The Arab Spring is not an outcome, it is a process. For those countries at the forefront of regional transformation, the fundamental question is can democracy become institutionalised ? Though progress has been uneven and the outcomes of many state-society struggles have yet to be resolved, the answer is a cautious yes. In at least a few countries, we are witnessing the onset of democratic institutionalisation : whether the process of reform and transformation spreads to other parts of the Middle East depends on many factors — religious tensions, political mobilisation, regime adaptations, geopolitics. Meanwhile North Africa provides the most promising preview of the future.
Democratic institutionalisation means the healthy convergence of politics around three arenas of competition : elections, parliaments and constitutions. When these institutions are robust and durable, then the democratic governments they engender are relatively safe from radical groups, reactionary forces and authoritarian backsliding (due to alternation : democracies that uphold the rule of law and hold regular elections require that power alternates between competing parties).
In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, this process is unfolding, if at an unsteady pace . All three have had founding legislative elections that were far more competitive and pluralistic than those held in their authoritarian past. In Tunisia, the project to re-craft the national constitution nears completion by the Constituent Assembly, which itself was the product of electoral competition. The crisis there has two dimensions : the new government’s passivity in response to Salafist violence (which came to an end after the attack on the US embassy in Tunis) and the delay in getting economic reform under way, especially in the poorest regions. In spite of often acute tensions and conflicts between different political interest groups, all but the tiniest minority have accepted that democracy is now the name of the game.
In Libya, the post-Gaddafi political order has been rockier, with armed militias initially fighting amongst themselves , while in Egypt, presidential elections resulted in the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Once in office, Morsi asserted civilian power over the military by dismissing Field Marshall Tantawi. This was a crucial step towards redefining civilian-military relations in a historically praetorian state.
In these transitional states, most political actors recognise the new reality — except of course hardliners and extremists, such as some Salafists and defenders of the autocratic past. But the new reality does not mean that these institutionalising democracies will become liberal democracies. The democrats of the Arab Spring did not embrace revolution to advance liberalism — which many in the West may see in the Arab context as advancing the cause of gender equality, unshackling censorship of pornography and other “immoral” materials, and otherwise widening the boundaries of expression. Liberalism is in truth a body of political thought that may give preeminence to the individual and freedom, but can only emerge from a later stage of democratic consolidation. It will not result from an early showdown between secularists and Islamists, and compromise on such values at this nascent stage is unlikely.
The priority for these transitioning states is not ideational, but rather the continued struggle towards institutionalisation. Democracy does not require that every citizen and every party embrace the same ideological framework, but rather that democratic rules and procedures become the definitive rules of the game. Even the Islamists are discovering that electoral triumphs require more than slogans : like democratic governments elsewhere, they need to deliver the goods through governance and policy, not empty promises of bliss and orthodoxy.
The Islamist apparition
From America to Europe, policymakers and publics alike were shocked to see Islamist parties like the Nahdha movement in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt emerge as winners of revolutions they did not trigger. However, fears of Islamisation must be tempered by several realities.
Western observers often forget that Islamists have no symbolic monopoly over the interpretation of Islam in the public sphere. In Egypt, classical educational institutions like Al-Azhar University and doctrinal sects like the Sufis frame faith and politics in ways distinct from Islamists. Within the broad Islamist category, the Brotherhood and more hardline Salafists clash over major issues and disagree about numerous religious tenets. The decentralised and horizontal freedom given by Islam to the individual believer ironically sabotages those who seek to dominate religion for their own political gain.
And though the Islamist trend encompasses groups ranging from social service providers to extreme Salafist voices, its mainstream face that will shape politics in most transitional countries — the Muslim Brotherhood — is no revolutionary vanguard. The Brotherhood did not support Iran’s call for Islamic revolution against the region’s secular dictatorships after 1979. Nor did they embrace Osama bin Laden’s call to replace politics with jihad in the late 1990s.
Third, Islamist victories have hardly been sweeping, so Islamism cannot be taken as the unambiguous voice of the Arab masses. The Muslim Brotherhood, and to a lesser degree the Salafists, dominated the first post-Mubarak elections by winning over 300 out of 500 parliamentary seats. Yet their popularity has faded since 2011, and the result of the June 2012 presidential contest was stunning : Morsi barely achieved victory over Ahmad Shafik, a symbol of the old autocracy who secured nearly half the popular vote.
Similarly, the Nahdha Party controls 40% of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly — not enough to survive without a coalition with powerful secular and leftist forces. In Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party barely won 10% of seats in the June 2012 elections for the General National Congress.
Many Islamists are being transformed by the democratic process of inclusive contestation, however reluctantly they entered this new arena. In Egypt, how to integrate the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood and its more hardline Salafist cousins into the long-term democratic game takes precedence. The reality is that Islamists cannot take power by force ; the Brotherhood is a well-mobilised social movement but it lacks coercive muscle.
The September 2012 uproar over the anti-Islam film The Innocence of Muslims provides yet another way to poke holes in the Islamist apparition. The episode forced wider Islamist forces to put a clear distance between themselves and the more radical groups. And many leaders protested against the film by invoking such legal concepts as defamation rather than resorting to the canon of sharia law’s proscription of blasphemy.
The secular pretext
Still, it would be remiss to ignore that the central message of many Islamists is to implement the pillars of Islam more strongly in Arab-Muslim societies in accordance with sharia. The Brotherhood is no liberal organisation and for that reason, many secularists have become fearful of theocracy should they attain complete power. The key is to remember that the Islamist majority, represented by the Brotherhood and other mainstream groups, can “internalise” democratic norms in a way that preserves the importance of religious identity while still preserving the institutional rules of electoral competition and consolidating the gains made through regime transition. One does not need a cadre of western-educated liberal ideologues to create democracy : democracies emerged without democrats in Portugal and Spain in the 1970s, and then much of Latin America throughout the 1980s as what Samuel Huntington called the Third Wave of Democratisation unfolded . The logic of democracy is agreeing to disagree within an institutional ecology bounded by accountability and pluralism — because the alternative is perpetual instability, conflict and stalemate.
Once democracy institutionalises, so that most political groups can accept the inviolability of elections and participation, citizens and politicians can engage in civic debates about transforming state and society into more (or less) liberal forms. This means that countries like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt need not be thoroughly “secularised” to quicken their transitions to democracy. Secularism almost never preceded democracy in the western experience.
Youth protesters — mostly urban, largely middle-class, and decidedly secular in the sense of not being members of any Islamist group — led the regional wave of revolutions. Today though, these youth movements have been marginalised in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and with it their particular vision of a more secular democratic future, because they failed to organise a cohesive political front once authoritarianism collapsed. Whereas Islamists took advantage of the resulting vacuum to mobilise (with varying electoral results), the youth movements refused to enter formal institutional politics.
This has had destructive consequences. By emphasising “the street” (the idea that grievances should be expressed by loud contentious protests rather than the quieter, more structured rules of electoral politics), these secular youths have gained little formal power and virtually no representation in new democratic institutions such as parliaments and popular councils.
Street politics have a dual function. They allow ordinary people to serve as civic watchdogs of the state (the January 25 Revolution in Egypt happened only because students, workers and other middle-class citizens could crowd into urban centres in defiance of central authority and demand more rights). However, constant protesting cannot replace the institutional rhythms of democratic elections and political campaigns, because the very act of protest implicitly rejects the legitimacy of the system — and democracy consolidates only when most accept its legitimacy.
What these youths must do to prolong their contribution to the Arab Spring is to align their interests with nascent institutions. The time has come to invest their energies, and the spirit of their activism, into formal politics such as parliaments and consultations. They can also act as surrogates for a new political scene that encourages the expression of religious opposition, nationalist tendencies, secular trends and centrist or centre-left values that span the entire spectrum of society. Uncontrolled, street protests can even undermine the best of policies. Unless these popular interests can be institutionalised into the system, there is a danger that a well-organised minority could rise to power, silence the moderate majority and slide the state back into authoritarian practices. This is a recurrent theme in the aftermath of the Third Wave of Democratisation : autocrats often find ways to subvert new democratic institutions. The greatest danger in the Arab world is not a return to the old model of personalistic dictatorships, whose time has passed ; rather, it is the rise of new authoritarian systems based upon oligarchic coalitions that manipulate democratic institutions.
Those left behind
Like all moments of historical change, the Arab Spring has created as many losers as winners. The secular youth movements discussed earlier are a prominent example. Yet another losing faction is the intellectual elite class, who have repeated the mistakes of their predecessors in failing to link the concrete concerns of localities and communities with their academic ideologies and grand visions.
Since the advent of Arab nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s, generations of educated elites have spoken in favour of progressive issues that have electrified the press and wooed the middle classes. Early on, many of these themes were oppositionist (against Zionism, imperialism, Orientalism, capitalism and other perceived threats). There were also positive demands, for pan-Arabism, regional justice and equality with the West. Arab intellectuals are far more progressive than their societies but remain crippled by their inability to organise at the grass-roots level and translate their social influence into concrete political parties.
Another reason for the intellectual elite’s marginalisation is that their discourse of opposition could not fathom the possibility of an indigenous revolution. Their longstanding accusations that Zionism and western imperialism were the dual threats oppressing the Middle East were disproved when it became clear that the real problem was not the outside world, but the durability of authoritarianism and the lack of good governance. Some intellectuals today have reacted so extremely to the dashing of their expectations that they now believe the Arab Spring to be a western or Israeli conspiracy : with the defeat of the Ba’ath regimes of Iraq and perhaps of Syria next, the last vestiges of pan-Arab nationalism will have disappeared.
Another reason why youth movements and the intellectual elite have failed to capture mass support is that some of them have become extremely hardline in their opposition to any form of Islamism ; they have become secular fundamentalists who cannot fathom the possibility of allowing even the most moderate Islamists to play a marginal role in governance.
A third set of losers is the Arab monarchies. This may seem contradictory. After all, no kingdom fell during the Arab Spring, and indeed a common refrain in the western press has been that, compared to their republican counterparts, the autocratic monarchies of the region have proven exceptionally resilient in the face of social unrest. The reasoning encompasses two arguments : these royal regimes enjoy a deeply rooted sense of cultural legitimacy that resonates throughout their societies. Unlike other authoritarian leaderships, they retain traditional acceptance with the public given their presence before or during anti-colonial struggles. Also, they are more adaptable, having a very flexible set of institutional tools with which to manipulate politics that go beyond mere repression.
However, the monarchies are running on borrowed time, and most are in worst straits than a decade ago. In Bahrain, for example, a mass uprising was stopped only through the combined efforts of the national security forces and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s military intervention. Morocco faced serious protests as well. There, the promise of constitutional revisions temporarily quieted public anger, but by accepting integration without meaningful political reform, the Islamist Justice and Development Party — the face of parliamentary opposition — now risk losing credibility like the rest of the political class. Moreover, the urban-rural divide is no longer salient ; dissent is now everywhere, and demands for change have cut across old class and provincial lines.
Like Morocco, the Saudi monarchy is thickly embedded in society. Blessed by geology, it has used its enormous oil revenues to offset overt opposition with new welfare and development programmes, which has allowed the regime to defer more fundamental structural reforms. The opposite is true in oil-rich Kuwait. There, constant street protests against corruption and royal meddling have undermined the Al-Sabah family and the December 2012 elections were boycotted by the opposition. This tug-of-war between the monarchy and parliament has culminated in a critical juncture : either the regime accepts a prime minister who is a commoner, and thus beyond the emir’s control, or it must shut down parliament and backslide to authoritarianism at a very high cost.
In Jordan, the monarchy has become suffocated by two complementary forces. The Islamists want to preserve the monarchy, because the collapse of monarchical rule would allow Israel to portray the East Bank as the new alternative homeland for all Palestinians and thus justify the annexation of the whole of the West Bank. Yet they also desire constitutional monarchy, with greater political freedoms. The monarchy’s Bedouin tribal bedrock has become restless due to rising unemployment and corruption, which allows them to accuse the regime of favouring the wealthier Palestinian majority.
Vested interests run deep in monarchies, because dynastic families develop resilient connections to influential social and political groups that provide support in exchange for patronage, such as merchants, businessmen, farmers, tribes, and the ulama. Drastic reforms that replace absolute monarchy with real parliamentary governance would undercut not just royals but their commoner clients too. Second, the post-colonial and post-cold war history of the region shows that monarchs have an aversion to transforming their executive power into moral authority ; they will only consider constitutional monarchism after exhausting all other options and strategies. So without a concerted popular challenge, kingships have no incentive to bring anything more than cosmetic reforms to the bargaining table.
Once championed as moderate and adaptable regimes, the Arab monarchies now risk squandering a golden opportunity. Though they would have to surrender much power in a democratic transition, their institutions also have much to contribute in helping unify their societies during times of crisis and spare future conflict and instability.
The geopolitical dimension of the Arab Spring has created a stunning paradox. Consider how it began : as a primarily local and then national-level phenomenon, it made itself heard as a call for justice and dignity by encouraging citizens to resist authoritarian brutality. Within months, it had morphed into a second stage of regionalisation. No longer a purely domestic act, it spread a common set of principles and values across borders. This diffusion transcended the well-known “Al-Jazeera effect” because it encompassed not simply new forms of communication but an entirely new framework of contentious activism. This new regional discourse, shared through social technologies and strengthened with every media broadcast, drew upon classic concepts of pan-Arab unity but rejected any firm ideology in favour of a more simple and shared frustration for authoritarian governance, and a powerful yearning for citizenship.
We are now, however, at a third stage in which this regional wave has become internationalised along sectarian and geopolitical cleavages ; the Arab Spring now represents not just domestic and regional politics but also an international arena of confrontation. The Bahraini uprising began this process in spring 2011, when the sectarian nature of its Shia-dominated opposition put the ruling Sunni monarchy in the camp of larger fellow Sunni countries and its western allies, a strategic front led by Saudi Arabia, the US and Turkey, not to mention less overt intervention from Israel. Inversely, the popular opposition was associated with the “radical” transnational Shia bloc of Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. The Syrian civil war accelerated this process but through an inverse dynamic. There, it was social opposition that became associated with the “moderate” camp of Sunni powers and their western allies, while the embattled autocratic regime of Bashar al-Assad entrenched its position with the transnational Shia alliance.
In 2012 these sectarian and geopolitical dimensions reinforced each other in an iterative way, giving the Arab Spring truly global implications. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and Israel do not want Iran, Syria and Hizbullah to gain strategic predominance in the region. This rivalry has nearly transformed the sectarian division from simmering tensions to imaginary warfare with potentially dangerous consequences. Extremely polarising characterisations prevail, as many in the West now describe the Sunni states — especially the monarchies — as bulwarks of stability and moderation, whereas the Shia are extremists, destabilising and militant. Needless to say, this conflict also serves the domestic interests of its proponents.
Once internationalised, the geopolitical echo of the Arab Spring has however returned to the domestic level of democratising states like a boomerang, and in a manner few could have predicted. Iran, Syria and Hizbullah have attempted to force the transitional regimes of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to make the hard choice of joining their camp, while the pro-western Sunni alliance has also exerted pressure to win over these new regimes and their foreign policy alignments. Paradoxically, such exogenous strains have only strengthened these new regimes by convincing them to adopt a neutral foreign policy stance and take more seriously the process of institutionalisation. The threat of regional instability has rejoined their internal efforts to bolster domestic stability. For instance, Morsi’s much-publicised presentation at the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Iran last August showed that Egypt was taking a modest stance in the region.
In comparative terms, the new regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are creating a restrained position that rejects sectarian incitement, extreme religious interpretations and geopolitical entanglements in favour of flexibility and pragmatism. Above all, they desire domestic stability, and they see these two competing sides as obstacles in the course of building new democratic political orders.
This paradox (that international conflict can bolster the stabilisation of democratic politics at the domestic level) is quite novel in modern Middle East history. In the past, systemic battles pitted the West and its Arab allies against ideological coalitions framed as destructive and subversive to the region (the communist threat posed by Nasser and Brezhnev, Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionary creed, Bin Laden’s jihadist campaign). The current regional alignment is far more nuanced. Even at its peak, no outside actor could frame the Arab Spring as a coherent ideological flood associated with any evil empire, opposing superpower or radical organisation. It grew as an indigenous force before becoming entangled in geopolitics.
The confrontation between Sunni and Shia will be crucial to the future. However much it may be manipulated from outside, it is a clash which is likely to multiply the fault lines and cloud the horizon of the Arab Spring.