The Arab Spring one year on: the challenges of reforms and democratic transition



The Arab Spring, now entering its second year, was no random event. Rather, it was a synthesis of many interconnected failings within the post-colonial Arab state system ranging from endemic political corruption, to dire economic stagnation and associated social marginalisation of the masses to list just the obvious ones. But revolutions, as idealistic and romantic as they may appear to be, are never meant to be quick and tidy events. Indeed, the Arab Spring from its beginnings in Tunisia on 17th of December 2010 to its current manifestation in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the region is exhibiting all the hallmarks of a highly unpredictable phenomenon driven by a combination of internal dynamics and external interests.

As we celebrate the first anniversary of the so-called Arab Spring, many trends and dominant features are starting to characterize this momentous socio- political event from the e rise of political Islam in various elections and political jockeying, to the intensifying ideological polarisation of political and social debates to the pressing need for economic recovery that the Arab masses are demanding and expecting.

The current developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere are indicative of the heterogeneity of the Arab Spring and the need to avoid unhelpful generalizations. Yet some common instructive themes have indeed emerged that warrant closer scrutiny. First and foremost is the realization among the masses and political intellectual elites alike that the existing political institutions and in particular the Arab state systems have lost their legitimacy and can no longer be sustained. The toppling of the ld guards in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is proof that the search for Arab democracy has gathered an unstoppable momentum and that meaningless cosmetic reforms will no longer satisfy the genuine yearning for true and deep reform. The fact that the old guards have lost all credibility is no surprise to most observers and analysts, but successive failures to at least develop the local economies, to reform the educational systems and to bridge the development gap has engendered a deep social and political malaise among their citizenry and especially young people.

A second common theme of the Arab Spring has been the absence of any specific ideological ownership that could claim monopolise the revolution at the exclusion of all other political players. And because of its ‘leader-less’ nature that the Arab Revolutions have had such a spectacular impact on the region and the world at large. Their unpredictability had caught the old guards by surprise but also ensured that even the emerging political parties had to constantly play catch up to the Arab street and pay special attention to the genuine demand for deep institutional reform that transcends the political sphere to touch the social, ethical, educational, and cultural domains. And perhaps this is why the Arab Spring is changing not only the domestic politics of the region but also its culture in a manner that cannot be captured by the mere organizing of free and fair elections.

But, undoubtedly, the most compelling feature of the Arab Spring is the predominance of youth and women in kick-starting it and in ensuring its sustainability even as the new political class takes the political reign. Two individuals who epitomize these two demographic groups are Mohamed Bouazizi the young Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire and ignited the Arab spring on the 17th of December 2011 and the veiled Yemeni political activist Tawakkul Karman whose sheer determination and clarity of purpose won her the 2011 Nobel Peace prize. Perhaps this is no surprise given that these two demographic segments of the Arab populace have been the most disadvantaged, marginalized and excluded from the decision making process. But in the context of the Arab world with its ideological baggage and historical legacies of a largely patriarchal society, it is no easy feat for youth and women to demand a prominent, indeed a leading role in shaping political and social affairs. And this is where one of the key challenges of the post-revolution phase resides.

As the world celebrates the first anniversary of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya respectively, many are starting to ask the question if indeed the heavy human cost and the high economic price are indeed justified. The answer to this question will depend on one’s perspective: if one places a premium on political reform and freedom of expression then the answer can only be in the affirmative; but if on the other hand security and economic stability are more important, then for those living in the here and now would probably have a different pronouncement. But the real achievement of the Arab Spring can be found in the lasting images of the spontaneous gatherings in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Qasaba square in Tunis and similar public gathering spaces in Manama, Aleppo, Benghazi and elsewhere. The overwhelming message that the gathering youth conveyed in a unified voice was that it was time to end corruption and authoritarianism and embark instead on a much needed process to reform political, educational, judiciary, cultural and media institutions. Theirs was a cry for dignity and legitimacy at a time when the old guards had lost all forms of credibility. How well the region will cope with the many challenges brought about by these revolutions will depend among other things on the nature of emerging political systems, the pace and success of economic reforms and most crucially the competence and capacities of the new ruling elites.

Yet when all is done and dusted, the human cost, the economic price and all the sacrifices made in the pursuit of the ideals associated with the Arab Revolutions will be well worth it if and only if real and lasting positive change can be attained. And the only judge of this milestone will once again be the Arab youth gathering in the many ‘Tahrir’ squares across the cities and villages of North Africa and the Middle East. Arab democracy’s hard labour may have just started, but it is well and truly entrenched in the psyche of Arab youth.

The full version of this piece will appear in a new book titled ‘The Arab Revolutions in Context: Civil Society and Democracy in a Changing Middle East’ (Isakhan, B., F. Mansouri & S. Akbarzadeh 2012, MUP).