Arab Spring was the name used for the wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings that took place in some of the Middle Eastern and North African states beginning in 2010 and 2011 and challenging some of the region’s enduring authoritarian regimes. The series of protests began first in Tunisia in the late 2010 with the self-immolation of a young and unemployed Tunisian called Mohamed Bouazizi and eventually led to the toppling of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. 2011 Tunisian Revolution was labeled as the “Jasmine Revolution” by the Western media and increased hopes and prospects of a more democratic Arab/Islamic world.
The wave of protests continued with the democratic transition in Egypt, which resulted in the resignation of the long-serving Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak with the support of the Egyptian Army. Egypt’s January 25 Revolution further increased hopes for democracy in the Muslim world since Egypt has always been a very influential country/civilization in the Arab/Islamic world. Egypt was then able to organize its first democratic presidential election in 2012 and Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) candidate Mohamed Morsi became the first democratically elected President of Egypt. However, when Morsi began to challenge Israeli position on some issues, he was toppled down with a military coup in 2013 and the leader of the junta, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became the new President of the country.
Arab Spring did not produce very good results in Libya as well. Protests and demonstrations against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi caused a civil war between government-loyalists and rebels in the country starting from 2011. With the NATO intervention, rebel forces had the upper hand and eventually they were able to take control of the country by killing Gaddafi. However, Libyan civil war continued and two separate governments were established in the country.
The Arab Spring had the most terrible results in Syria when the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad decided to fight against the rebels by using all means. Assad’s brutal response to rebels as well as the emergence of terrorist groups in Syria such as ISIS in addition to Al Qaeda and its offshoot organizations led to the emergence and deepening of a bloody sectarian-based civil war in the country between Nusayris and Sunnis. Syrian Kurds were also unified during the process under the banner of PKK offshoot organizations such as PYD and YPG, a fact that changed Türkiye’s approach to the whole process. Although rebel groups initially had almost encircled Damascus, with the Russian military intervention into Syria in the late 2015, Assad regime was able to survive in the Western half of the country. While the ISIS threat was eliminated in time with the Turkish, Russian, Syrian, and Western attacks as well as the Kurdish resistance, Kurdish rebels began to control large territories within Syria. Afraid of a PKK state in Syria, Türkiye was also militarily involved in Syria starting from 2016, controlling especially border areas by forcing PYD/YPG forces to withdraw. However, the chaotic situation in Syria still continues and there is no easy political solution to the problem.
Looking back at the Arab Spring after a decade, what we can derive from this process from the perspective of Political Science? First of all, we have seen during this process that, certain states (Gulf monarchies, Israel etc.) in this region do not support democratic regimes for political and security-based reasons. Gulf States do not have a democratization agenda and they obviously do not support democratization movements with the exception of Qatar. Israel on the other hand is a military democracy and a security-based state where uncontrolled democratization processes are seen as more risky compared to brutal dictatorships either in secular or Islamic form in Israel’s near abroad. Obama administration in the United States (U.S.), Türkiye, and the European Union (EU) were the main promoters of democracy during this process, but they eventually stopped supporting the rebel groups because of different motives. Türkiye was afraid of a possible PKK state, whereas the U.S. and the EU began to consider Assad regime as “lesser evil” compared to ISIS and other radical Islamists. From my perspective, in the future, in order to promote democracy in the region, Israel’s support should also be taken in addition to the U.S., the EU, and Türkiye in order to have better consequences. In my opinion, Israel could support a moderate Muslim democracy in case it would not pose security risks to itself and its interests in the region.
Secondly, we have seen during this process that authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in the region might provide security and certain level of development, but they can never create a prosperous and vibrant economy. Unlike Gulf States, other countries in the region have to produce things other than just oil and gas and they should manage the economy very carefully. Secular dictatorships were not able to do this and that is why, many people in the Arab countries, especially the Arab youth was very angry towards their regimes. Authoritarian and totalitarian states are not efficient as they reproduce corruption and mismanagement. Since the economies of these countries are still in bad shape, there might be other uprisings in the future related to economic reasons.
Thirdly, although the Arab Spring process was only successful in Tunisia so far (however, even the Tunisian democracy had a setback in recent years), it showed the whole world that there is no strict reverse magnetization between Islam and democracy. Muslim countries can also become democratic given the right conditions and rules in addition to help coming from other democratic countries.
Fourthly, as we have seen in many cases (Libya, Syria, and Egypt) during the Arab Spring, radical Islamists and ethnic nationalists always pose barriers to democratization with their sectarian approaches to political issues. In order to solve this problem, we must promote more individualism, left-wing ideologies, and feminism in this region. By doing this, we can create a youth and women awakening which could become a catalyst for the democratization movements in the future. Developing a model of moderate Islam can also be helpful to democratization in case it is controlled or balanced by secular forces.
Fifthly, we have seen during this process that the U.S. and the EU should continue to survive and stay strong not for the sake of Western dominance, but because of the prevention of totalitarian regimes. Unfortunately, Russia and China are other big powers at the global scene and they do not support liberal and democratic regimes. This attitude of Russia and China return to people in this region as more repression coming from their states, less freedoms, and worsening economic situation etc. Thus, the U.S. and the EU should continue to be dominant powers in international politics.
Sixthly, we can conclude that democratization movements need certain minimum requirements to be successful. It is hard to measure these conditions exactly; but we can say that 15,000 U.S. dollars GDP per capita level, high level of individualization rather than communitarianism, existence of a secularized Islamic life instead of radical Islam, strict controls over access to firearms, and peaceful political relations with the Western world can be listed as part of these conditions.
Finally, although the Arab Spring did not end in the democratization of the Arab/Islamic world, it served as a laboratory and showed us what we should do more to promote democracy and freedoms in the Islamic world in the future. Starting from this year, with Türkiye’s return to democracy, there can be better and more democratic days ahead for the Muslim world in the near future. But Türkiye model or the Turkish model should be supported and deepened since this country has the natural and historical ability to lead the Islamic world due to its Ottoman heritage.
Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ