The Mirage of the Arab Spring

Out with the old, in with the old: graffiti in Cairo depicting the December 2011 protests, months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters)

The demise of Middle Eastern authoritarianism may come eventually. But there is little reason to think that day is near.

As popular demonstrations swept across the Arab world in 2011, many U.S. policymakers and analysts were hopeful that the movements would usher in a new era for the region. That May, President Barack Obama described the uprisings as "a historic opportunity" for the United States "to pursue the world as it should be." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed these comments, expressing confidence that the transformations would allow Washington to advance "security, stability, peace, and democracy" in the Middle East. Not to be outdone, the Republican Party's 2012 platform trumpeted "the historic nature of the events of the past two years -- the Arab Spring -- that have unleashed democratic movements leading to the overthrow of dictators who have been menaces to global security for decades." Some saw the changes as heralding a long-awaited end to the Middle East's immunity to previous waves of global democratization; others proclaimed that al Qaeda and other radicals had finally lost the war of ideas.

The initial results of the tumult were indeed inspiring. Broad-based uprisings removed Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi from power. Since the toppling of these dictators, all three countries have conducted elections that international observers deemed competitive and fair, and millions of people across the region can now freely express their political opinions.

The prospects for further democratization, however, have dimmed. Most countries in the Arab world have not jumped political tracks, and those that did begin to liberalize are now struggling to maintain order, lock in their gains, and continue moving forward. The region's economic growth has been sluggish -- which is particularly worrisome, since according to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll, majorities in several countries there (including Jordan and Tunisia) value a strong economy more than a democratic government. And even after all the changes, the region comprising the Middle East and North Africa remains the least free in the world, with Freedom House estimating that 72 percent of the countries and 85 percent of the people there still lack basic political rights and civil liberties.

In the wake of the uprisings, many local regimes remain weak and unable to establish law and order. Syria has descended into a bloody civil war along sectarian lines. Iraq and Yemen, already unstable beforehand, remain deeply fractured and violent. Libya's fragile central government has failed to disarm the warlords and militias that control many of the country's rural areas. Even in Egypt, the poster child for regional political reform, the Muslim Brotherhood-led government has attempted to solidify its control and silence the media using tactics reminiscent of the Mubarak era. Meanwhile, as the riots that spread across the region in September illustrated, anti-American sentiment shows no signs of abating. Terrorism continues to be a major problem, too, with al Qaeda and its affiliates trying to fill the vacuums in Libya, Syria, and other unstable countries.

The demise of Middle Eastern authoritarianism may come eventually. But there is little reason to think that day is near, and even less reason to think that the United States can significantly increase its chances of happening. Any effort by Washington to bring democracy to the region will fail if local social and economic conditions are not ripe and if vested interests in the countries oppose political reforms. Indeed, outside powers such as the United States have historically had only a marginal impact, at best, on whether a country democratizes. Until another wave of local uprisings does succeed in transforming the region, U.S. policy should not be hamstrung by an overly narrow focus on spreading democracy. The United States and its allies need to protect their vital strategic interests in the region -- balancing against rogue states such as Iran, ensuring access to energy resources, and countering violent extremists. Achieving these goals will require working with some authoritarian governments and accepting the Arab world for what it is today.


In the 1970s and 1980s, what the political scientist Samuel Huntington called the "third wave" of global democratization led to breathtaking political changes in Latin America, parts of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and eventually Eastern Europe. Freedom was on the march almost everywhere -- except for the Middle East. The immunity of Arab regimes to democratization was so broad and seemingly so durable that it gave rise to a new literature, one seeking to explain not democratic change but authoritarian persistence. Some have argued that the Arab Spring has changed all this and that it is best understood as a delayed regional onset of the third wave or even the harbinger of a fourth. But that misreads events and offers undue optimism.


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