The Arab Spring, One Year On
WASHINGTON—December 17 marks the first anniversary of a desperate act of self-immolation in Tunisia, which sparked a series of uprisings across the Arabic-speaking world, toppling three regimes, threatening to topple at least two others, and prompting several governments to take unprecedented measures to address popular dissatisfaction. But one year on, there is still widespread disagreement about the nature of the events, their implications, and even what to call them. Indeed, internal and external observers of many stripes — optimists, pessimists, realists, and outright romantics — all feel vindicated by the past year’s developments.
Their perceptions and their consequent actions will continue to color the eventual outcome of the “Arab Spring” (as it is still widely referred to in the West). Whatever their preconceptions, observers confront three emerging cleavages in the Arab world: ideological, political, and generational. The most obvious effect of the Arab Spring has been the recasting of the primary ideological fault line in Arab political culture as between Islamists and liberals, with both camps severely fragmented. The discourse and slogans of the uprisings were indeed non-Islamist, focusing on concrete issues such as representation, corruption, and employment and framed by universal values such as freedom, empowerment, and dignity.
Yet, elections in Tunisia and Egypt have handed power to Islamists. The Arab Spring can therefore be framed either as a smartly orchestrated Islamist maneuver utilizing popular action instead of militancy or a result of the dearth of credible alternatives that anticipates the consolidation and institutionalization of liberal political movements. While the poor showing of liberal groups in both the Tunisian and Egyptian elections may have caused disappointment, the fact that they now constitute a sizable legislative minority is itself a considerable development. The Islamists have the benefit of decades of organization, but the Arab Spring constitutes the first significant instance of modern organized Islamism moving from radical to less radical postures. The will of the people is an uncontested principle in the post-Arab Spring era. Yet if shifts in ideological principles are to translate into democratic values, more deep changes in political cultures will be necessary. A cardinal feature of Arab societies is that they remain largely patriarchal, prone to acknowledging the authority of rulers and expecting an element of paternalistic care in return. But the Arab Spring has deeply shaken the foundations of political paternalism. Even the most entrenched of monarchies have begun to promise reforms in representation and governance. The creation of a democratic culture is a function of civil institutions holding governments accountable for their promises, a role that eager civil society movements across the Arab world are poised to assume. The judicious engagement of the liberal factions of the Arab civil society movement by their international counterparts has become even more urgent than before. The deepest of the cleavages affecting the wide Arab world is neither ideological nor political, but generational. The demographic youth bulge and the refusal of oligarchs to surrender their control over resources were the actual impetuses of the Arab Spring. Even before the Arab Spring, multiple youth cultures had begun to challenge political paternalism. While some young people in the Arab world indulged in Western-style consumerist pop culture, radical Islamism was also built upon the frustrations of disaffected youth. The Arab Spring provided youth with an unprecedented opportunity to channel their energy into political movements.
It is therefore hard to imagine that the mere replacement of old oligarchs with new Islamist Doppelgängers will consign the Arab world’s youth to escapism or nihilism. As demonstrated by Egypt’s “second revolution” in Tahrir Square, youth activism is bound to remain a major force in the next phase of the political transformations in the Arab world. Understood in light of these divisions, the recent electoral successes of Islamist parties in the Arab world appear precarious and subject to pressures from multiple sources. Far from being the inevitable outcome that both Islamists and their symbiotic detractors predicted, their successes are the transitory result of evolving conditions. If, however, the Islamists are ultimately successful in consolidating their victories, it would be in no small measure a consequence of the failure of liberals worldwide in helping to level the playing field.
Hassan Mneimneh is Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.