As the Arab Spring enters its eighth year, violent conflicts and horrific human atrocities have made the Arab people more sceptical about both democratic transition and political movements in general.
In the late 1990s, democracy started to spread globally hitting the shores of the Middle East, one of the last strongholds of authoritarianism. However, during the following decades, the reforms and democratisation agenda in the Middle East remained cosmetic, with a top-down approach designed to contain civil society. Oppression, social exclusion and a lack of political participation aggravated people’s sense of alienation: what followed was a chain of events called the ‘Arab Spring’.
When the first event of the Arab Spring began in Tunisia almost eight years ago, new hopes for democratisation emerged in the region. Optimism for democratic change spread rapidly from country to country. People in the Middle East started to discuss a new social contract that would provide them with freedom, justice, and a voice in politics. As the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya fell, other regimes appeared to be next in line, and analogies were quickly made referencing 1989, when another frozen political space, Eastern Europe, saw one dictatorship after another collapse.
The emergence of violence, turmoil and failed states, however, caused new hopes for democratisation to fade away. Autocratic regimes showed remarkable resilience, re-establishing a more repressive version of authoritarianism. The tragic outcomes of the Arab Spring also provided the ruling elites with the perfect pretext to justify authoritarian practices and limit civil society's activity. In some countries, Arab uprisings ushered in the most violent period of state-society relations. In Syria, Yemen and Libya, the world witnessed gruesome man-made humanitarian disasters leaving scores of people dead, injured, homeless and displaced.
The tragic events that followed the Arab Spring resonated (the most) negatively at societal level. The favourable attitude toward democracy decreased and people started to demand security and stability above all; their push for a reform agenda took a back seat. The tragic events also made societies more sceptical about democratisation and political reforms.
The 2017-2018 Arab Opinion survey - the sixth in a series of yearly public opinion surveys across the Arab world - shows that public opinion towards the Arab Spring has worsened over time. In the most recent survey, 34 percent of Arabs believed that the Arab Spring had been aborted before the revolutions could achieve their aims, and that the former regimes have returned to power. This is a marked decline from 2014, when two-thirds of the Arab public was openly optimistic about the possibility of the Arab Spring achieving its aims. Some reasons for this growing disenchantment include creeping authoritarianism and the spread of chaos in many of the Arab Spring countries.
According to the survey, there is also an upward trend in political apathy in the region. Those who said they do not want to engage in elections has risen to 46 percent in the 2017-2018 survey, while this figure was around 27 percent in the surveys conducted during the first years of the Arab Spring. The Arab people have also started to view political parties and political activism in a negative light. According to the results of the sixth survey, more and more Arab respondents began to grow weary of existing political groups or blocks in the region. A majority of Arabs (52 percent) have no affiliation with a political party in any way.
As the Arab Spring enters its eighth year, senseless violence, terror, immense human suffering, chaos, and the emergence of failed states have made the Arab public more sceptical about democracy and political movements. For many of them, safety and stability now stands above everything else. Many now adhere to the idea that “the worst authoritarian regime is better than conflict and civil war”.
The Arab Spring should have served as a warning and a call to action to address the root causes of people’s alienation. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Arab countries have not recorded any improvement in the areas of permitting more political participation, building stable democratic institutions, enhancing political and social integration, elimination of socioeconomic deprivation, or improving governance. Furthermore, the authoritarian powers in the region have started to take more coordinated, decisive and sophisticated action to contain civil voices at home.
The alienation of the Arab masses led to the Arab Spring and as it stands now has the potential to cause more conflicts. Instability and violence in the region are unescapable. For a more stable future, change needs to take place at state level. The ruling elite must realise that the traditional tools they have deployed to quell dissent are running their course and a paradigm shift centreing on democratic transition is needed.
At society level, the tragic events and the humanitarian suffering that unfolded in the wake of the Arab Spring should direct the Arab masses to the wisdom of seeking reform in a peaceful and gradual manner. At international level, Western powers that have traditionally supported autocratic and oppressive regimes in Arab countries to secure Western economic and strategic interests should realise that this is a short-sighted strategy and a recipe for radicalism and terrorism. Instead Western powers should use their leverage to support the quest for democratisation.
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