Whatever Happened to Democracy: Arab Transitions Four Years After the Fall of Mubarak
On Monday, February 23, 2015, The German Marshall Fund of the United States and the EUSpring Project hosted a seminar entitled “Whatever Happened to Democracy: Arab Transitions Four Years After the Fall of Mubarak.” The full-day seminar brought together distinguished panelists and moderators for three panel discussions to examine the democratic prospects in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, the U.S.’s role in democratic transitions, and EU approaches to assisting democratic transitions within the region.
The first panel “Arab Transitions Four Years After the Fall of Mubarak: What Prospects for Democracy?” discussed the prospects for democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring, given the difficult conditions on the ground in many of the MENA countries. Speakers indicated the importance of not distilling the lessons of the Arab Spring into overly broad generalizations, due to the relative complexity within each case. A more useful strategy is conceptualizing the Arab Spring in a regional eco-system framework; in which every state’s discreet contextual circumstances function to interact with one another. Consequently, there are several discernible themes throughout the MENA eco-system that are prevalent at different levels within each state. The capacity within many Arab states for democratic governance continue to be in primary stages that will optimistically take time in order to fully develop. The popular mobilization efforts that were effective in organizing protests often did not consolidate into political mobilization, nor were they channeled into active civil societies writ large. Additionally, within this ecosystem of states, there continues to be an overall lack of political candidates and a general distrust of institutions commonly associated with democratic governance. While the present outlook of democracy may not be extremely positive in the short-term, it is important to have pragmatic understandings of historical democratic transitions with an appreciation of longer-term time horizons.
The second panel “U.S. Democracy Promotion in North Africa after the Arab Uprisings: An Assessment” delved into the U.S.’s role in the world as often postulated as one of preeminence, despite the multifaceted external and internal constraints that challenged the U.S.’s engagement in the Arab Spring. One of the most pressing concerns the U.S. confronted at the time was the global recession that forced the U.S. to focus attention inwards and make difficult decisions regarding their domestic budgets. Additionally, the Arab Spring came on the heels of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were both costly and resulted in fatigue among Americans and policymakers alike. More critical challenges in shaping democracy promotion policies involved a fundamental tension within the U.S. between pursuing genuine democratic promotion within the MENA region and ensuring American short- and long-term military and economic interests. Encouragingly enough, some of the panelists proposed that such dichotomies do not inherently exist within the American framework, and that policymakers can pursue both ends simultaneously.
The third panel “U.S. and EU Approaches to Democracy Assistance: Priorities and Tools” highlighted several constraints that continue to thwart progress in democracy promotion throughout the MENA region. One of the most fundamental challenges for EU policymaking and democracy promotion is the bifurcation between the EU, as a transnational institution, and the individual Member States, which comprise the institution. Frequently, the individual Member States pursue their state interests and security concerns with high priority, while external concerns, including international development and democracy promotion, often get reassigned to the EU. Other constraints that hamper the effectiveness of the U.S., the EU, and EU Member States, include lack of communication between and within each entity, and the difficult reality of urgent policy concerns taking priority over long-term policy developments, such as policies that would aim to facilitate democracy promotion within the MENA region.