A lesson not learned

Power lies in the streets, not the palaces, of the Arab world.

By: /
February 17, 2021
An anti-government demonstrator weeps with joy upon hearing the news of the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. John Moore/Getty Images

It has been ten years since ordinary people of various Arab states took to the streets, demanding freedom and calling for the downfall of authoritarian regimes. With the exception of Tunisia, none of those uprisings resulted in a lasting transition to democracy.

In Egypt, the army installed a military dictatorship. Regime opponents face detention, torture, and, more often than before, death. Libya is a failed state, challenged by warlords and ruthless international competition. Syria and Yemen are the most devasted of all Arab Spring countries. Hundreds of thousands are dead and millions displaced. Early hopes that the uprisings would transform the Arab world have shattered. The state of the Arab Spring today is nothing like what people wished for a decade ago.

Against this backdrop of broken dreams, authoritarian regimes in the region are reconsolidating by renewing a narrative about the importance of stability only they can provide, and western democracies are buying it. While the United States and key western powers initially backed the change wave of the Arab Spring — albeit selectively — they quickly reverted to a policy of subsidizing and supporting Arab autocrats, falling back on an essentialist, Orientalist trope about the dangers of change and the stability of authoritarian rule. They can do better.

Western democracies can do better by building policies centred on two interdependent truths: 1) empowered citizens of Arab states will continue to demand legitimate governance and 2) Arab authoritarian regimes cannot guarantee stability. Though the conditions today may be grim, in the long run, real power over the political trajectory of the Arab world is in the hands of its people. Western powers should therefore reconsider their commitments to Arab rulers.

Arab authoritarian regimes use fear to discourage civic engagement and mobilization. Oppressive measures are meant to demonstrate that public protests are futile. This strips populations of their right to genuine citizenship — in which governors derive their legitimate power from the people.

Yet, despite many horrific episodes of state abuse, protests, including new ones, continue to take place across the Arab world. In the past two years, uprisings erupted in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon. The truth is that Arab regimes are deeply unpopular and continue to cause and exacerbate political and economic problems.

“The Arab Spring has not ended — because Arab dictators have not shut down the aspirations of their populations.”

The Arab Spring has not ended —because Arab dictators have not shut down the aspirations of their populations. Youth-led and technology-empowered civil society in Arab states is now global, networked and increasingly capable of launching campaigns, managing messaging and organizing public mobilization. While Arab regimes are keenly aware of the power of the online tools employed by civil society, they are largely unable to infiltrate, co-opt or contain such modes of activism.

By piercing the wall of fear that enveloped them, the people of the Arab Spring realized the strength of their collective power, but also the frailty of authoritarian narratives. Arab populations were able to reclaim some of their citizenship, and they demanded genuine legitimacy in governance. Even if dictatorships have not fallen, a power shift — however slight — has taken place. The inability of western powers to recognize this change denies people their agency as political actors and impedes sound policy prescriptions. 

While poor socio-economic conditions were important reasons behind the Arab Spring protests — and continue to drive public discontent — the core of the problem has always been a broken social contract. Arab regimes lack political legitimacy because they rule without widespread consent. Repression will mobilize Arab populations again and again.

The argument that iron-fisted leaders can deliver stability using fear and force is entirely dishonest. It feeds on western assumptions that the Middle East is intrinsically resistant to democratization and western powers should therefore support strong regimes, however corrupt and oppressive they may be. This argument does not take into account the potency of civil society. It is why so many political scientists failed to predict the Arab Spring, and so too did western policymakers and pundits. Only by recognizing the potential of civil society to challenge existing power structures can one understand that authoritarian regimes are always sources of instability.

Western support for Arab autocratic regimes is not the most important factor preventing democratization in the region, but it does strengthen otherwise frail governments. Western democracies must instead commit to advancing their values of human rights, rule of law and accountability.

It is the moral thing to do, but there also is strategic value in supporting civil society in the region. The authoritarian and elite-ruled Arab world will continue to weaken global democratic norms and export security threats beyond its borders. This isn’t good for countries like Canada that depend on those norms and the international order on which they are built. Supporting Arab populations doesn’t mean inviting disorder to the region. Stability in the Arab world can only be assured when its people can shape their governance structures in a way that allows them to live in dignity and prosperity.

This is not a call for western interventions or nation-building initiatives. Rather, it is an invitation to western policymakers not to overlook the power lying in the combustible streets of the Arab world. If it is truly concerned with long-term regional stability in the Middle East, the West must advocate reforms in the Arab world by engaging with civil society actors and conditioning security and trade cooperation with Arab states on the advancement of human rights and the rule of law.

Arab regimes are far more vulnerable than many in the West may think. One thing that must be obvious by now is that oppression will mobilize the oppressed. The people of the region have realized how powerful their mobilization can be. Durable stability will come only when governance structures in the region are inclusive and accountable.

For more analysis about social media’s role in the Arab Spring, and in the repression that followed, read Karim Zidan’s essay “The double-edged sword” here.