The Middle East was thrown into a tailspin on 17th December 2010 when 26-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against the repression in his native country. The protest spread to Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Syria and Yemen, and its shockwaves reverberate to this day. The authors of this book analyse the Arab Spring from a structural point of view, seeking to understand why governments fell in four countries and how civil unrest resulted in ninety thousand deaths over three years in sixteen different countries.
The authors cite a key idea from Transitions From Authoritarian Rule, that “democratisation was most likely when incumbents and opposition forces were equally matched”. In states where the security apparatus was overwhelmingly strong, the likelihood of transition decreased. The age of the population was a slight, but in no way decisive factor, at an average of 24 years old in the countries where the government changed and 26 where it did not. Only 12% of Egyptians used social media, as did only 6% of Yemenis, which belies the common narrative that this was a foundation of the Arab Spring. Clearly, it played a part, but it was not a prerequisite factor.
The 1973 Syrian and Egyptian War on the Sinai Peninsula and the KSA’s cessation of oil supply to the US were key moments when the US decided to work with dictators in the region. This resulted in the awkward fact that “just as a democratic wave was about to break over much of the world, Arab regimes were anchored by Western powers” and, of course, the richer the country the more they could buy off the support of angry citizens.
Hereditary regimes such as Syria had a stronger grip on power compared to the non-hereditary ones like Egypt and Tunisia, where revolution became more likely. Quoting sociologist Dietrich Rueschmeyer, the authors describe how “capitalist development furthers the growth of civil society-by increasing the level of urbanization, by bringing workers together in factories, by improving the means of communication and transportation, by raising the level of literacy”. This is taken for granted in the West, but that it did not happen in the Middle East meant that democratisation was extremely difficult. International democracy expert Thomas Carothers is also cited as evidence that a smooth transition would be troublesome when most of the countries did not have this in place: “even under the best of circumstances building an extensive local party structure usually takes many years”. This much was obvious after the United States’ disastrous and illegal invasion of Iraq. The Arab Spring has been compared to the velvet post-communist democratisation but that process involved European countries which were considerably richer. The more accurate framing of the Arab Spring is that which Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn observed of the “long nineteenth century” of democratisation that succeeded the French Revolution: that revolution and its aftermath is but the start of a lengthy process. The Arab Spring was only seven years ago so the current process is very much in its infancy.
“On balance, the evidence suggests oil-rich states will exhibit higher levels of despotic power than their peers that lack high levels of non-tax revenue” write the authors. This explains why the KSA did not even come close to falling: they were able to pay off their people. The poor and non-hereditary regimes had a very high likelihood of being overthrown. Rich regimes bought off the opposition.
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was overthrown after months of trying to stay in power. He was eventually replaced by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the so-called “consensus candidate”. Yemen did incorporate former government people into their new post-Saleh Hadi government, which led to huge protests that forced Hadi’s hand into firing Saleh’s cronies. Consequently, the old people retained a lot of power and were never fully deposed, which created a civil war (although this book was published before that status was officially recognised).
In Tunisia, the Chief of Staff of the armed forces, Rachid Ammar, refused to fire on innocent protestors as instructed by President Ben Ali. Once the military turned against the dictator, that was it. It is a tragedy that Assad did not cede power in the same fashion and before the opposition became extremists. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia did not rush into elections and the clearing out of all the old governments’ officials. They focused more on the process of setting up the system of governance, rather than who was to be in power. As Francis Fukuyama noted in The Origins Of Political Order, this is the critical bit to get right. We see it with Trump at the moment in the US too. The systems of governance and separation of powers are more important than who is in power. The UGTT union played a critical role in the Tunisian revolution because it set an example of a democratic structure that worked. Tunisians also had a large civil society that helped the transition. To date, Tunisia has been the most positive outcome from the Arab Spring: “Though Tunisia’s democracy is far from consolidated, it has so far managed to pull off a feat that eluded Egyptians: taming Islamist power while preserving fledgling democratic systems”.
In Libya, the conclusion was that “without the intervention Qaddafi would certainly have clung to power”. This was, in part, because political parties had been banned in Libya since the monarchy took power. With Qaddafi being captured in October 2011 and elections being held in July 2012, there was not enough time for proper democratic systems to be set up. The country was run regionally by 140 tribes who sided with the rebels. After numerous elections, “the majority of Libyans seem to have concluded that elected institutions are but a sideshow” and that democracy is unimportant. This is proof that foreign intervention to set up democracies does not work. Countries must themselves desire the change and be ready for it.
On 4th March 2011, in post-Mubarak Egypt, Mohamed El Baradei said that “a new constitution must precede all elections”. There was tension between the Muslim Brotherhood, who wanted immediate elections, and opposition parties, who wanted a transition whilst working on creating the framework of democracy. The SCAF were still in control and let the Mubarak-dominated officials play a major role in running the country, even after the Muslim Brotherhood had won the election with 42% of the vote in January 2012. After Morsi had been elected president, he tried to sideline the SCAF and the judiciary. On Nov 22nd, 2012, Morsi overreached by implementing a law that said the president’s word was final, which Egyptian people saw as a sign of increasing autocracy and a return to the past. He was eventually pushed out and Egypt has not democratised.
The authors have written an objective structural analysis of the Arab Spring. Events are still unfolding and are likely to remain in flux for the foreseeable future.