2021 Yearender: Years of change in the Arab World

Amr Elshobaki , Thursday 23 Dec 2021

Three challenges still stand in the way of democratic change in the region in the wake of the grassroots uprisings of the Arab Spring.

Years of change in the Arab world
Years of change in the Arab world

It has been ten years since the Arab Spring and the first wave of grassroots uprisings in the Arab region encompassing Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. 

The directions these experiences took varied, from Civil War and institutional collapse in Libya to experiments in democratic transition that are still stumbling forward in Tunisia. In Egypt, the need to fight terrorism and promote economic and social development was seen as more urgent than the advancement of political and civil rights.

After a period in which the Arab Spring had begun to appear an anomaly in what otherwise was relative grassroots inactivity, a second wave of uprisings erupted in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon. Some of these led to democratic transition processes that still face grave dangers, such as in Sudan, while others have sustained popular pressures for change in power structures, such as in Algeria. In Lebanon and Iraq, systems for the distribution and sharing of power remain the same. 

The Arab uprisings were fed by a rejection not just of dictatorship, but also of certain types of “never-ending” systems of government that failed to meet democratic aspirations.  

In Egypt, the 30-year rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, not to mention the widespread suspicion that he was scheming to pass power on to his son, was a major factor behind the eruption of the 25 January Revolution. The same applied to the Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, which had been in power for 22 years, and to the Gaddafi regime in Libya, in power for 42 years. 

The Ali Abdullah Salah regime had been in power in Yemen for 34 years, and the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria, which has been in power for 20 years, is still planning to perpetuate itself indefinitely. In the second wave of uprisings, the revolutions in Sudan and Algeria aimed to topple the Omar Al-Bashir regime that had been in power for 30 years and the Abdelaziz Bouteflika regime, which had been in power for 20 years, respectively. 

Generally speaking, some of the Arab uprisings brought change. While some of them precipitated anarchy and collapse, others led to democratic transitions of varying success, or reforms within the system, albeit insufficient in the opinion of many. Yet others brought no substantial change to the governing system. 

This article will examine three challenges that need to be addressed in order to understand what stands in the way of democratic change in the region.


Perhaps the main thrust of the third wave of democratic transitions in Eastern Europe was for the reform of government structures and authorities in the executive, security and judicial branches of the state. 

These experiences did not result in an institutional collapse or a split between government bodies and the military establishment. Nor did they descend into Civil War and the proliferation of paramilitary organisations and militia brigades. Instead, they saw the application of programmes for gradual institutional reform with the support of generous funding, advice and political backing from the US and Western Europe.

The same thing cannot be said of most experiences in the Arab region. The first wave of uprisings in some cases caused the total or partial collapse of the state and Civil War, as in Syria and Libya. The Iraqi state and army had been dismantled long before the uprising in that country took place as a consequence of the 2003 US-led invasion. 

On the other hand, the military establishment played a major role in most of the Arab cases, and where the state remained intact and warfare did not erupt the army not only retained its cohesion but it also came to represent the nation, in the sense of the state and the people, as opposed to the regime. 

Egypt and Tunisia exemplified this dynamic, regardless of the different paths they took towards institutional reform and the rule of law. 

It is also clear that in the second wave of the Arab uprisings the cohesion of the army improved the chances of democratic transition, regardless of the differences between contexts and the relative strength and influence of the armies involved. 

The extent to which a given army intervened in the political process was contingent on the ability of civilian political elites and movements to forge consensus and fill the vacuum that follows regime change. As was seen in the first wave of the uprisings, in cases where civilian forces were weak, disorganised and divided, Islamist organisations and the army were the only powers capable of filling the power vacuum. 

In cases where the uprisings gave way to Civil War, the collapse of the state or widespread turmoil, people began to yearn for a return to autocracy, thinking that at least that had been better than anarchy and destruction. However, the reinstatement or survival of the state without significant reform means that nothing has changed. 

In both the first and second waves of the Arab Spring, attempts to promote change ran up against a discourse of the need to preserve the state, as though this were an end in and of itself. In fact, the preservation of the state is a vehicle for realising development, social justice and the rule of law. But in order for the state to serve as such a vehicle, it needs to undergo the type of institutional reform that has been applied in all successful cases of democratic change.


ISLAMIST CHALLENGES: The Islamist movements that were a dominant force in the first wave of the Arab uprisings posed one of the greatest threats to the drives for democratic change. 

This became all the more evident in cases where the movements gained power and took control of the democratic transition process. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had refused to comply with laws requiring it to register as a civil society organisation dedicated to religious work, which would have subjected it to the rules of transparency and non-involvement in politics that apply to hundreds of other religious organisations. 

It continued to see itself as above the law after coming to power, as a result of which the political party it formed remained a wing of the organisation’s central bureau. It took little trouble to hide this as it proceeded to exclude other political forces. Eventually, the Muslim Brotherhood’s antidemocratic behaviour and mismanagement precipitated widespread protests that led to the army’s intervention to oust former president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood regime.

Following the revolution in Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda Movement clashed with the country’s other political forces, compelling it to back down and compromise. However, after Tunisia’s 2019 elections, in which Ennahda obtained a majority in parliament (although with only 54 seats this was not an absolute majority), it began to reassert itself in a bid to dominate key functions of the state. This was one of the main reasons why Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed parliament and took other such exceptional measures in July this year.

Sudan is a case in which the people rose up against a 30-year-old dictatorship run by the Sudanese chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamists elsewhere in the region saw it as a dream of Islamist rule come true. The Sudanese people’s overthrow of former president Omar Al-Bashir delivered some powerful and symbolic messages in this regard.

Islamist movements played little if any part in the grassroots uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon. But there too part of the popular anger was directed against the Islamist parties and the denominational power-sharing systems in the country. 

The Tunisian case will remain significant in terms of the Islamists’ designs on power because Ennahda remains a force to be reckoned with. It is unlikely that it will be excluded from the Tunisian political arena because of the nature of a context characterised by a diversity of political actors and a strong civil society. 

At the same time, Kais Saied’s supporters, such as the Tunisian General Labour Union, have made their support for him conditional on the continuation of the process of democratic transition and the pursuit of social justice. Ennahda, in contrast to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is also constituted and conducts itself as a political party, and its members are committed to the party’s platform and to attaining it through parliamentary and local elections, rather than to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological aim of universal control. 

Tunisia now has a historic opportunity to clip the Islamist organisation’s wings through civil and democratic means. In order to achieve this end, the president will need to introduce profound political and social reforms that will include constitutional amendments approved in a national referendum. If these moves succeed, they will usher in a new and democratic presidential system in the country.


BUILDING ALTERNATIVES: Building a system of government based on the rule of law is the only real guarantee for successful democratic change. 

The region has offered too many examples of movements that have been unable to shift from protest mode to the institution-building that would create a genuine alternative to the previously existing autocracies. The roar and courage of thousands of people in the streets has a thrill and iconicity that is difficult to resist, but it will all turn out to be a mirage unless this energy is channelled into a single entity that has the means, programme and grassroots backing to fill a power vacuum and advance a viable alternative. 

This is not about building a revolutionary movement or ideology in the manner of the Marxist movements of the 20th century. The revolutions in the Arab world may not have espoused a clear revolutionary theory, but this is only natural in that there is no magic formula for effecting change in today’s complex world. Indeed, even in those countries where leftist movements helped bring about democratic change, such as in Latin America, they did not aim to build regimes based on revolutionary theory, but instead wanted to build reformist-minded leaderships with the skills to govern, manage and interact with the world. 

In Sudan, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) are an example of this type of constructive outlook in a world where there is no “revolutionary” alternative to despotism and corruption. There is no disputing that it took a grassroots uprising to topple Al-Bashir and that grassroots pressure forced military leader Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan to back down and reinstate Abdullah Hamdok as prime minister. However, it was never an option for the FFC to refuse to negotiate with the military top brass and to attempt to sideline the army and its support base. 

In sustaining the negotiations, the FFC followed in the footsteps of many Latin American experiences in the last century, when civilian forces, including Marxist ones, entered into negotiations with the military for the sake of democratic change. In fact, in order for their efforts to succeed they often had to offer certain guarantees to military leaders in exchange for relinquishing power. 

Were the Sudanese civil forces to refuse to negotiate with the army in accordance with some principle that held that negotiating with the enemy was betrayal, then the momentum for constructive change would give way to a momentum for street action, which would undermine the current understandings between Al-Burhan and Hamdok without offering a viable alternative. 

Perpetuating protest movements that protest against everything is no answer to the absence of revolutionary theory. Protest activism is only half the way forward. It helps to bring down dictatorships, but it is no recipe for success if it does not provide an alternative project, the practical means of building it, and the political and professional talents that have the ability to get things done.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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