Stanford scholars reflect on Arab Spring

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A year has passed since the Egyptian uprising, one of the defining moments of the democratic wave that surged across the Arab world. Since Jan. 25, 2011, three long-standing Arab dictatorships have toppled and citizen movements continue to challenge entrenched autocratic regimes. Reflecting on this pivotal moment, five scholars at Stanford's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law talk about how these events changed the course of democracy – if at all – and what they mean for the region as a whole.

What are the prospects for democracy in the Arab world today?

Larry Diamond: The near-term prospects for democracy are mixed and uncertain – but far better than they were a year ago. Within the space of a single year, Tunisia has become an electoral democracy – the first in the Arab world since Lebanon fell apart in the mid-1970s. This is an astonishing achievement, and Tunisia’s prospects to build democracy are quite good. Egypt has a chance to turn the corner politically, but it depends on whether the Muslim Brotherhood will evolve in a truly democratic and tolerant direction, and whether the military will step back from power. Libya must still disarm its militias and build democratic institutions and a viable state. Syria and Yemen remain much more deeply troubled, with a risk of civil war.

In examining the arc of history, was the Arab Spring inevitable? Should we have been surprised by what happened?

Francis Fukuyama: Economic growth and technological change foster the rise of a middle class that fosters demands for political participation. This is the social basis for democratic revolutions around the world. Some people argued that cultural factors – Islam, Arab passivity –would prevent this from unfolding in the Middle East, but this has clearly been proven wrong. These structural shifts do not imply inevitability, since it is human agents who must translate social demands into political action. This is why the general phenomenon of a revolt may have been predictable, but the timing absolutely uncertain.

Have living conditions improved in the Arab world, or are they worse for the average citizen?

Lina Khatib: The Arab Spring has brought immense change in the lives of Arab citizens. Political taboos have been broken, and the wall of fear that used to govern their everyday lives has crashed down. The Arab world still has some way to go before it can be called democratic in the full sense. While the economy in particular has taken a hit in the current period of transition and uncertainty – making conditions worse for many in the short term – the average Arab citizen today can actually look forward to seeing freedom of expression, human rights, and political and economic reform. These are no longer unrealizable dreams.

What are some of the lessons U.S. policymakers have learned from the Arab Spring?

Jeremy M. Weinstein: A number of fundamental ideas that underpinned 30 years of U.S. policy in the Middle East were upended by the events of 2011. The idea that Arabs do not care about democracy, are politically apathetic, and are too frightened to resist oppressive regimes has been disproved. The notion of authoritarian stability is now questioned, and it is no longer taken for granted that “the autocrats we know” are the safest bet to secure U.S. interests. And the fear of Islamists is slowly receding among policymakers as they confront the electoral success of Islamist parties and begin to directly engage a new cadre of leaders.

How did Arab monarchies weather the storm and avoid the experiences of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia?

Ahmed Benchemsi: Except in Bahrain, where security forces opened fire on unarmed crowds, Arab monarchies generally managed to outflank their respective protesters in a peaceful way. They did so either by implementing illusory reforms while in fact playing for time (in Morocco and Jordan) or by buying off the opposition with huge social spending (in the Gulf). As this last tactic may remain effective for some time, non-oil monarchies’ victories are more likely to prove short-lived. New rounds of popular anger could be spawned sooner rather than later by, if anything, growing economic difficulties. These will be harder to quell by subterfuges.

Looking forward, are you hopeful that democracy will prosper in the Arab world?

Diamond: Yes, I am quite hopeful that democracy will develop in the Arab world, but I think there will be wide variation among Arab countries in the near term, and much will depend on whether there emerges an instance of clear democratic success that inspires other countries. This is why I think we should bet heavily now on Tunisia, while also intensively engaging Egypt, the largest Arab country.

Fukuyama: In the long run yes, in the short run, no – a safe answer.

Khatib: Even if democracy takes decades to materialize, the Arab world has finally taken the first steps in what – as history has taught us – is always a long and difficult journey, and that’s an important milestone.

Weinstein: All of us know that the road to democracy is uncertain and filled with obstacles. But I take comfort in the fact that no one could have predicted a 2011 in which Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gadhafi, and Saleh would leave the stage. Something profound has changed in the region, and I am confident that – having lost their fear – citizens will make their voices heard as the struggle for democracy continues.

Benchemsi: For democracy to have a real chance in the Arab World, liberals must build grassroots organizations – ones that would be large and strong enough to challenge both autocratic regimes and Islamist groups. When this is done, I will have reason for optimism.