Review: Seven years after the Arab Spring

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 24 Jan 2018

In a new work looking back on the Arab Spring years, Azza Galal Hashem draws the outlines of an inexorable democratisation process that will succeed despite setbacks

File photo: Opposition supporters attend Friday prayer in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 11, 2011 Reuters

Al-Rabie Al-’Arabi wa Al-Tatawor Al-Demoqrati (The Arab Spring and Democratic Development), by Azza Galal Hashem, Al-Ahram Centre for Political & Strategic Studies, Strategic Series 2017 pp. 32

The winds of the Arab Spring, which blew on the region seven years ago, sweeping over Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and the Yemen, where are they now? Why did these winds fail in achieving their objectives, seemingly so near at hand? What historical lessons can be extracted from this now?

Raising these questions and searching for answers, the latest edition of the Strategic Studies Series of Al-Ahram's Centre for Political & Strategic Studies focuses on a main target, that is to explore the democratisation drive and its future under Arab political regimes, during the Arab Spring stage and beyond. It is worthy to mention that the author didn’t forget that democracy is a problematique, consistently passed over by all Arab regimes, which were unable to resolve it in modern Arab history.

The study starts with a theoretical frame through which it presents a brief historical overview of democratic development in the Arab region, covering the pre-independence period as well as the period following it. The study points to the fact that the development of many newly-independent Arab countries was halted due to the imposition of one political organisation over all political life. It outlines parliamentary experiences in the Arab Orient, North African and the Arabian Gulf, and the emergence of political parties and organisations and the role they played.

By the end of the 1980s, several factors drove political regimes to adopt measures that would lead to political openness after long decades of stagnation. Among these factors include economic problems, the renewal of Arab elites through the disappearance of historical leaderships, and youth leaders taking the helm, and the role played by civil society organisations. However, the most important factor was the strong political pressures exerted by political and civil forces against ruling regimes. The study focuses on Saudi Arabia's case since the 1990s as a model of Arab regimes that were touched by winds demanding change.

As for external factors leading to political openness, there was the Arabian Gulf crisis and the Gulf War of 1991, one of the repercussions of which was the use of foreign forces to defend Arabian Gulf regimes. The war for the liberation of Kuwait accelerated the emergence of new variables that contributed to an unprecedented situation of political debate and activity. The study also draws attention to the fact that the US occupation of Iraq instigated an escalation of popular protests.

Another factor was pressures emanating from the post-Cold War era and the nature of the New World Order it created, which was characterised with democratisation efforts as a main feature. In addition, there were pressures imposed by donor countries and international institutions which were founded in order to stimulate democratisation.

The Arab Spring revolutions, the study confirms, are the logical result of the accumulation of peoples' suffering, "and oppression at the hands of despotic rulers, who went too far in suppressing and excluding all those opposing their policies," leading to the "eruption of wide-scale popular uprisings demanding freedom, democracy, decent living and social justice."

As for the future of democratic development in the Arab world, the study considers two main points of view. The first sees that the revolutions, even after their failure, can still usher in democratic transition, provided some conditions are met, though this will need continuous effort over a long period of time. The second views that it is impossible for these revolutions to lead to any successful form of democratisation, especially after their failure and the conflicts and divisions they brought about.

The study concludes that democratic development isn't a question, but rather a historical inevitability, unfolding according to inexorable logic, despite the complicated challenges facing the Arab Spring. The questions these revolutions raised, unsettling regime structures, will ensure windows of hope, even if setbacks and aftershocks occurred.

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