A typology of the potential for 'democracy consolidation' across the Arab Spring countries.

It has been more than three years since a series of protests and uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East ushered a new sets of dynamics that promised more freedom, economic prosperity, dignity and democracy.  Some analysts view the Arab Spring as a critical and significant challenge to the status-quo, even for countries in which old regimes were not toppled nor critically threatened. This is because of the previously held assumption of a ‘democracy deficit’ in the Arab world which was deemed unable to undertake political transformations akin to the successive  waves of democratisation seen in South America, Eastern Europe and even in some sub-Saharan African nations. Indeed, the so-called ‘Arab exceptionalism’ in relation to the third wave to democratisation is reinforced by an historical absence of democratic governance in any of the Arab countries since independence.  The endurance of Arab authoritarianism in the face of various global democratisation waves, has been explained in terms of minimal reforms undertaken by ruling autocrats to stifle and circumvent democratic movements. This pre-emptive ‘authoritarian upgrading’ consisted in superficial reconfiguring of governance arrangements to accommodate and manage changing political, economic, and social conditions. This is essentially a defensive response to serious challenges confronting Arab autocrats.  But despite these tactful ‘authoritarian upgrading’, there is no doubt that the Arab Spring has been a popular quest for freedom in all of its manifestations. This quest for freedom is also an indication of a crisis of legitimacy on the part of the dominant political rule since national independence a rule mostly by military officers and their families. 

Despite the apparent common root causes discussed above in particular from a political economic point of view, the Arab countries are by means similar in the way they have developed socially and politically during the post-colonial decades. There was or is no single Arab authoritarianism; rather, there is an array of political settings with histories, structural conditions, and dynamics that share both similar and strikingly dissimilar characteristics. The politics of Ben Ali’s Tunisia were very different from those of Saleh’s Yemen or the Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain, and nothing anywhere quite resembled Qaddafi’s Libya. The dynamics of opposition and protest in those countries, although linked, have also been quite different’. Therefore,  the post-revolution trajectories in the Arab Spring states also developed in different directions in each of the countries involved.

At the level of post-revolt political and security stabilisation, some uprisings quickly toppled dictatorial regimes, as in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, while others, like in Syria and Libya, face more protracted resistance. This can be explained from a Gramscian viewpoint, in terms of strength of the pre-existing civil society so that the stronger the civil society, the greater the likelihood of revolutionary success. As a consequence, a revolutionary movement that seems to arise with significant swiftness to topple an established regime is dependent on society-specific characteristics for its capacity to build a post-revolution consensus during the transition phase. Tunisia and to a lesser degree Egypt, for instance, are relatively homogenous societies with regard to national identity, tribal and religious groups within their respective societies. And to a large extent, it is this homogeneity and cohesion that facilitated and enabled the creation of united mass movements against the fragile regimes of the two countries. Homogeneity, under these circumstances, engendered a unifying collective ideology. In contrast, socio-culturally heterogeneous and to a degree divided, authoritarian states, such as Libya, Syria and Yemen, launched their uprisings at a slower pace and their actions faced greater resistance. These societies are often split along sectarian or tribal lines which also overlap along socio-economic stratifications. Sustaining revolutionary movements in such societies may degenerate into sectarian power struggles or even outright civil war as in the case of Syria, or a state of lawlessness and civil chaos driven by ethnic or tribal groups as is the case with Libya.

Therefore, ethnic, religious and tribal heterogeneity in the context of revolutionary moments, have the potential to impede efforts towards developing the type of unified post-revolutionary worldview that can sustain and secure the consolidation stage. These country-specific socio-cultural characteristics along with other variables most notably strength of civil society and involvement of the military in domestic politics, are also important in shaping the consolidation stage with a significant level of variation observed across the region.  In Tunisia, for instance, human capital and civil society are in general more developed than in Egypt, facilitating more opportunities for post-revolutionary political transition and security stabilisation and, consequently, creating a stronger basis for  consolidating the early revolutionary achievements. On the other hand, Egypt’s military institution has been far more powerful and influential than either its civil society organisation or the military institution in Tunisian,  as a result, the Egyptian post-revolution transitional course has been characterised by deep ideological struggle for power between the military and Islamists culminating in the events of 30 June 2013 and the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood elected president Mohamed Mursi. 

While similar conditions have led to uprisings and to the rapid toppling of the autocratic regimes in both Tunisia and Egypt (indeed the same revolutionary slogans were used across the two north African countries), the consolidation phase has highlighted  the primacy of country-specificity in particular in relation to key institutions, resulting in different management strategies, divergent revolutionary outcomes,  and possibly different prospects for revolutionary consolidation.

This blog is based on a plenary paper presented at an international conference on ‘The Arab World, Iran and the Major Powers: Transitions and Challenges’ 26-27 June 2014. Canberra:  the Australian National University.

Fethi Mansouri