Spring - 2013 Arab1

Published on May 29th, 2013


Will the Arab Spring Lead to Democracy?

By Joachim Vogt Isaksen


Westerners often tend to believe that the movement toward democracy in authoritarian parts of the world is likely to produce tolerant, liberal societies. In this article I will discuss the probabilities of the Arab spring leading to a real and sustainable democracy.

The Arab Spring is a common term for the popular uprisings that broke out in several countries in Northern Africa, and later on in the Middle East in 2010-2011. The protests led to political changes in several countries, including regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, a new head of state in Yemen, while there is still an ongoing civil war in Syria. A main force behind the uprisings was the call for a formative political change, with freedom, democracy and justice, and the attack on corruption and nepotism.

The Arab Spring has brought down regimes in several Arab countries, sparked mass violence in others, while some governments managed to delay the trouble with a mix of repression, promise of reform, and state largesse. The uprisings led to widespread popular optimism, both among people in Arab countries, and among Western analytics, hoping that they would lead to the development of sustainable democracies. Even if it is quite early in the process, one may so far conclude that the goals of democratization and respect for human rights are far from being fulfilled.

In the public debate there is a tendency to focus solely on Islamism as the major obstacle toward democratization in the region. Even if this factor is important people often overlook other factors that are quite as important. They may also be the underlying forces that lead to the support for Islamic leaders. I will thus point to sociological factors that are often missing from the big picture.

Although this article certainly will make some generalizations, my argument is still that there is a weak foundation for developing sustainable democracies in the Middle East and Northern Africa, at least within the foreseeable future. I will point to some vital political and cultural factors that must be at place in order to develop a democracy. While some of those are presented at a minimum level in the Arab region, many of them are far from being satisfied. I will therefore pose the following question: do Westerners really take into the consideration the real events, or do they see it as a “spring” in an ideal Western perspective?


Which factors must be at place in a functional democracy?

The ultimate success of the Arab uprisings will depend heavily on the development of three core areas. Firstly, Seymour Martin Lipset and Philips Cutright (among several others), state that a stable democracy is linked to certain economic and social background conditions, such as widespread literacy, prevalent urban residence and GDP per capita. This is widely used as an indicator to measure economic growth. Despite economic growth the recent years in several Arab nations, the growth has benefited only some groups. This unequal distribution, along with high unemployment rate, illiteracy and poverty, increases tensions between leaders and the people. When it comes to literacy Egypt is the country that is relatively high (71.4 % according to CIA Fact book), while the other countries are worse off.

Secondly, many theorists stress the importance of certain beliefs or psychological attitudes among the citizens, such as tolerant values and respect of minorities. Robert A. Dahl and Herbert McClosky argue that democratic stability requires a commitment to democratic values and rules. Arab countries are known to be conservative when it comes to beliefs and attitudes, something that is often associated with intolerance toward social deviance.

Regarding human rights several Arabic countries are presented with a dilemma. On one hand they are reluctant to accept the principle of universality, arguing for exceptions to be made on cultural or religious grounds. Simultaneously regimes try to demonstrate that the religion of Islam respects human rights by signing up to UN conventions. Among the Arab countries that have insisted on making reservations when it comes to the right to the use of Islamic law, are Egypt, Libya, and Syria. One may of course point out that this practice is similar to the way Western governments often behave when they claim to uphold universal rights, but are not eager to follow these standards themselves when it comes to enemies of their allies.

A third type of explanation looks at certain features of social and political structure. To make democracy stable, the structures of authority throughout society, such as family, church, business, and trade unions, must prove more democratic the more directly they impinge on processes of government. The protesters in the Arab countries have risen against the dictators with a demand for more freedom, fair elections and a crackdown of corruption. But they have not promoted a distinct ideology, let alone a unified one. A main reason is that private organizations have played only a peripheral role and the demonstrations have lacked leaders of stature.

The authoritarian states in the Middle East have in addition to being undemocratic had an absence of a civil social structure. The states have had few voluntary organizations and state authorities have suppressed those permitted. When the regimes have been brought down, there has been no civil society ready to fill the gap, but rather a power struggle between clans, tribes and groups with diverging interests.

Civil society should ideally promote a culture of bargaining and provide future leaders the skills to articulate ideas, form coalitions and governance. In the Arab world there is a clear absence of autonomous nongovernmental associations, such as trade unions, which serve as intermediaries between the individual and the state. In other words, there is a weak civil society, which indicates a lack of leaders with public support. The most likely immediate outcome of the current turmoil is a new set of dictators, or single-party regimes.

Many countries in the region are characterized by high illiteracy, economic inequality, poor human rights, weak civil societies, and a lack of support for tolerant, democratic values. When it comes to development many Arab states have more in common with Yemen and Pakistan than they have with 1989 Czechoslovakia and Poland, that were on the verge of becoming democracies.


Is the Arab Spring turning into an Islamic Winter?

So far the Arab Spring has not brought moderation and secularism to the Arab world. In several countries Islamic movements have managed to increase their influence. In Egypt, the largest Arab country, the Islamists have gained power through democratic elections. Islamists in countries like Tunisia, Yemen and Syria, have become legitimate players on the political scene. We see that the spring has led to fundamentalist governance, or even chaos, instead of democracy.


Future prospects

There are many roads to democracy and the Arab countries cannot follow a Western standard or recipe. The nature of the Arab Spring varies between the countries, and in Tunisia and Egypt there is a democratization process going on.

Although there have recently been arranged free and fair elections in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, we still await a stable rule which respects democratic rights. Egypt represents a modern state in the region but is still controlled by the military, and if it achieves democracy, it is likely to be dominated by Islamists.

A typical trait of democracies is that they consist of a political and social elite which supports democratic institutions and respects free elections. Even if many countries have experienced democratization with free parties, especially in Northern Africa, there is a great danger of violent conflict between groups trying to achieve power. Large parts of the region are also conservative and religious, and when democracy is implemented it is important to be aware that these forces will gain more power.

Democracies typically have some sort of national consensus, respect for individual rights, economic prosperity, and tolerance toward minorities and other religions. As I have pointed out in this article, many of these factors are missing in this region today. One may ask whether this development was possible to predict. Or, were expectations too high? Based on leading theories of democracy, the development is not so surprising. However, many analysts are still optimistic regarding the future development. Taking into account how far away the region is from meeting basic conditions, one may ask whether the optimism of democracy is merely an illusion.

Further reading

Rustow, Dankwart. A 1970. “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model.” Comparative Politics, Vol.2 (3): 337-363.


Cover photo by M. Baudier, Tunisian flags by Stefan de Vries; demonstration photo by Muhammad Moneib, Egypt photo by M. Baudier, victory photo by

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