On January 25, 2011, I was standing in the midst of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, overwhelmed by what I saw there: hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from various backgrounds and socio-economic strata were protesting against the regime and demanded change. The demands that were expressed at the square were as diverse as the protestors themselves. I took a photo of an iconic “Facebook” slogan written on one of the garage doors close to the square, next to it “Al-Jazeera” was written in Arabic. It symbolized the drivers of the wind of changes that was sweeping then through Egypt. A group of women and children was working on a huge protest banner that said, “The people want to bring down the regime.” A few students from Cairo University waived a different banner that called for freedom and social justice, and a niqab-clad young woman held a small hand-written sign in her hands that called for an establishment of an Islamic state with the Quran as its constitution. The term “the Arab Spring” was yet to be coined.
I spent a few days on the square and interviewed dozens of Egyptians who came to protest. Everyone complained about the police violence and corruption, nepotism and lack of jobs, poor infrastructures, and a rising cost of living. Younger people were furious about President Mubarak’s attempts to transfer his job to his son Gamal, older Egyptians were fuming at him due to 30-years long broken promises. Many interlocuters had mentioned to me that they wished that Egypt would become a democracy, and almost everyone had their own idea of what Egyptian democracy should look like. In Pew research, 54% said that the democratic form of governance is the most important, even if it involves the risk of political instability.1
Soon after the fateful 18 days on the square, the military took control over Egypt in the form of SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces)2, then the Muslim Brotherhood won elections for the parliament and the presidency.3 Another popular uprising that took place on June 30, 2013 removed the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood from power and reinstalled the military leaders instead. Many so-called “patriotic” Egyptian media personalities had blamed the rise of MB to power on “democracy,” claiming that it was the West, Qatar and Turkey who pushed “democracy” in order to ruin Egypt.4 Many Egyptians, tired of instability, seemed to agree with this assumption. They were craving order, economic improvement, and a sense of normal life. In 2014, 54% of Egyptians said that having a stable government is more important, even if there is a risk that it will not be fully democratic. Just 44% believed it is more important to have a democratic government, even if there is some risk of political instability.5
In just a few years since the million-strong protests erupted in Egypt, democracy was put on hold there, as well as in most of other Arab countries that experienced the Arab Spring. Libya, Syria and Yemen were torn by a civil war, in the Gulf the figures that had led the pro-democracy protests were arrested, jailed or ousted out of the country, while in Morocco the monarchy engaged in a series of significant political, economic, and social reform projects, without changing the form of the regime.6 Tunisia was the only Arab state to make the transition from autocracy to democracy, but today under President Qais Sayed it experiences a dramatic setback with its parliament and judiciary stripped of power.7
Then Arab Spring 2.0 erupted in Algeria and Sudan. The former saw a change in the presidential palace, but maintained its hardcore autocratic character,8 while Sudan where the popular uprising was supported by the armed forces, had slipped into a bloody conflict between warring generals who fought for power.9 The leaders of the Middle East today are undoubtedly the oil-rich Gulf countries – Saudi Arabia and UAE. Both are undergoing a process of liberalization and moderation,10 as the power of the religious leaders diminishes and local forms of nationalism grow fast, but civil and political freedoms are still limited, and an opposition is unimaginable. Yet, due to their high standards of living and most importantly, stability,11 these countries, in particular the UAE, are coveted by millions of young people in the MENA region.
In 2022, The Arab Youth Survey conducted by Dubai-based public relations agency Asda’a BCW found that people aged 18 to 24 would also like their own nations to follow the path of the UAE. It found 57 per cent chose the UAE when asked where they would most like to live.12 The recent survey of the Arab Center for Research and Policy center showed that 89 percent of respondents in the Gulf countries believe their countries are headed in the right direction. Over 50% of the respondents in MENA region said they were interested to immigrate to the UAE, after they despaired to see positive change in their own countries.13
So, does democracy still matter in the Middle East? Is it something that people of the region still dream about? How did the setback of prodemocracy or a perceived negative “democratic” experience influence the public opinion in the region? And how does the democratic turmoil in Israel influence the democracy-related discourse in Arab countries?
The Majority Still Believes in Democracy
First of all, some good news. Although almost no Arab Spring uprisals resulted into building of democratic institutions, freedom of speech and respect for human rights, and the Tunisian experience was to say mildly, a mixed bag, the people of the Middle East still believe that the democracy is still a preferrable method of governance. Despite the turmoil, the attempt of powers associated with political Islam to seize control and the tightening of state-control over political freedoms in some of the states, relatively few citizens throughout the region have changed their views about democracy’s desirability, this according to surveys conducted by the Arab Barometer after the launch of the Arab Spring.14
At the same time, the turbulent years of the Arab Spring that resulted in turmoil, instability and worsening living conditions, as well as the rise in terror, radicalism and violence, have definitely left their mark. After two years of weak democratic governments, the percentage of Tunisians who believed that democracy was linked with instability had more than doubled. Over the next decade, this perception grew, with at least two-thirds of Tunisians linking each problem with democratic governance.15 Another Arab Barometer showed, that the citizens of countries that didn’t experience a significant turmoil during the Arab Spring, such as Jordan and Morocco, expressed greater faith in democracy’s provision of stability and economic benefits and were more confident in their countries suitability for democracy.16 In comparison, in a country like Lebanon, that long positioned itself as the only Arab democracy, more respondents report frustration with democracy and few believe that it’s the only viable system.17
In short, the Middle East didn’t lose its faith in democracy, but while this belief was somewhat naïve and simplistic in the beginning of the Arab Spring, more people understand today that democracy is a difficult, at times even an excruciating process.
It Takes More to Build a Democracy Than Just Depose an Autocrat
According to Samuel Huntington, democratic regimes have usually been introduced in independent countries through one or some combination of two processes, replacement and/or transformation. “Replacement” occurs when an authoritarian regime collapses or is over thrown because of military defeat, economic disaster, or the withdrawal of support from it by substantial groups in the population. Its leaders are killed or exiled. Transformation on the other hand, takes place when the elites within an authoritarian system conclude that, for some reason or another, that system which they have led and presumably benefitted from no longer meets their needs or those of their society.” An example of replacement is Romania: Nicolae Ceausescu was tried and executed and soon a democratic regime was installed,18 while Spain and Portugal loosely fit into the category of “transformation.” Other scientists, such as Hans Stockton, Uk Heo & Kwang H. Ro support Huntington’s reasoning, yet clarify that based on their findings, only economic prosperity helps successful democratic installation.19
Given the strong connection between the lack of economic progress and development in post-Arab Spring Tunisia as well as significant deterioration in the standard of living across the Arab Spring countries, it’s safe to assume that even if Huntington’s model of “transformation” occurred, the poor economical conditions were not sufficient to support a process of democratization and increase the support of democracy among citizens of these countries. Of course, in many of these countries the process of democratization was either ultimately flawed or never even started, an important factor when it comes to appreciation of the results. In her research of Russian democratic transition of the early 90-s, Mariya Snegovaya concludes that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced not a democratic transition but a temporary weakening of the state (incumbent capacity) due to lack of elite rotation and the preservation of the same type of formal and informal institutions that characterized Russia’s political system in the past.20 Similar conclusions can be also made in regard to a few “Arab Spring” states, where the traditional elites – political, business and military (sometimes closely intertwined one with another) – remained unchanged.
The weak and unapt leadership of the “democracy” camp, the strong influence of violent powers identified with different shades of political Islam, the lack of any democratic institutions that were totally hollowed by the respective regimes and undemocratic environment that felt threatened by the mass protests, the surge in instability and the potential development of democracies near them – all of these factors played against the democratic actors in the Middle East.21 The inability to provide prosperity and growth was closely related to dire economic conditions on the ground, the turmoil and most importantly, the lack of functioning democratic constitutions – checks and balances that are essential for every democracy. The people of the Middle East no longer think that democracy equals seemingly free elections, or that democracy is a magic solution to all grievances. But are they discouraged by the setback of democracies in the world, and in particular in Israel?
Israel’s Fight for Democracy is Closely Watched
According to the study of the Freedom House, the global struggle for democracy approached a possible turning point in 2022. The gap between the number of countries that registered overall improvements in political rights and civil liberties and those that registered overall declines was the narrowest it has ever been through 17 consecutive years of deterioration.22
The 2020 report of the Varieties of Democracy Institute found that the global share of democracies declined from 54% in 2009 to 49% in 2019, and that a greater share of the global population lived in autocratizing countries (6% in 2009, 34% in 2019).23
Apparently, Israel, that traditionally took pride in being the only democracy in the Middle East, had joined the trend when it’s government that was formed in December 2022, introduced a legislation package that intended to weaken the judiciary, specifically the Supreme Court.24
The Middle East has been following the unprecedented protests that erupted soon after the Minister of Justice Yariv Levin introduced the plan for overhaul from a close distance. The process of normalizing the relations between Israel and Arab countries made Israel more tangible and approachable to the Arab media; in no time Arab commentators were explaining to their viewers what the meaning and possible effect of the proposed legislation package is and how Israeli democracy is built. The headlines in Saudi and Emirati press spoke of uncertainty for Israeli democracy: “Israeli democracy faces an uncertain future” (Arab News, July 2023)25 and “Who will be left to protect Israeli liberal democracy” (Arab News, August 2023).26
There are no significant polls that showed any connection between the current Israeli experience and the lack of support of democracy in the wider Middle East (also, many in the region never recognized Israel as a democracy),27 however the reasonable assumption is that if Israeli democracy will fail, the job of the autocratic camp that explains in thousands of ways that democracy is not suitable for MENA region, will become much easier.
And how does Israel view the prospects of democratization in the region? Traditionally Israeli governments never expressed explicit support for democratization efforts in the region (with the exception of Iran) and soberly preferred the “stable” undemocratic regimes to democratic, but unexpected ones, fearing for its security.28
There is little doubt that the current conditions in the Middle East – a region that is dealing with poverty, unemployment, significant climate change and destabilization - don’t provide a fertile ground for democratization process. The people of the Middle East still believe in democracy – despite its decline globally and regionally, but nowadays they closely link between democracy, instability and economic conditions. At the same time, the authoritarian regimes in the region became more rigid and suffocating, learning their lessons from the fateful days of the Arab Spring.29 The surveillance of opposition elements abroad, the harsh punishments to those
at home, the new legislation that excludes any possibility of criticism30 – all these factors diminish the chance for any democratization process to be launched any time soon.
At the same time, the very same reasons that brought upon the Arab Spring are still there: the lack of economic opportunities, the widening social and economic gaps, the brutality of the police forces, the lack of personal freedoms and the disappointment in the regime. The Arab Spring, or rather the Middle Eastern Spring, is far from over. It remains to be seen whether the reformists of the future will succeed in what the previous generation failed to achieve.
14 Robbins, Michael. “After the Arab Spring: People Still Want Democracy”. Journal of Democracy, vol. 26, no. 4, Oct. 2015, pp. 80-89. see also https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/do-arabs-want-democracy/
19 Stockton, Hans, Uk Heo, and Kwang H. Ro. “Factors affecting democratic installation in developing countries: an empirical analysis.” Asian Perspective 22, no. 3 (1998): 207–22.
21 Jones, Peter. “The Arab Spring: Opportunities and implications”, International Journal, Vol. 67, No. 2, A new agenda for peace (Spring 2012), pp. 447-463 (17 pages)