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RAPID RESPONSE

SHORT ANSWERS FROM THE EXPERTS

June 25, 2012

Syria is on the brink of civil war. Democracy is being undermined in Egypt. Is the Arab Spring over?

It is necessary to take a country-by-country approach to assess the bigger picture. To touch on a few of the significant indicators:

Substantial improvements, expressed in terms of reforms in favour of democracy, good governance, civil society engagement and respect for human rights, appear to have been achieved in Tunisia, with more modest gains in Egypt, Yemen and Morocco.

The jury is still out on Libya, but to date the elimination of Gaddafi has not delivered as advertised. There have been some real costs to popular welfare, with setbacks in public safety, education, health care, and infrastructure.

The situations in Algeria and Jordan, and most of the Gulf states are little changed.

The reformist wave has – for now – been rolled back in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Overall it is a very mixed picture. Relative to expectations, progress has been modest.

The spark, however, has not been extinguished.

It is necessary to take a country-by-country approach to assess the bigger picture. To touch on a few of the significant indicators:

Substantial improvements, expressed in terms of reforms in favour of democracy, good governance, civil society engagement and respect for human rights, appear to have been achieved in Tunisia, with more modest gains in Egypt, Yemen and Morocco.

The jury is still out on Libya, but to date the elimination of Gaddafi has not delivered as advertised. There have been some real costs to popular welfare, with setbacks in public safety, education, health care, and infrastructure.

The situations in Algeria and Jordan, and most of the Gulf states are little changed.

The reformist wave has – for now – been rolled back in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Overall it is a very mixed picture. Relative to expectations, progress has been modest.

The spark, however, has not been extinguished.

It is necessary to take a country-by-country approach to assess the bigger picture. To touch on a few of the significant indicators:

Substantial improvements, expressed in terms of reforms in favour of democracy, good governance, civil society engagement and respect for human rights, appear to have been achieved in Tunisia, with more modest gains in Egypt, Yemen and Morocco.

The jury is still out on Libya, but to date the elimination of Gaddafi has not delivered as advertised. There have been some real costs to popular welfare, with setbacks in public safety, education, health care, and infrastructure.

The situations in Algeria and Jordan, and most of the Gulf states are little changed.

The reformist wave has – for now – been rolled back in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Overall it is a very mixed picture. Relative to expectations, progress has been modest.

The spark, however, has not been extinguished.

The real question here is whether it was appropriate to conceive of events in the region last year as an “Arab Spring” in the first place. It seems clear that the uprisings were linked in a kind of ‘copy-cat’ mimicry, and that Internet communications both triggered and reinforced the process. But the widespread conclusion that this reflected a universal hunger for western-style liberal democracy, coupled to a tolerance for diversity, and hence that it meant that we were on the verge of a democratic transformation of political processes in the Arab world, was naively optimistic from the start. Political cultures – along with the underlying political realities and the forces that sustain them – rarely alter their essentials overnight. In matters of this sort, absent a total cataclysm, watersheds are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

The sins of facile thinking and over-generalization were compounded here, as they have been elsewhere, by the assumption that the countries involved – because mainly Arab and mainly Muslim – were all pretty much the same. Hence it was concluded that what was happening in country A was essentially the same as what was happening in country B, and that, to the extent the happenings themselves were successful, they would all generate pretty much the same result. These are hardly reliable premises upon which to found our expectations, and they point to the need to ground our assessments in nuanced, case-by-case analysis of local conditions.

Even in an age of single-page government memos and 142-character tweets, there is no short cut to perspicacity. We have to know – REALLY know – what we’re talking about.

The real question here is whether it was appropriate to conceive of events in the region last year as an “Arab Spring” in the first place. It seems clear that the uprisings were linked in a kind of ‘copy-cat’ mimicry, and that Internet communications both triggered and reinforced the process. But the widespread conclusion that this reflected a universal hunger for western-style liberal democracy, coupled to a tolerance for diversity, and hence that it meant that we were on the verge of a democratic transformation of political processes in the Arab world, was naively optimistic from the start. Political cultures – along with the underlying political realities and the forces that sustain them – rarely alter their essentials overnight. In matters of this sort, absent a total cataclysm, watersheds are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

The sins of facile thinking and over-generalization were compounded here, as they have been elsewhere, by the assumption that the countries involved – because mainly Arab and mainly Muslim – were all pretty much the same. Hence it was concluded that what was happening in country A was essentially the same as what was happening in country B, and that, to the extent the happenings themselves were successful, they would all generate pretty much the same result. These are hardly reliable premises upon which to found our expectations, and they point to the need to ground our assessments in nuanced, case-by-case analysis of local conditions.

Even in an age of single-page government memos and 142-character tweets, there is no short cut to perspicacity. We have to know – REALLY know – what we’re talking about.

The real question here is whether it was appropriate to conceive of events in the region last year as an “Arab Spring” in the first place. It seems clear that the uprisings were linked in a kind of ‘copy-cat’ mimicry, and that Internet communications both triggered and reinforced the process. But the widespread conclusion that this reflected a universal hunger for western-style liberal democracy, coupled to a tolerance for diversity, and hence that it meant that we were on the verge of a democratic transformation of political processes in the Arab world, was naively optimistic from the start. Political cultures – along with the underlying political realities and the forces that sustain them – rarely alter their essentials overnight. In matters of this sort, absent a total cataclysm, watersheds are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

The sins of facile thinking and over-generalization were compounded here, as they have been elsewhere, by the assumption that the countries involved – because mainly Arab and mainly Muslim – were all pretty much the same. Hence it was concluded that what was happening in country A was essentially the same as what was happening in country B, and that, to the extent the happenings themselves were successful, they would all generate pretty much the same result. These are hardly reliable premises upon which to found our expectations, and they point to the need to ground our assessments in nuanced, case-by-case analysis of local conditions.

Even in an age of single-page government memos and 142-character tweets, there is no short cut to perspicacity. We have to know – REALLY know – what we’re talking about.

Jack Austin

Western impatience is irrelevant. In societies of great inequality, adjustments are painful, at times chaotic, reversible and disastrous for many.

Yet the ideas are in play and will manifest themselves in accord with local culture and expectation.

“Over?” It’s just beginning. But democracy isn’t a process, an “app” to download. It’s behavioral. It has to be built, learned, tested and it takes time as well as capacity. It’s about a lot more than free elections (which took Western well-wishing democrats a while to understand.) It’s about what happens after uprisings and free elections. It takes national crash-courses in citizen engagement and responsibility. Winners need to accommodate losers. Pluralism needs validation and protection with minority rights (not quota entitlements) rooted in law and viable institutions. And then the people expect democratic governement to deliver security, prosperity, fairness, all probably for the first time. So getting there is no stroll in a rose garden. It’s tough, complex, and messy. But are dictators better? Of course not. The “Arab Spring” shows for once and for all no part of the world is immune to the human democratic impulse. The question is what are we doing as democrats to help other people to build their own civil society, institutions, and human rights management we take for granted? That’s what our foreign aid ought to be about but isn’t.

“Over?” It’s just beginning. But democracy isn’t a process, an “app” to download. It’s behavioral. It has to be built, learned, tested and it takes time as well as capacity. It’s about a lot more than free elections (which took Western well-wishing democrats a while to understand.) It’s about what happens after uprisings and free elections. It takes national crash-courses in citizen engagement and responsibility. Winners need to accommodate losers. Pluralism needs validation and protection with minority rights (not quota entitlements) rooted in law and viable institutions. And then the people expect democratic governement to deliver security, prosperity, fairness, all probably for the first time. So getting there is no stroll in a rose garden. It’s tough, complex, and messy. But are dictators better? Of course not. The “Arab Spring” shows for once and for all no part of the world is immune to the human democratic impulse. The question is what are we doing as democrats to help other people to build their own civil society, institutions, and human rights management we take for granted? That’s what our foreign aid ought to be about but isn’t.

“Over?” It’s just beginning. But democracy isn’t a process, an “app” to download. It’s behavioral. It has to be built, learned, tested and it takes time as well as capacity. It’s about a lot more than free elections (which took Western well-wishing democrats a while to understand.) It’s about what happens after uprisings and free elections. It takes national crash-courses in citizen engagement and responsibility. Winners need to accommodate losers. Pluralism needs validation and protection with minority rights (not quota entitlements) rooted in law and viable institutions. And then the people expect democratic governement to deliver security, prosperity, fairness, all probably for the first time. So getting there is no stroll in a rose garden. It’s tough, complex, and messy. But are dictators better? Of course not. The “Arab Spring” shows for once and for all no part of the world is immune to the human democratic impulse. The question is what are we doing as democrats to help other people to build their own civil society, institutions, and human rights management we take for granted? That’s what our foreign aid ought to be about but isn’t.

Gordon Smith

Anybody who thought the SCAF would readily give way to an elected parliament or president was dreaming. This is a long term process. Just think how long it has taken in Turkey for the military to accept a civilian government (and one with Islamist inclinations to boot). Syria is, I fear, still in the early innings, with a very unclear outcome. The readiness to challenge repressive autocracies is much more widespread in the region, in part thanks to information technology. Stay tuned.

Marie-Joëlle Zahar

It is not. The Arab Spring was the beginning not the end point of the transition to democracy. Further, the road to democracy is not a straight path. Countries that have gone down this path are bound to experience upheavals. How deep these are and how they end will depend both on internal and external factors. It will take the engagement and maturity of citizens and political forces in the Arab world for formerly repressed groups not to become the new oppressors as they come to power. It will also take maturity and responsibility on the part of the West to allow changes to be determined internally but accompany them and help steer them in the right direction.

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