ICSR BLOG SERIES Part 11: Atkin Fellow Perspectives on the Arab Spring
“It is the fourth wave of democracy”, writes an Arab sociologist after the success of the Egyptian uprising (or revolution) in forcing former President Hosni Mubarak to step down in February. Just weeks after the unexpected Jasmine Revolution that toppled the brutal Tunisian dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Such a perception is widely accepted, not only by the majority in the Arab World, but also by many in the West, including researchers, politicians and journalists. The justification is clear. A few months ago, it was unimaginable to see Arab peoples taking to the streets with bare hands to defy decades of despotism. Thus, by the accomplishment of what was believed, for ages, to be the “mission impossible”, it is absolutely logical to expect democracy as the final outcome of Arab uprisings that spread to almost every single Arab country under the banner of “restoring dignity and freedom”.
Unfortunately, the unexpected, highly unknown forces behind the revolutionary uprisings in the Arab world make democracy an uncertain outcome, at least in the short term.
By taking to the streets, ordinary people, mainly poor unemployed young men and women, are obviously announcing the demise of the ruling regimes. But more importantly, they are also eclipsing the traditional opposition from the whole political spectrum; Islamists, nationalists and leftists. While the regimes have been directly responsible for the suffering of their peoples since the independence of the Arab nations in the mid Twentieth Century, the “traditional” opposition was responsible for the failure to change the status quo, even if not supporting the existing regimes in one way or another. This failure explains why it is still too early to celebrate the final triumph of democracy in the Arab world.
It is true that a variety of internal and international factors have kept authoritarian regimes in the Arab world safe and sound for decades. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the most crucial factor, if not the source of almost all other factors, is the great divide among the various trends of “traditional national opposition” over fundamental issues. As a result of this divide, which ranges from silent mistrust to a declared “cold war”, the traditional opposition was, unsurprisingly, unable to set any genuinely “national” agenda that could unify people to challenge the existing regimes.
Obviously, the ignition of the current bid for change that is sweeping the Arab world was not the outcome of bridging the gaps between the opposition factions. Nevertheless, because of the absence of clear leadership of the masses that took to the streets, this opposition will be in charge of leading the new transitional era. In such a context, is it legitimate to fear the possibility of seeing the same old struggles among the opposition surfacing again, giving the chance for another autocrat or any other (creative) form of dictatorship?
The early signs of this pessimistic prediction come from the flagship of the new Arab era, Tunisia.
Despite the humiliating overthrow of Ben Ali, the traditional Tunisian opposition did not push for the change of the entire old regime. On the contrary, and against the masses’ will, members of this opposition accepted invites to join the government of Ben Ali himself! One of the reasons for making such a decision (as in Egypt), not to say the sole or the most important one, is the deep rooted mistrust among the different factions of opposition, and the fear of losing the opportunity as a result of “anticipated” betrayal by other parties. This is why the number of casualties in the “era of freedom” is becoming increasingly higher than those of the Jasmine Revolution itself!
Is it, then, a vicious circle of dictatorships in the Arab world? Not at all!
Although it is still too early to celebrate democracy as an immediate automatic outcome of the recent Arab revolutions, it is definitely true that democracy has emerged for the first time, and it is going to last, simply because the barrier of fear was overrun by the ordinary people. Now, these people have come to believe, rightly, that they have regained their dignity and freedom once and for all, and that they can challenge any dictatorship. Thus, in spite of what can be called “the opposition betrayal”, the same masses were able to overthrow the governments in both Tunisia and Egypt just two months ago.
It might be too early to celebrate the final victory of Arab democracy, but not for long. The Arab dawn is approaching, even if the darkness lingers a bit.