We all remember the rallying cry that sparked a wave of revolutions throughout the Arab world. The people were tired of being held down by oppressive government rulers, and they wanted to be a part of the decision making process. In short, they wanted to become a democratic country.
Through a string of civil protests, uprisings, and civil wars, a handful of countries were able to successfully overthrow their rulers. It was something the world had marveled at, the beginnings of democratic order that will eventually lead to peace in an often chaotic region of the world.
Here, in the U.S., our eyes were glued to what was happening in the summer of 2011. The feeling that something grand was happening was inescapable. President Barack Obama had described this phenomenon as “a historic opportunity” for us “to pursue the world as it should be.” Some even thought we have finally won the war of ideology with radical groups like Al Qaeda.
It has been two full years since the phenomenon known as the “Arab Spring” began. Where are these countries now? Was democracy the magical pill that these countries needed?
The answer can be gleamed in the recent crisis in Egypt, where the dubious transition of power that began last week still remains unresolved. Despite having a constitution that was approved through referendum about half a year ago, the people revolted and whispers of a military coups are running wild.
The process of a thorough democratization process for these countries certainly looks dim. Most countries in the Arab world (that have “succeeded” since the beginning of Arab Spring) are now struggling to maintain order and to push forward without loosing what they have gained so far. Aside from social instability, the economic outlook also provides another major road bump. The region’s economic growth has been sluggish. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll, majorities in several countries value a strong economy more than a democratic government. This makes their situation particularly concerning. Despite all the changes that have occurred, the region comprising the Middle East and North Africa still remains the least free in the world, with Freedom House estimating that 72 percent of the countries and 85 percent of the people there still lack basic political rights and civil liberties.
I am not saying that authoritarian governments in this region will endure forever. The series of protests in recent years have shown that changes to their political infrastructures can happen. The timetable of when and how is still to be determined, and maybe Egypt will be the best example to look at in the meanwhile. If Egypt does not fall back into chaos, and actually continue with what they had started in 2011, then the outlook is good.
There are some positives with the recent ousting of former President Morsi by the military. It’s found in the protests that seemed to have lead to the recent events in Egypt (notice that I said “seemed”, time will tell whether this was a coup or not). The protest was larger than any protest in 2011, and it spoke out against the situation that the Muslim Brotherhood had placed them. In Egypt, crime rates are higher than it was before. And truth to be told, Egypt seem to be nowhere better off than it was in 2011. But the people have found a voice that seem to be much more powerful than it was in 2011, now it’s just a waiting game to see what will be the outcome of the military intervention that had occurred.
Two years into the Arab Spring, we can now look at the situation in its face and call it for what it is. The truth is that yes, the uprisings of the last two years have certainly challenged authoritarian rule in the Arab world. But there still exists structural conditions that seem to be preventing further political liberalization in the region. On top of that, factors such as war, corruption, and economic stagnation could further undermine the Arab Spring progress.
The role of the U.S. in dealing with what is happening has to be realistic. We are going to have to deal with the Arabic world with what it currently is, not what it was or will be. We will have to be in bed with some unsavory nations, but we have to focus on attainable goals. That does not mean we should give up either, it merely means that we have to help where we can without overstepping. That is a hard line to discern, something both former-President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama can tell us.
So now that all the glam and make up has come off, and it’s now the morning after. What the Arab Spring originally looked like still exists… but the truth is that it’s just not as gorgeous and perfect as we thought last night.