of leaders, lack of policy platforms, distaste for traditional ways of organising. At the same time, this generation preserves a high capacity to mobilise people and rightly feels itself to be the real force of change. Clashes between the army and the most radical youth groups are to be expected.

Third, and unlike in eastern Europe, the opening of the political space will offer many more dividing-lines over the economy and particularly over support for market liberalisation. The Arab revolutions can easily fuel anti-market sentiments.

Fourth, western policies are doomed to follow a double standard, even in face of criticism of a lack of principles and consistency. Democratisation can easily escalate sectarian and tribal divides, and most western governments - formally committed to democracy - will pursue as their major objective the avoidance of civil war and of long-term instability.

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia; executive director of the International Commission on the Balkans; permanent fellow of the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Institute for Human Sciences / IWM) in Vienna; and a board member of the European Council on Foreign Affairs. He is the editor-in-chief of the Bulgarian edition of Foreign Policy and a frequent contributor toTransit - Europäische Revue (edited at the IWM)

Also by Ivan Krastev: "Arab revolutions, Turkey's dilemmas: zero chance for 'zero problems'" (24 March 2011)


Robert G Rabil

The popular movements sweeping the middle east, some of which turned into successful revolutions, have broken two stagnant paradigms. They brought to an end the notion, fed by Arab rulers, that the alternative to their oppressive rule is radical Islam. They also shattered the psychosis of fear the regimes had hammered into the collective consciousness of their nations.

But where this historic implosion of Arab society, led by the untamed courage of the Arab youth, has toppled Pharaoh, it has thus far failed to bring down the edifice upon which Arab regimes rest. Broadly speaking, for the last few decades Arab regimes have woven themselves into the middle east tapestry of cultures, sects, ethno-religious and nationalist conflicts and causes.

Paradoxically, where homogeneity and historical political communities prevailed the political order has been shaken by the popular movements; and where heterogeneity and pan-Arabism prevailed the political order has tried to co-opt these movements. The latter is set in sharp relief by the ruler in Damascus arrogating the sceptre of power in the name of stability and Arab nationalism, and the ruler in Mecca holding the sceptre of wealth and power in the name of Orthodox Islam and Arabism.

The corollary of this complex condition is an uphill battle for political and economic reforms played out in a new regional environment where popular empowerment is matched by the Arab regimes' determination to control reform without being dislodged.

No doubt, Arab regimes can longer hide behind the fig leaf of their failed policies or sectarian and nationalist excuses. But the battle for democratic pluralism and universal rights in the middle east will be decided by the capacity of the new popular movements to organise themselves and cooperate with most segments of Arab society. This reformist path will be uneven, incomplete and at times bloody and uncertain; but it cannot be reversed.

Robert G Rabil is associate professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon(Lynne Reinner, 2003); Syria, the United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Praeger, 2006);  and the forthcoming Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism (2011)


Foulath Hadid & Mishana Hosseinioun

Arab politics for almost a century has been a torpid world where rulers owned the state, and the ruled were stripped of the most basic rights.

The passivity of Arabs in the face of such authoritarianism was often derided - especially as Iranians and east Europeans overcame their “security states”. Now, in 2011, is it possible that Arabs - Tunisians and Egyptians, now joined by Libyans, Bahrainis, Yemenis and Syrians - will win freedom and justice for themselves?

A necessarily short reflection can only suggest an answer. The events of these three months are inspiring, but the problems ahead are great. The outgoing regimes in Egypt and Tunisia prevented any independent institutions emerging that could have challenged their authority, leaving a damaging void. What remains on the Arab stage are four actors: the military establishment, the Islamic movements, the secular but as yet unorganised opposition, and the United States and its allies. The incoming governance system may have temporarily to rely for their authority on a mix of two or three (or even all) of those groups.

The newly liberated regimes have rushed to write or amend their constitutions, instead of taking time to reconsider their countries’ needs as a whole and from all aspects. The two-year process in the United States, and Japan and Germany after their defeats in 1945, are examples of polities where long reflection preceded calm implementation. The regenerated Arab states need a similar preparatory period; and they could benefit by looking closely at the Turkish model, where democracy, Islam and modernity have come to coexist and where a variant of the aforementioned mix is practiced.

Yet the day of the dictator is over in the middle east. An important agent of the change is a middle class desirous of a better life and convinced that the existing order is incapable of delivering it. This is reflected in the entry to public life of a new breed of Arab freedom fighters armed with college degrees and social-networking tools - yet crushed by unemployment, dismal career prospects, and the sight of their leaders’ pervasive corruption.

The lessons are for the United States and its allies too. They need urgently a soft-power approach to the Arab world, and to move beyond the confused policy of raining down missiles (first on Iraq, now on Libya) without a clear post-war policy. It is the right time for America to recalibrate its Arab policy as a whole, including its unqualified support for Israel.

The “Arab spring” has unleashed forces that cannot yet be harnessed into a system of government unless ably guided by responsible leaders. Their agenda should be to deliver a free and democratic society. Any failure could turn hope into an Arab winter of discontent. The stakes are very high. A century of disappointment is enough.

Foulath Hadid and Mishana Hosseinioun are scholars of the middle east at Oxford University. Among their articles: "The middle east path: towards awakening" (28 January 2011)


Krzysztof Bobinski

In all the confusion accompanying the events in the middle east and north Africa, one thing is clear - it is an Arab spring, it is an awakening. And the democratic narrative which accompanies the protests would have heartened dear old Eleanor Roosevelt and her Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the core.

Evidently, when dictatorships crack and crumble the underlying social conflicts they once brutally repressed, come to the fore. It was like that with Yugoslavia and, to an extent, in central and eastern Europe after 1989. In the middle east and north Africa historic rifts are reappearing, tribes set against other tribes, religious minorities kick against religious majorities and vice versa, historic territories reappear and demand autonomy.

But the demand on the street (for now) is for democracy, freedom and not for the annihilation of “the others”. Moreover, the thrust of the protests has not (maybe not yet?) been directed against the former colonial powers, the western Europeans and the United States. Indeed in Libya, the armed Nato intervention is on the side of the angels against a brutal dictator.

The protesters, many of them losing or risking their lives, are fighting for human dignity, a better life and freedom. These are the very ingredients of the UN human-rights declaration, which makes no distinction between race and creed but simply states we all have human rights irrespective of whether someone thinks “we are ready for democracy” or not. The protesters are looking for democracy and good governance. They want social structures which deliver a fairer daily existence, not corruption and police repression.

This represents the success of the rhetoric which the protesters have heard for so long from the US and the European Union, be it Condoleezza Rice’s speech in Cairo in 2005 or the oft-repeated if muted democratic mantra coming from Brussels. The Italians (and the EU in general) are afraid of the Arab refugees fleeing north to the Italian island of Lampedusa and beyond. The EU should take it as a compliment. After all they are heading in a direction which represents the kind of place in which they would like to live. Voting with your feet is the most decisive of electoral behaviour.

Now, having demonstrated its soft power, can the EU (this time with the US in tow rather than in the vanguard) rise to the challenge of underpinning the changes the protesters are fighting for? Or will Europe, anxiously looking for stabilisation, be content to see the protests subside or be taken over by new tyrannical elites?

If “the west” allows that to happen it will have missed an enormous opportunity to support the spread of universal democratic values just when it seemed that autocracy was on the march throughout the world. Were our “western” leaders to fail the vision test, the late Eleanor Roosevelt will not be the only one to be sorely disappointed.

Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Warsaw correspondent of the Financial Times (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski: "Poland's second Katyn: out of the ashes" (13 April 2010)


Alejandro Colás

The fate of the “Arab spring” lies in specific configurations of different local, regional and international forces. It is now clear that the multiple revolts which fall under the rubric of the “Arab spring” stem from a common regional root, but have distinctive national dynamics. A sort of civic republicanism has underpinned much of the protest as men and women of all ages, classes, regions, beliefs and professions have fearlessly taken the streets to collectively claim back responsibility for their own countries, in the process invoking dignity, justice, freedom and democracy as their political goals.

Yet thus far it is only in Tunisia and Egypt that these principles have made some ground, and not without bloodshed. Notwithstanding its decapitation, it will take radical change, and probably more violence to disassemble the military-industrial complex that continues to form the backbone of the Egyptian state, not least because of the latter’s powerful allies inside the Washington beltway. Similarly, the Tunisian social sectors that profited from Ben Ali’s iron-fisted neo-liberalism will not readily give up their privileges in the coming years, even if their overseas support comes chiefly from the minor-league geopolitical capitals of Europe. Democratic revolutions do not automatically beget democratic institutions.

Meanwhile, for the peoples of Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Sudan, the echoes of Tahrir Square are drowned out by years of war, occupation, insurgency and civil strife. Revolts in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and - it seems, Syria - have been successfully repressed, while protests in Algeria, Morocco and Jordan have to date been relatively muted. Only in Yemen have the events of Tunis and Cairo significantly reshaped the fraught politics of unification under Ali Abdullah Saleh. The demonstration effect of transnational revolution has thus been deeply uneven.

Paradoxically, it is in Libya - the famed regional exception - where some of the critical issues for the future direction of the wider “Arab spring” are currently playing themselves out. The Libyan civil war drives home the point that, when state authority is radically challenged, power lies with those who command weapons and a disciplined organisation. Of all the opposition movements across the region, only the Islamists can currently claim ready access to both these political resources. The rest may - like the Cyrenaican insurgents - declare a monopoly on political legitimacy, but will rely on foreign assistance to uproot existing power structures. The “international community”, however, tends to plump for order over justice. Without dramatic changes in western foreign policy, and absent any powerful democratic internationalist forces “from below”, it is unlikely the Arab spring will, in the foreseeable future at least, bear any more substantial fruit than constitutional reform.

Alejandro Colás teaches international relations at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of Empire (Polity, 2007) and co-editor of Mercenaries, Pirates, Bandits and Empires: Private Violence in Historical Perspective (C Hurst, 2011)


Mansoor Mirza

Despite the sudden and euphoric eruptions of political protest against the region’s authoritarian regimes, there is much to be cautious about.  Demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia, in forcing the departure of Mubarak and Ben Ali, have taken only the first steps towards democracy and political change.  In both countries, remnants of the old regime - most notably the army and previous ruling elites - show few signs of receding from power.

In Libya too, a military stalemate between Gaddafi’s forces and the opposition rebels looks to be setting in. Gaddafi refuses to step down and the opposition “interim transitional council” remains determined - and rightly so - to see the leader and his sons removed from power. With no clear outcome in sight, the war is likely to become long and intractable with comparisons to the failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan looking more appropriate.

In other countries, demonstrators have been met with severe state repression.  The claim that humanitarian concerns underlie western military intervention in Libya seems glaringly hypocritical when peaceful protests in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain are being ruthlessly suppressed with impunity.

Where does all this leave the Arab spring? To retaining its momentum will be crucial. The autocratic regimes of the middle east will use everything within their means to stay in power. Western military intervention has not proven to be an effective way to promote democratic forces within the region, nor will it be possible in every case. Yet international pressure, so vital in restricting the use of regime violence against the opposition movements in Tunisia and Egypt, must be applied elsewhere in the region if the momentum of the Arab spring is not to be lost.

In the absence of this pressure, “people power” in the region is likely to be crushed and with it, the hopes and aspirations of yet another generation of young Arabs desperate to emerge from political obscurity.

Mansoor Mirza is researcher on Islam and nationalism in Egypt at the London School of Economics (LSE). He previously worked as a journalist in Egypt, and for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in London

Also by Mansoor Mirza: "Egypt's new politics: the democratic test" (11 March 2011)


Arthur Ituassu

The Arab spring is a social, structural change that encompasses both national politics and international relations. It seems to me that these existing structures are no longer capable of dealing with the interests and ideas of the nations and the peoples in the region. The new democracies, as and when they arrive, will emerge into different national contexts where their will and capacity to politically manage the many interests involved will be tested.

These contexts are indeed very diverse, and I think one cannot really tell in what direction things are going - or how positive or negative the results will be for the Arab people or the world. What is clearer is that the western great powers will have to face the limits of their respect for, and the need to understand, the "other" or "others" within the Arab world. 

Libya represents a deep dilemma, full of contradictions. If the western great powers had ignored events there, they would lose credibility; yet this is not a good moment for international intervention, either politically or economically. These powers are facing in the Arab world rebellions that in part are characterised by anti-Americanism or anti-Europeanism, even when rebels are supporting democracy; at the same time, they don't know well who and what they are dealing with. Here, the limit of the controls established by the western powers in the Arab world are increasingly evident, as the nations and peoples of the region come to the fore.  

Overall, I think that instability will be the rule for some time to come. I hope that as the idea of democracy advances it can establish itself as the best solution for politically and peacefully handling multiple and different interests.

Arthur Ituassu is professor in the department of social communication at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro. His website is here.

Also by Arthur Ituassu: “After the party: Dilma and Brazil” (22 November 2010)


Ramin Jahanbegloo

The demand for democracy - or better, the passion for democracy - is sweeping through the Arab world, inspiring popular movements that demand political change. As it does, there are legitimate fears among many of the middle-east’s citizens about what democratic states there will look like. The central question is: how will this democratic and profoundly anti-authoritarian moment, led by peoples ready for a government based on popular sovereignty, live on in the hearts of Tunisians, Egyptians, and others?

It is as difficult to be certain about what comes after the Arab democratic revolts in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, as it is about Iran. Some of these countries, Libya and Yemen for example, do not possess strong civil-society frameworks with the capacity to force out their leaders without engaging in civil strife. Tunisia and Egypt did have this capacity, and there too the army saw itself as a mediator between the regime and the people in revolt - and in the end decided to take the side of the people.

The Iranian dimension of these events is important, though complex. The Islamic regime maintains tight control over the public sphere via force, torture, executions, and house-arrests of key opposition figures; and is backed by the economically powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as well as the ideologically committed Basij militia. This is a contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, where Mubarak and Ben Ali’s military and security had been centralised around their personal command and apparatus, and lacked substantial leadership capacity.

At the same time, it seems that the Arab uprisings have re-energised Iranian civil society, helping it become firmer and more outspoken in its demands for democratisation. The Iranian democratic movement, two years after the stolen election, is as alert to the events in the Arab world as is the fearful regime.

The Libyan experience is of full-blown violence resulting from Muammar Gaddafi’s failure to look for a way to settle the internal dispute peacefully. The experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that military engagement in Libya will affect the course of democratisation there for years to come. In this respect both Iran’s green movement and Libya’s civil strife alike articulate a clear message: the regimes of Tripoli and Tehran have lost their legitimacy, and their grip on power will become increasingly tenuous and costly.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is professor in the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto. He was previously Rajni Kothari professor of democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. His twenty books include India Revisited: Conversations on Contemporary India (Oxford University Press, 2007). His website is here.

Also by Ramin Jahanbegloo: "The new middle east: a civic revolution" (17 February 2011)


Paul Rogers

Three months into the Arab spring, and the first month remains pivotal. It was partly the suddenness of the fall of the Tunisian regime but even more significant was the astonishing change in Egypt, where an autocratic and entrenched regime collapsed in the face of mass public protest.

Some regimes, including Jordan, Oman and Morocco, have since tried to respond by deflecting protest, with variable success. Others, including Yemen and Syria, have used repression. Yemen’s may just hasten Ali Abdullah Saleh’s demise, Syria’s makes clear the choice between rapid reform and deep instability. Of all the governments across the region, the Bashar al-Assad regime will be most concerned at the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

The Saudis and the Emirates are deeply concerned, hence the violence against protesters in Bahrain. Such repression shows the extent of western hypocrisy, given the ultra-close security links with these regimes, let alone the juxtaposition of arms fairs in Abu Dhabi with the violence in Bahrain along the coast.

In Libya, protests led to rebellion and then ruthless exertions by the Gaddafi regime to control dissent. Despite the recent military links, the ruler in Tripoli remains less acceptable to the west than other autocrats. Yet as the war becomes more intensely an Anglo-French endeavour, and if a stalemate ensues, then Gaddafi will have time on his side in his efforts to portray this as one more western assault on the Arab world.

Beyond all the complications, though, one issue remains which transcends even the Libyan war. That is the power of popular protest, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt. That will worry every regime across the region, including Iran - with implications extending into central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Therein lies the real significance of these three months.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010)

Also by Paul Rogers, his 500th weekly column on openDemocracy since September 2001: "Libya and a decade's war" (1 April 2011)


Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi

The Arab spring of 2011 is, three months on, clearly very much still a work in progress. Tunisia and Egypt, the two countries whose restive citizens managed to topple their corrupt regimes, are undergoing a “learn as you go” experience that will prove to be the bellwether and roadmap for other free Arab states. Perhaps too for each other: the Tunisian revolution is already setting a template that Egypt might follow in a series of bold steps: rewriting its constitution rather than amending the existing one, issuing an arrest-warrant for the former dictator, and dissolving the corrupt former ruling party.

The vast majority of Arabs who have taken to the streets in the past twelve weeks have shared similar peaceful demands, including putting an end to corruption and a larger say in the running of their countries via free and fair elections.

The spectrum of responses from Arab governments ranges from outright denial that there exists any problem to blaming “foreign elements” and using ruthless force. In only a few instances have governments made concessions in face of their citizens’ demands, such as Algeria’s lifting of the state of emergency, and the Sultan of Oman’s sacking of fifteen ministers and senior aides. Colonel Gaddafi’s repression of protest in Libya put a sudden stop to the process of peaceful and relatively smooth transition opened by Egypt and Tunisia, leading to international intervention and denying Libyans the chance to lead a civilian revolution.

It may turn out that, for the foreseeable future, some Arab tyrants survive the Arab spring and continue violently to suppress their people’s aspirations to freedom. But cracks are evident within elite circles. Even if hardline regimes survive, the pioneering role of Tunisia and Egypt will have a major influence over the Arab populations.

The Arab spring is a work in progress. It cannot be constrained by any timeframe, and may yet extend to 2012 or beyond. But it has already set free almost 100 million Arabs in north Africa, about a third of the whole. As the other two-thirds continue to press for change, they will be crucially empowered by Egypt and Tunisia’s ability to lead by example. These countries’ re-emergence as democratic, independent and just states will help to turn the movement of 2011 into an unstoppable wave to end tyranny in the Arab world.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is an analyst of Arab affairs

Also by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi: "Egypt: from revolt to change" (8 February 2011)


George Lawson

To some extent, all revolutions are particular, relying on a specific interaction of local characteristics and broader factors. This makes revolutions impossible to replicate, regardless of the attempts by revolutionaries to make Egypt in Libya, Cuba in Bolivia, and Russia in Afghanistan.

But this revolutionary particularity does not go all the way down. In fact, there are core dynamics to revolutions - what I call “revolutionary anatomies” - which allow them to be compared, if not copied. Of these dynamics, three above all stand out: the actions of the coercive apparatus; the degree of elite fracture; and the extent of popular mobilisation. In short, if the armed forces are willing to kill their own people, if the elite stays broadly intact, and if people are not willing to die for their cause, revolution will not take place. This, amongst other reasons, is why successful revolutions are so rare.

This understanding of revolution helps us navigate the diverse trajectories of the Arab spring. At one extreme lies Egypt, where the army removed its support for the regime, where the elite fractured significantly, and where protesters were both well organised and highly committed. At the other extreme lies Libya, where Gaddafi’s forces have been willing to fight and where the cabal around the leader remains relatively tight, at least for now. In this case, despite the dedication of the Libyan rebellion, and despite international support from the air, the regime remains in charge. Such an assessment reveals an uncomfortable truth - the most important factor of revolutionary success is not mass protest, but state stability.

So where is the Arab spring going? The truth is that nobody knows: Gaddafi may lose ground to the rebels and elite fissures may deepen; the regimes in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, already precarious, may weaken or even fall. But in determining which paths the revolutionary movements follow, the role of the coercive apparatus, the degree of elite fracture, and the extent of popular mobilisation will, in that order of importance, take centre stage.

George Lawson is a lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE) and convenor of the British International Studies Association's working group on international relations and historical sociology. His books include Negotiated Revolutions: The Czech Republic, South Africa and Chile (Ashgate, 2004) and (as co-editor) The Global 1989: Continuity and Change in World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Also by George Lawson: "The global 1989" (19 November 2010)


Nasrin Alavi

Joseph Goebbels, who claimed to “have made the Reich by propaganda”, also saw “the truth” as “the greatest enemy of the [Nazi] State.”

The tyrant’s truth still remains vital. In March 2011, as Muammar Gaddafi continued brutally to massacre his own population, he showed no compunction in proclaiming that “the moment of truth had come” to “destroy them” and to “destroy their communications points that are spreading lies to you.”

Gaddafi’s regime, like Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s before it - simply cut off online access. The internet could not and did not set the people free. But there are many tools and innovations that can aid the struggle for civil rights and democracy.

Cyber-technology can diminish a dictator’s monopoly of “truth”. The footage of senseless carnage disseminated online - and the fact that western states have supplied the region’s despots with deadly military equipment - makes clear that noble Arab governments’ (or caliphs’) talk of “justice, truth and equality” is a sham. In this new age of higher conciseness, the cyberactive “third eye” also holds power accountable.

Perhaps nothing proves the untruth of the Islamic Republic’s promise of utopia than the YouTube footage of the bloodied faces of Iran’s guiltless young people, asking merely for their votes to be counted.

The cameras, zooming and shaky as they are, also hold to account those who claim to be the sole guardians of democracy in the region but whose illegal settlers act no differently to history’s worst thugs. If there is one thing we all share in this fight, it is the attainment of the kind of truth that threatened Goebbels and has ever since endangered his successors, those who use brute violence to crush the hunger for life.

Nasrin Alavi is the author of We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs (Portobello Books, 2005), which was translated into several languages. She is a contributor to Nader Hashemi & Danny Postel eds., The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Freedom in Iran (Melville House, 2011)

Also by Nasrin Alavi: "Iran's resilient rebellion" (18 February 2011)


Christopher R Davidson

The first phase of the Arab revolutions of 2011 has come to an end. In it, populations were able to rally in great numbers and expose the corruption of their aged, decadent rulers. Poverty and injustice were the trigger, intensive modernising forces that could no longer be co-opted or closed down by regimes - internet social media and satellite television - the fuel. Tunisians and Egyptians, faced with hesitant dictators who responded with unimaginative measures, forced their resignations in a largely peaceful process. 

The second phase of revolutions is now well underway. In these - most notably in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Syria - the rulers have stood firmer than their counterparts did in Tunisia and Egypt. They have proven their willingness to open fire on their own people, massacring if need be. And in Libya and Bahrain's case, they have brought in foreign mercenaries and even foreign powers to help subjugate their populations. 

These tactics will enable such regimes to last a bit longer. But soon enough they too will fall, for the same underlying and modernising forces are at play there. Later in 2011, the third and decisive phase of the revolutions will begin. It will encompass both those regimes that have been quick to repress their people and those with the resources to distribute wealth and economic opportunities to their citizens. The people of these countries too, aware that they deserve more accountable governments, will expose the backwardness of rulers that know only how to bribe or threaten, while failing to plan for sustainable post-oil futures. Such anachronistic states, surrounded by larger and more populous Arab democracies, will also have their day.

Two exceptions are likely: Kuwait and Qatar. The former, derided for years by its neighbours for having a rather boisterous parliament, nonetheless provides its people with a voice. The latter, with massive GDP per capita and a powerful news organisation that has been bold in covering the revolutions, is effectively positioning itself as the Arab Switzerland.

Christopher M Davidson is a fellow of the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Durham University, and a former assistant professor of politics at Zayed University, Dubai. He is the author of The United Arab Emirates: A Study in Survival(Lynne Reiner, 2005), Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success (C Hurst, 2008) and The Persian Gulf and Pacific Asia: From Indifference to Independence (C Hurst, 2010)

Also by Christopher M Davidson (as co-author): "Bahrain on the edge" (19 October 2010)


Kerem Oktem

Nicholas Kristof suggests that democracy is a messy affair. The prospects are that a democratic turn in the Arab world will bring violence, extremism and instability, he argues, but these are risks worth taking as they will eventually pave the way for more representative government (see “Democracy is messy”, New York Times, 30 March 2011).

This may be true in principle, but there is an important caveat: less authoritarian control creates more opportunities for behind-the-scenes manipulation by domestic as well as external actors. Some of the rather nasty recent twists and turns on the “Egyptian street” - women being attacked by religious fanatics, unexpected violence and clashes over the new constitution - are not just the messy side-effects of transition politics. They are the result of the actions of the old regime’s self-declared guardians. An old regime which enjoyed considerable financial, military and political support from the United States and European countries.

If commentators today appear to be much less concerned by the prospect of an Islamist insurgency in the middle east than only two months ago, it is because no radical shifts in regional power structures are imminent: the oil supply is secure, Israel continues its occupation, and there are even more ways at the disposal of the US and European states to keep governments in tune with western interests than in times of US-backed dictatorships.

Turkey’s troubled experience of electoral politics suggests that half-hearted democratic transition is not a lesser evil: rather, it empowers military guardians and weakens accountability and real representation. Such clandestine power structures linked to US interests, parallel “deep states” and the like might secure western hegemony, though they will not address the burning issues of the impoverished millions. Unfortunately, this is the option now on the table of those Arab states whose people were spared the fate of Bahrain’s brutal reassertion of power.

There is no Arab spring yet, but mixed weather conditions ahead.

Kerem Oktem is research fellow of the European Studies Centre at Oxford University. His latest book is Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989 (Zed Books, 2010). His website is here, and Angry Nation's website is here

Also by Kerem Oktem: "Turkey and Israel: ends and beginnings" (10 December 2009)


Keith Kahn-Harris

The revolutions, attempted revolutions and counter-revolutions that have engulfed the middle east in these few months should prompt some soul-searching among the western commentariat. There have never been more outlets for opinion and discussion in the brave new internet-driven public sphere, and the middle east is one of the hottest of hot topics. Yet despite their being no lack of “experts”, almost everyone seems to have got it wrong.

It’s not just that few people predicted the events of 2011. It’s very difficult to predict when the straw will break the camel’s back and some commentators did indeed forecast that an explosion was going to happen at some point. The real failure is deeper, in the worldviews that the commentariat perpetuate and that have been found deeply wanting.

The neo-conservatives have been struggling the most, veering between seeing the Arab spring as a vindication of the Iraq war and making apocalyptic prophesies about the triumph of Islamic fundamentalism. Supporters of Israel also veer between backing embattled tyrannies and crowing that the revolutions show that the future of the middle east has never boiled down to the question of Israel. The left is tearing itself apart anew over the question of military intervention in Libya. No one can agree on who has been vindicated about what. No one knows whether to fear or welcome the new regimes that may or may not be emerging and what the place of Islamism might or might not be within them.

This should be a time for humility and self-examination within the western public sphere. While we have long been obsessed with the middle east and produced endless verbiage on it, we mostly fail to understand it or have some kind of coherent vision for its future. Now is the time to watch, learn and think.

Keith Kahn-Harris is honorary research fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College. He is the author (with Ben Gidley) of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today (Continuum July 2010). He has written widely on Israel, Jewish affairs and politics. His website is here.

Also by Keith Kahn-Harris: "How to talk about things we know nothing about" (21 February 2008)


Martin Shaw

What a difference six weeks make. In mid-February 2011, largely peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt seemed to be spreading throughout the Arab world, notably in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. In early April, Bahrain has seen repeated violent repression, Yemen massacres of protesters, and the Libyan revolution has escalated to civil and international war. In Syria, where the protest movement is still spreading mostly strongly, it is also meeting extremely violent opposition.

This is hardly a surprise: revolutions, however peaceful, usually provoke violent counter-revolution. There has been armed repression in all phases of the global democratic revolution - even central Europe’s abnormally peaceful 1989 saw counter-revolutionary violence in Romania, while narrowly avoiding it elsewhere. It is more surprising that authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt gave way without extensive violence, than that the remaining monarchies and republican dynasties are resorting to force.

The idea of an “Arab spring”  conceals a big difference between 2011 and Europe’s 1989. The central European countries benefited from the disintegration of the Soviet empire. Some Arab states are tied in to the looser imperial networks of United States and western power, but local rulers have more autonomy, the US clearly prioritises geopolitical interest over democracy-promotion, and the “empire” is not falling apart.

So the full scale of the challenge facing democratic movements is now becoming apparent. Regimes built up over decades, with efficient security and military apparatuses, habituated to containing and repressing society, will mostly not blow over in the face of a wave of courageous protest. Oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia may combine repression with handouts, but repression is still the core of the response.

Even as more demonstrators fall to regime gunfire in Yemen and Syria, it could be that Libya is where the Arab revolution showed its darker side and began to slow. United Nations and western intervention is unlikely to help the regional momentum unless Gaddafi’s rule collapses with unexpected swiftness.

Yet whatever the immediate outcome in these three crucial states, the Arab revolutions have shown that in the medium term, autocracy is on the way out across one of the world regions in which it has been most entrenched. Democratic change has still to be institutionalised in Egypt, but if it is, it will surely open up the transformed Arab political space still further. Authoritarian rulers everywhere - not least in China - are watching nervously, and with good reason.

Martin Shaw is professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at Roehampton University, London, and an honorary research professor of international relations  at the University of Sussex. Among his books are War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern SocietyThe New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005); and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). His website is here (Polity, 2003);

Also by Martin Shaw: "The global democratic revolution: a new stage" (7 March 2011)


Rada Ivekovic

The impulse of the Arab insurrections is to seek social justice, political rights and reforms, personal freedoms: the accomplishment of modernity in a transnational spirit without religious claims or anti-western slogans. The pan-Arabic public space which Al-Jazeera did so much to create helped make them possible. Yet a definitive feature of these three months is that each country has its specificities. The large expectations may not be met, at least not yet; it will take time.

The diverse Arab movements and voices emerging from the insurrections have many challenges, including negotiating modern political demands beyond the clientelist negotiations of the old power-networks. There are promising trends here, in Palestinian efforts to reconcile Hamas and the PLO, in Lebanon against religious sectarianism, and among women in most countries.

Where is Europe in relation to these events? In 1989, it was thought that the Berlin wall had fallen to one side only - that of “communism”. Now that capitalism has failed too,it can be seen that it fell on both. Globalisation makes 1989 and post-coloniality almost contemporary. Europe herself was never decolonised, socially and politically; she never learned from the continent’s reunification, never built a common project (with immigrants, former colonies, former socialist countries, or its own populations).

Europe is neither a political nor a social project. It needs to have such a dual project on its long-term agenda, which needs to be worked out with all the “others” involved, including now with Arab neighbours. The requirements include taking a stand on Israel/Palestine (the last and toughest domino in the Arab spring), on immigration (opening, not closing borders), on its internal insubordinates (women and others), and on its outcasts (the Roma). Before it is rises again, Europe may first have to hit the bottom.

The reassertion of power by Arab rulers shows that there is no democratic guarantee. But the outcome depends partly on the west too, and whether it can support and respect Arab aspirations - but from afar and without intervention, for war is no option.

The Arab spring contains lessons for Europe. Whether Europe is ready to learn them is an open question.

Rada Ivekovic is a philosopher and university professor, based in France. She has published books on philosophy, Indology and national identity. She is a member of the editorial board of Transeuropéennes and of the research network Terra.

Also by Rada Ivekovic: "Arab insurgencies, women in transition" (8 March 2011)


Patrice de Beer

The new Arab spring has been and will be for a long time analysed by experts and pundits, almost none of whom saw it coming - even if some French intellectuals act as if they had, in the spirit expressed by Jean Cocteau: Ces mystères nous dépassent, feignons d'en être les organisateurs (“These mysteries are overwhelming us, let's pretend we organised them”!).

The wind of change that has swept Maghreb and Mashreq alike is unmistakable. But these Arab politicians swept away or threatened by millions chanting for dignity and the right to decent living have been armed, financed, pampered, and even sometimes put into power by the west under the pretence of fighting communism, then Islamic terrorism, or to give Israel a “secure” environment. The Libyan dictator is the best example of a tyrant-turned-billionaire thanks to western governments and businesses all too ready to make any compromise in order to sell their goods (including weapons).  

It is against these same dictators that the Arabs have risen, chanting the same slogans for democracy once chanted in the streets of Paris, London, Berlin or Washington. The craving for democracy should not be underestimated. But elections do not always mean democracy nor necessarily bring stability and economic recovery. The enemies of change - from the old regime, like Egypt’s military, or from Islamists craving to jump on the bandwagon of freedom - have the capacity to create instability, even violence. Any new Arab democracy will be diverse, fragile, imperfect, and different from the kind George W Bush wanted to impose on Iraq. 

In any event, Arabs are only human beings and Europeans or other outsiders are in no position to dictate their choices as has happened too often in the past. This new era is full of hope and worries alike. This time, let's not play the wrong, patronising or egoistic, card. It might discredit us even more and cost us even more than our past and ongoing compromises with unsavoury regimes.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

Also by Patrice de Beer: "France, Europe, and the Arab maelstrom" (9 March 2011)


Rein Müllerson

In light of my experience as a member of the International Fact-Finding Commission into the violent events of mid-2010 in southern Kyrgyzstan - a country where one of the so-called “colour revolutions” had taken place five years earlier - I am even more reluctant than otherwise to speak of springs, dawns or democratic revolutions in the Arab world or elsewhere without significant qualifications and hedging of my bets. 

There is no doubt that all the regimes in the region being assailed by their own people have been, though in differing degrees, repressive; and that people’s discontent of people is genuine and homegrown (even though various outside players try to influence outcomes in their own interest). There is no doubt either that these events are interconnected across Arab countries, and it is possible that events there can have resonances elsewhere. But the nature of the links in the Arab “chain” and those in other regions are very different, meaning that the particular outcomes of the respective chain-reactions may be too. 

The collapse of the former communist countries at the end of the 20th century led to liberal democracy in some and civil wars, acts of genocide or crimes against humanity in others. Today’s developments in the Arab world will also have differing outcomes. There are also a huge number of known unknowns and probably even more unknown unknowns, as well as more and less plausible outcomes that will vary from state to state. 

In Libya, for example, suppressed tribal rivalries and group interests will probably surface when the Gaddafi period comes to an end. In most other countries political Islam will become more active, though not necessarily in extreme forms. At least some Arab states will become freer and more alert to their peoples’ needs, though political freedoms can be short-lived without jobs and economic development. Moreover, the more responsive to their people Arab governments become, the less responsive to the interests of the west they may be. In that respect, the west’s long-term response is even more important than its short-term protection of civilians from Gaddafi’s thugs.

Not all of those who rebel against oppression are democrats. The leader of the Russian peasant revolt of the 18th century, Yemeljan Pugachov, impersonated the murdered Tsar Peter III. True, almost all rebel leaders today use democratic slogans, and many sincerely believe in them. This signifies the huge progress of humankind. But where the outside world is concerned it would be counterproductive to try to impose any solutions: either shoring up autocrats or supporting their overthrow. It is prudent to err on the side of caution and let events take their natural cause. Of course, this warning does not apply when regimes embark on mass murder of their own people.

Rein Müllerson is the president of the Academy of Law of Tallinn University, Estonia. He was professor and chair of international law at King's College, London (1994-2009). His books include Human Rights Diplomacy (Routledge, 1996);Central Asia: A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game (Kegan Paul, 2007); and Democracy – A Destiny of Humankind? A Qualified, Contingent and Contextual Case for Democracy Promotion (Nova, 2009)

Also by Rein Müllerson: "The guns of August, two years later" (17 August 2010)


Robert Springborg

The full-blown uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, as well as a partial (at the time of writing) one in Syria and sputtering discontent in Morocco, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, have all been propelled by broadly based protest movements, at least in their initial phases. The inclusiveness of those movements attests to the narrow base of the regimes against which they have rebelled, the depth of antagonism toward them, and the degree to which civil and political societies have been degraded by decades of authoritarian rule.

Only in Bahrain did organisations of civil and political society play key coordinating roles. Elsewhere the prominence of social media and young people adept at utilising them suggest the political vacuum into which the generation armed with IT gadgetry have moved. The very lack of institutionalised leadership of the oppositions contributed to their ability to incorporate potentially incompatible participants, such as Islamists and secularists, young and old, men and women, workers and professionals.

But the amorphous nature of these protest movements also has costs, which become more apparent when the protesters achieve at least partial success, as they have in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and look set to do in Yemen. Coalitions of the whole that include such diverse forces as Islamists and westernised women cannot be sustained once the unifying force of opposition to a detested, incumbent leader is removed. And while those leaders have gone, important elements of the regimes they created remain in place.

The appeal of order in the face of crime waves, political uncertainties and growing economic hardships rebounds to the favour of the residues of ancien regimes and the discipline they represent and may be capable of reimposing. Such residual elements can also reach out to one or more components of opposition movements with offers of inclusion in the newly reconstituted, modified old order, thereby splitting broader movements.

These oppositions and their components - having little if any previous experience of political bargaining and compromise, such as would have been made possible by representation in effective parliaments, local governments, or inclusive civil-society organisations, and in the absence of established structures or mechanisms for dispute resolution - are severely disadvantaged in the face of more unified (if much weakened) ancien regime holdovers.

Nevertheless, political clocks cannot be turned back. Too much political mobilisation has occurred for the status quo ante to be fully restored. Legitimating myths that sustained ancien regimes have lost irrevocably whatever remaining potency they had. The appeals of radical nationalism by army officers and of divine rights by kings are now less compelling than the attractions of accountable, transparent and effective governance and the economic fruits associated with it.

The political systems shaken by the semi-successful protest movements of the Arab spring are unable to retreat, but facing a difficult way forward.  What does the future hold for them?

In a word, those polities in which ancien regimes are toppled will become more inclusive, hence necessarily less authoritarian. The various constituencies of workers, globalised youths, Islamists, Christians, tribesmen, and others mobilised into political action are too large and imbued of their own sense of power to be completely excluded from newly constructed political orders.

The process of inclusion, however, will be messy, uneven and protracted. The relative strengths of the contending parties are yet to be gauged and the rules by which they will contest for power still to be established; and forces opposed to transitions to democracy remain powerful. So while the path ahead is rocky and uncertain, consensus that such a path should be found is strong enough to propel uneven progress toward democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, and probably also ultimately in Libya and Yemen.

As for those countries in which ancien regimes remain fully entrenched, including Syria and Bahrain, the outlook is much more uncertain. Those regimes have suffered blows from which full recovery is unlikely, yet neither reform nor replacement seems an option. The demonstration effects of even partial democratisations will further erode status-quo authoritarianism.

Another cloud that shadows the Arab spring and renders yet more difficult the blossoming of democracies is the absence of external support similar to that provided by the west for previous democratic transitions in eastern Europe and Latin America. United States and European reactions to Arab uprisings have been mixed. Mistrust, geo-strategic concerns, and a long history of securitised bilateral relations have militated against a full embrace of Arab protest movements.

In the absence of strong and consistent external support, Latin American and eastern European transitions would have been more protracted and difficult. In a context where the conditions for democratic transitions in these earlier settings were more favourable than they are in the Arab world now, the absence of equivalent western support will render Arab transitions still more protracted and difficult. The positive side of this contrast is that to the extent they achieve democracies, Arabs will be able to claim the credit themselves.

Robert Springborg is professor in the department of national security affairs of the Naval Postgraduate School and programme manager for the middle east for the Center for Civil-Military Relations in Monterey, California. His books include (as editor) Oil and Democracy in Iraq (Saqi, 2007); (with James A Brill)  Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives (Edinburgh University Press, 2009); and (with Clement M Henry) Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2010) 

Also by Robert Springborg: “Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives” (19 March 2008).


Bissane El Cheikh

Three months now, and the wind of change is still blowing in the Arab countries: putting some on the track of democratisation, throwing others into chaos. Yet amid the diversity a common denominator prevails on the Arab scene, “from the gulf to the ocean” (a cliché once used to consolidate nationalistic Arab identity that suddenly has acquired a new dimension) - the circle of fear is broken, and the peoples of the many Arab worlds are finally daring to want something for themselves, to demand it and to fight for it.

The slogan “the people want” became in less than twenty-four hours a magic stick that can make miracles. The rapid spread of this “buzz” phrase into every conversation is enough reason to believe that it offers more than belated compensation for the decades when people were not allowed to want or aspire to anything. When generation after generation was taught to exchange freedom for security. When the people’s will was hijacked and monopolised by autocratic regimes that made of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a pretext to impose emergency laws, ban democratic elections, smash oppositions, violate human rights, thus turning both their own peoples and the Palestinians themselves into victims.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Osama bin Laden and the “war on terror” launched against him (but also against the inhabitants of the region) together offered another pretext to deny people their voice - this one a pretext that, above all, sells well in the west against all odds and amidst double standards. Bin Laden was perceived by many Arab young people as a hero, not because he gave real answers to their real problems, but rather because they saw him as fighting for what they could interpret as their dignity. In this context, the invasion of Iraq came as a slap on the face. It was shocking and humiliating for Arabs to observe the United Stated waging war in the name of democracy even as it befriended autocratic regimes.

Against this background it would be insensitive as well as inaccurate to say that the youth-led revolutions of 2010-11 arrived out of the blue, for this would be to ignore a decade and more of accumulating frustration, oppression and anger. It is no coincidence here that they were inspired by a hunger for dignity and freedom.

Lebanese once used the term “constructive chaos” to cast a glow on their ability to survive wars, domestic turmoil, and the complete absence of a functioning state. But they came to believe so much in the constructiveness of chaos that they forgot how to live rather than just survive. Today, with all the fear and uncertainty that change brings, “constructive chaos” could be the right term to describe the revolutions in the many Arab worlds of this region. We still have to wait and see if and how the youth will survive them…

Bissane El-Cheikh is a journalist with the newspaper al-Hayat. She has reported widely since 2001 on politics, media and current affairs

Also by Bissane El-Cheikh: “Riyadh: city of women” (7 March 2008).


Originally published on

Image top: RamyRaoof.