Has the Arab spring failed?


the arab springROUGHLY two-and-a-half years after the revolutions in the Arab world, not a single country is yet plainly on course to become a stable, peaceful democracy. The countries that were more hopeful—Tunisia, Libya and Yemen—have been struggling. A chaotic experiment with democracy in Egypt, the most populous of them, has landed an elected president behind bars. Syria is awash with the blood of civil war.

No wonder some have come to think the Arab spring is doomed. The Middle East, they argue, is not ready to change. One reason is that it does not have democratic institutions, so people power will decay into anarchy or provoke the reimposition of dictatorship. The other is that the region’s one cohesive force is Islam, which—it is argued—cannot accommodate democracy. The Middle East, they conclude, would be better off if the Arab spring had never happened at all.

That view is at best premature, at worst wrong. Democratic transitions are often violent and lengthy. The worst consequences of the Arab spring—in Libya initially, in Syria now—are dreadful. Yet as our special report argues, most Arabs do not want to turn the clock back.

Putting the cart before the camel

Those who say that the Arab spring has failed ignore the long winter before, and its impact on people’s lives. In 1960 Egypt and South Korea shared similar life-expectancy and GDP per head. Today they inhabit different worlds. Although many more Egyptians now live in cities and three-quarters of the population is literate, GDP per head is only a fifth of South Korea’s. Poverty and stunting from malnutrition are far too common. The Muslim Brotherhood’s brief and incompetent government did nothing to reverse this, but Egypt’s deeper problems were aggravated by the strongmen who preceded them. And many other Arab countries fared no better.

This matters, because, given the Arab spring’s uneven progress, many say the answer is authoritarian modernisation: an Augusto Pinochet, Lee Kuan Yew or Deng Xiaoping to keep order and make the economy grow. Unlike South-East Asians, the Arabs can boast no philosopher-king who has willingly nurtured democracy as his economy has flourished. Instead, the dictator’s brothers and the first lady’s cousins get all the best businesses. And the despots—always wary of stirring up the masses—have tended to duck the big challenges of reform, such as gradually removing the energy subsidies that in Egypt alone swallow 8% of GDP. Even now the oil-rich monarchies are trying to buy peace; but as an educated and disenfranchised youth sniffs freedom, the old way of doing things looks ever more impossible, unless, as in Syria, the ruler is prepared to shed vast amounts of blood to stay in charge. Some of the more go-ahead Arab monarchies, for example in Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait, are groping towards constitutional systems that give their subjects a bigger say.

Fine, some will reply, but Arab democracy merely leads to rule by the Islamists, who are no more capable of reform than the strongmen, and thanks to the intolerance of political Islam, deeply undemocratic. Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brother evicted earlier this month by the generals at the apparent behest of many millions of Egyptians in the street, was democratically elected, yet did his best to flout the norms of democracy during his short stint as president. Many secular Arabs and their friends in the West now argue that because Islamists tend to regard their rule as God-given, they will never accept that a proper democracy must include checks, including independent courts, a free press, devolved powers and a pluralistic constitution to protect minorities.

This too, though, is wrong. Outside the Arab world, Islamists—in Malaysia and Indonesia, say—have shown that they can learn the habit of democracy. In Turkey too, the protests against the autocratic but elected prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have more in common with Brazil than the Arab spring. Turkey, for all its faults, is more democratic today than it was when the army lurked in the background.

The problem, then, is with Arab Islamists. That is hardly surprising. They have been schooled by decades of repression, which their movements survived only by being conspiratorial and organised. Their core supporters are a sizeable minority in most Arab countries. They cannot be ignored, and must instead be absorbed into the mainstream.

That is why Egypt’s coup is so tragic. Had the Muslim Brotherhood remained in power, they might have learned the tolerance and pragmatism needed for running a country. Instead, their suspicions about democratic politics have been confirmed. Now it is up to Tunisia, the first of the Arab countries to throw off the yoke of autocracy, to show that Arab Islamists can run countries decently. It might just do that: it is on its way to getting a constitution that could serve as the basis of a decent, inclusive democracy. If the rest of the Arab world moves in that direction, it will take many years to do so.

That would not be surprising, for political change is a long game. Hindsight tends to smooth over the messy bits of history. The transition from communism, for instance, looks easy in retrospect. Yet three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe was overrun by criminal mafias; extremist politicians were prominent in Poland, Slovakia and the Baltics; the Balkans were about to degenerate into war and there was fighting in Georgia. Even now, most people in the old Soviet bloc live under repressive regimes—yet few want to go back.

Don’t hold back the tide

The Arab spring was always better described as an awakening: the real revolution is not so much in the street as in the mind. The internet, social media, satellite television and the thirst for education—among Arab women as much as men—cannot co-exist with the deadening dictatorships of old. Egyptians, among others, are learning that democracy is neither just a question of elections nor the ability to bring millions of protesters onto the street. Getting there was always bound to be messy, even bloody. The journey may take decades. But it is still welcome.

The Economist