The establishment and deepening of a democratic culture is a long-term project and is intergenerational. As divisions open up between the elites and the street as well as within the elites, the events of 2011 across the Middle East and North Africa represent a powerful first step in a larger process of transformation.
In our previous article in openDemocracy, published on the day of Mubarak’s fall in February, we argued that the emerging Arab Spring overlapped with 1989 in important ways. We wrote that the uprisings sweeping across the Middle East portended a political transformation as significant as 1989 in Eastern Europe, and that economic stagnation and the failures of corrupt and repressive autocratic regimes intersected with a disenchanted youthful population wired together as never before. Yet we also identified a number of significant differences between developments in 1989 and 2011, in particular the lack of a common vision for the transformation of the Middle East. Assessing the situation seven months later, as the initial peaceful demonstrations in Tunis and Cairo have given way to a messy and uncertain pathway of transition, civil conflict in Libya, Yemen and Syria and a totalitarian crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain, does our earlier argument hold, or is it in need of revision?
In this new article, we will review the course of the Arab Spring in three steps: 1) looking at the key country developments; 2) comparing and contrasting these developments and looking for common patterns and differences; 3) returning to the big themes of revolution and transformation. The course of events since the dramatic ousting of Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak from power in Tunisia and Egypt, and subsequently Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, suggest that we may be witnessing a transition of elites rather than a democratic revolution. Elsewhere, autocratic regimes are fighting hard for their survival and Saudi Arabia is spearheading a counter-revolutionary pushback in the Gulf States while attempting to manage the direction of change elsewhere. Moreover issues of social justice and the redistribution of wealth away from embedded networks of patronage and ‘crony capitalists’ remain largely untouched. Thus, as spring and summer turn to autumn, the progression of the Arab Spring appears very uneven and likely to produce highly differentiated outcomes, but should nevertheless be seen as a transformative first step in a long-term process of change.