Foreign Relations & International Law

Did the Arab World Miss Its Chance to Democratize?

J. Dana Stuster
Monday, December 5, 2016, 3:00 PM

The Arab uprising in 2011 prompted months of excitement about the potential for governance reform and even democratization in the Arab world. But as the protests gave way to massacres, civil war, and renewed repression—what Marc Lynch has called the “Arab Thermidor”—the attention policymakers paid to reform gave way to more immediate security challenges.

Tahrir Square on July 29, 2011 (Ahmed Abd El-Fatah,; CC BY 2.0 DEED,

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The Arab uprising in 2011 prompted months of excitement about the potential for governance reform and even democratization in the Arab world. But as the protests gave way to massacres, civil war, and renewed repression—what Marc Lynch has called the “Arab Thermidor”—the attention policymakers paid to reform gave way to more immediate security challenges. Nearly six years after the Arab Spring began in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, democracy promotion has once again receded on the list of U.S. priorities in the Middle East. This is partially because Arab governments have doubled down on policies honed over the course of decades to deflect and constrain U.S. policies to promote political liberalization. But it is also because the U.S. government has chosen not to press these issues more forcefully.

Two recent reports suggest the United States is taking its eye off the ball and running the risk of being caught unprepared for a predictable crisis once again. The new U.N. Arab Human Development Report (UNAHDR) argues that Arab regimes have only bought a temporary stay against greater instability in the years since 2011. Economic crises and profound wealth inequality have left the region’s youth population adrift with few prospects, while the space for expressing their frustration or engaging in political solutions has narrowed. Without redress of these grievances, another round of destabilizing protests is likely. Brookings Senior Fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes agrees that the status quo is unsustainable in her new report for the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force and offers some policy prescriptions to enhance U.S. leverage for political reforms.

While the United States has options for pushing inclusive governance, it is limited in what it can achieve. And no U.S. policy can change the fact that the United States and Arab regimes have drawn fundamentally different lessons from the last six years. This context suggests the outlook is bleak: without Arab states adopting reforms, the best the United States can hope for is to mitigate the worst effects of the looming political upheaval.

The Arab Spring Didn’t Fix Arab Governance

The popular protests in 2011 identified many of the problems that have held back the Arab states politically and economically, but failed to fix them. (A fair criticism of both reports is their tendency to generalize about the entire region; I recognize I’m repeating this fault in this discussion.) This outcome isn’t for lack of trying—while early political efforts had their missteps, good faith efforts were often subsumed by political jockeying backed by foreign governments. As Rached Ghannouchi has said, one of the reasons Tunisia has come as far as it has in its transition while Egypt, Syria, and Libya have collapsed or reverted to autocracy is its relatively marginal geostrategic role in the region; it “doesn’t have to suffer under [the] weight of international attention,” he told Lynch. But even with this advantage, Tunisia is still struggling to come to terms with the crimes of the previous regime and ensure a sound economic footing for the new democratic government.

Many of the factors that gave rise to the protests in 2011 were anticipated in the first U.N. Arab Human Development Report, released in 2002; for those unfamiliar, it is a seminal work on the Arab world that’s still spoken of and cited reverently nearly 15 years after its release. The latest report—the sixth in the series and the first to be published since 2009—provides significant evidence of continued political and economic stagnation in the region, focusing on the “mass disenfranchisement” of the youth population that was the backbone of the 2011 uprisings. Arab youth attend schools that do not prepare them for private-sector jobs and suffer from high unemployment levels; an entire generation has now grown into adulthood with their aspirations deferred. This “waithood” has cascading effects, from the postponement of marriage, childbirth, and home ownership, to the increasing prevalence of mental illness and sexually-transmitted diseases in countries with inadequate health care.

Arab youth attend schools that do not prepare them for private-sector jobs and suffer from high unemployment levels; an entire generation has now grown into adulthood with their aspirations deferred.

This youth disenfranchisement has coincided with growing access to information, including reporting on the levels of corruption and nepotism that have hindered youth advancement. “Wide access to media and information creates more awareness, especially among young people, of the miasma of elite alliances embedded in society, and this is heightening the perceptions of inequality on the street, driving a wedge more deeply between the haves and the have nots and helping fuel the uprisings and conflicts in the region,” the UNAHDR states. As media has become more democratized, surveys on youth attitudes have shown growing value placed on self-expression. Respect for authority has declined, gradually over the 2000s, and then sharply after 2011.

“The uprisings dealt a blow to the authority of centralized governments,” Wittes writes. Arab citizens feel “betrayed by the broken hopes of the past five years” and “are deeply suspicious of existing political leaders, parties, institutions of governance, and other sources of political authority.” In Wittes’s succinct formulation of the current crisis in the region, “The collapse of security and the collapse of authority in the Middle East since 2011 are the twin forces now driving the region, leaving both its population and outside actors to choose between a future governed by renewed authoritarianism or by violent extremism.”

Both Wittes and the UNAHDR agree that this situation is unsustainable. Wittes argues that governments in the region must work to restore social trust, but that top-down solutions are unlikely to have credibility given the level of distrust and frustration with current governments. The UNAHDR warns that “young people’s awareness of their capabilities and rights collides with a reality that marginalises them and blocks their pathways to express their opinions, actively participate or earn a living. As a result, instead of being a massive potential for building the future, youth can become an overwhelming power for destruction.”

The United States and the Arab World Can’t Agree on the Problem

In a sense, the warnings being issued to Arab governments are similar to those about climate change: there are apparent indicators of a large-scale disaster at some point in the future, but the size and shape it may take are unclear. Based on this nebulous threat, governments must take drastic action over the course of a generation to prevent possible collapse.

The UNAHDR and Wittes’s warnings should be a clarion call for inclusive governance reforms, but while the danger for further destabilization seems obvious to many policy analysts in the West, Arab governments have drawn the opposite lesson from 2011 uprisings.

U.S. policymakers and Arab governments have a fundamental difference in perception. Many scholars in the United States and elsewhere predicted the collapse of Arab regimes for decades. The subsidies and social welfare programs that were the core of state spending were not sustainable and only feasible through the provision of large amounts of foreign aid, they warned; dissent was only being contained by draconian limitations on basic freedoms, and authority was maintained by nationalist ideologies that had long ago lost credibility. Wittes identified these factors in 2008 as the “three Rs”—rents, repression, and rhetoric—and many issued similar warnings decades before (Hisham Sharabi’s 1985 book Neopatriarchy, or William Quandt 1993 essay, “Democratic Political Movements in the Middle East,” to name a couple notable examples). As Wittes notes in her new report, scholars struggled to understand how these fragile regimes persisted. It seemed to be a fluke. And when the 2011 protests occurred and Arab publics demanded more inclusive political and economic participation, it made sense.

But the Arab regimes—those not subsumed by civil war—have largely tried to return to same domestic policies that characterized governance before 2011. In many respects, their policies hew to the rubric of “authoritarian upgrading” that Steven Heydemann wrote about in 2007: appropriate and contain civil society groups, manage political contestation, capture benefits of selective economic reforms, control emerging communications technology, and play the economic field to find new diplomatic partners.

As far as most Arab governments seem to be concerned, these policies are sustainable. They lasted for decades without garnering significant public opposition. It was the 2011 protests, not the years that preceded them, that were the fluke.

Consider climate change again: it has been difficult enough to prompt international action to address global warming even with an overwhelming scientific consensus. On the issue of inclusive governance, it will be nearly impossible to spur action so long as analysts and Arab governments disagree on the fundamental need for reform.

The avenue to inclusive reform is blocked at the government level and may also be narrowing at the public level. Arab publics are increasingly less receptive to democratic ideas. The UNAHDR reports that popular perceptions of democracy are shifting in the Arab world. “Although the preference for democracy has held up since the uprisings, many countries have shown sharp compositional effects, whereby the preference is diminishing among the more well-educated and affluent, but rising among poorer citizens,” the report states. “The noticeable pushback among the more well-educated, who were the main champions of change leading up to the uprisings, can be attributed to fears of chaos or of redistributive policies by democratically elected governments dominated by the interests of poor.” The report even goes so far as to suggest that democracy could become a divisive issue “increasingly associated with a class struggle.” Other impediments to the implementation of more inclusive governance also remain. The UNAHDR found that attitudes in the Arab world concerning social and religious tolerance have stagnated since the early 2000s and remain less accommodating than global averages.

Outside the region, democracy as a form of government appears to be in a growing recession, and more nations show signs of relapsing into illiberal systems. Functioning democracies haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory recently. As Brian Klass, the author of The Despot’s Accomplice, told BBC Newsnight recently, “We had an 18-month advertisement in the United States for why democracy is problematic. Nobody looked at that election between Trump and Clinton and thought, wow, I really wish we had that.”

The problem isn’t simply that democracy is a messy process; its shift toward empowering right-wing nationalists is potentially alienating to the Arab world. The xenophobia on display during and since Britain’s Brexit referendum, President-elect Trump’s campaign promise to ban Muslims from entering the United States, the unabashed Islamophobia of Marine Le Pen and anti-Arab attitudes of Geert Wilders, Francois Fillon’s nostalgia for empires that left a disastrous legacy in the Middle East, and the vitriol directed toward Syrian refugees by Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini have a cumulative effect. If these are the people that democracies elect, why would Arabs want this for themselves?

The situation at present is not promising for democracy advocates. The ability to assert pressure for liberalizing reforms from the outside is limited and shrinking. The fad in democracies of empowering far-right nationalists is alienating to Arab publics, and these leaders almost certainly will not prioritize democracy promotion in their foreign policies. The potential for bottom-up reforms driven by Arab publics is also in doubt. The middle class’ souring on democracy and the broader public’s refusal to accommodate marginalized social and religious groups are a strong check against the implementation of liberalizing reforms. And the Arab regimes do not even recognize that they have a problem.

What Can the United States Actually Do?

But if the United States, possibly under another presidential administration, were to decide to promote political liberalization again, what could it reasonably do? Wittes recommends greater consistency in U.S. democracy promotion policies; efforts were strong in the early months after the Arab uprising began but faltered as authoritarian regimes reasserted themselves and Libya, Syria, and Yemen collapsed into civil war. A more consistent approach would include continuing to support Tunisia’s transition and states that are practicing peaceful and inclusive governance (they’re still a long way from democratizing, but Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait have led the way on this with democratically-elected parliaments with lively debates and opposition parties). Wittes also argues for “increasing and intensifying all forms of engagement and exchange between Americans and the peoples of the Middle East.” Though the opportunities for the most direct engagement on democratization have narrowed—many Arab governments restrict the operation and funding of NGOs and are deeply suspicious of groups like those supported by the National Endowment for Democracy—other programs that focus on youth leadership, parliamentarians, and the judiciary remain.

This support can help maintain progress that’s already been made, but pushing countries to reform further will require more complex incentives and penalties. Wittes argues that a consistent U.S. approach—which will have to be maintained over the course of a generational political shift—will require officials to take the long view. International support and a “multilateral mechanism” would be helpful, as would care not to “over-securitize” U.S. relationships in the region. The UNAHDR echoes this, noting Arab states’ emphasis on security spending at the expense of development projects; exorbitant military budgets “represent missed opportunities to invest in broader economic and social progress,” the report states.

Redefining the U.S. security relationship with the Arab world is a tall order: the United States, and the Obama administration in particular, has used weapons sales and logistical support to the Gulf states as a palliative for policies unpopular with U.S. partners like the Iran nuclear deal and limited U.S. support to Syrian rebels. The disputes over these relatively minor assertions of U.S. interest-based policy have prompted historically large U.S. arms sales and logistical support (and a blind eye to abuses) for the Saudi intervention in Yemen—and Gulf diplomats are still complaining about the poor state of relations with Washington.

Pressing for political liberalization reforms and de-emphasizing security ties will only lead to more frustrations from U.S. partners in the Arab world and will take political will to maintain. And that should be acceptable to the United States . . . .

Pressing for political liberalization reforms and de-emphasizing security ties will only lead to more frustrations from U.S. partners in the Arab world and will take political will to maintain. And that should be acceptable to the United States; it’s the price Washington will have to pay for consistency, and a more transactional U.S. relationship with Arab autocracies is overdue.

The most limiting factor for such a shift in the U.S. relationship with the Arab world is this: Arab states can say no. That’s one of the principles of “authoritarian upgrading”—Arab regimes have made a concerted effort to diversify their sources of political and economic patronage so that they can walk away from U.S. conditions on aid. A recent report on U.S. aid to Egypt by Amy Hawthorne at the Project on Middle East Democracy argues that the United States should hold to its principles and cut out an obstructionist government if necessary. Noting that the Egyptian government has made it increasingly difficult to spend allocated U.S. economic aid and begun requesting that the United States provide the funds without earmarks, Hawthorne writes that “U.S. aid, which has always been controversial in Egypt, cannot resolve the deep differences between Washington and Cairo on human rights, economic policy, or regional issues.” If the United States continues to provide aid, she argues, it should be directed to programs that “respond to Egyptian citizens’ needs in employment, education, and welfare in practical, direct ways,” not the government itself. This won’t restore friendships in Arab capitals, but it may be necessary to shift to a consistent, principled U.S. policy.

This would all be a dramatic shift in the way the United States conducts its foreign policy in the Middle East, and it would be exceptionally difficult to maintain. But, as Wittes and the UNAHDR make clear, it is also long overdue—if it’s not too late already.

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare. He is also an instructor at the Naval War College and a PhD candidate at Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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