Revolutionary Calculus

Hussein Ibish is too quick to dismiss the Arab Spring as a failure.


Two years ago, nobody would have predicted that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh would be out of power while other regional leaders would be either clinging violently to power (Syria’s Bashar al-Assad) or bribing their populations to remain there (Bahrain’s ruling family).

Despite these unforeseen achievements, it would be naive to think that because the dictators are down, life is suddenly better — and the data highlighted by Hussein Ibish (“Was the Arab Spring Worth It?” July/August 2012) certainly prove that right now it is not. Although these momentous changes have not immediately brought about a dramatic adjustment in the standard of living for the populations concerned, we must recognize the positive trajectory that these countries have established for themselves.

Undoubtedly, the trend of history has been toward democracy because it is the system that is necessary for the full enjoyment of human and civil rights. But there are few, if any, examples of a country making a smooth, gradual transition from authoritarian to democratic government. As history moves in leaps rather than in steps, society must scramble to keep up. Unlike violent political upheavals, nonviolent revolutions are a process — not one-day dramatic events. And no country that successfully overthrew its dictator last year has completed that process yet by democratically electing a new government supported by the appropriate institutions.

What we must always keep in mind is that nonviolent social change consists of three important elements: challenging and defeating the autocrat, preventing a coup, and electing a democratic government while gradually building democratic institutions. It’s an ongoing process even in Serbia, where the iconic nonviolent revolution that brought down Slobodan Milosevic on Oct. 5, 2000, has been followed by a fairly successful transition to democracy.

The toll of the Arab Spring has certainly been high, but the mark it has left on history will forever make life better for the people who live in the region. An entire generation of young, educated citizens has been politicized and engaged. As American labor leader Cesar Chavez said, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. And you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

Executive Director, CANVAS
Belgrade, Serbia

Hussein Ibish replies:

I fully agree with Srdja Popovic’s passionate defense of overthrowing dictators, especially through nonviolent means, and I generally share his implicit optimism about the long-term prospects for post-dictatorship Arab societies. It is important, however, to note that many of the Arab uprisings have not been nonviolent. Even in Egypt, a country that avoided civil war, the crucial turning point in overthrowing President Hosni Mubarak involved violent confrontations between rock-throwing protesters and security forces, which were eventually overwhelmed by the demonstrators. In Libya and Syria, nothing short of civil war developed.

It is also important to accept that positive outcomes are not preordained. There are at least three potential pitfalls to the Arab uprisings: de facto or de jure military rule, failed-state status, and the emergence of tyrannical majorities — probably of an Islamist variety — in parliamentary systems that fail to provide adequate protections for the rights of individuals, women, and minorities. Egypt is struggling to avoid military rule. Yemen and possibly even Syria are drifting in the direction of becoming failed states. And the specter of heavy-handed Islamist-led parliaments haunts two post-dictatorship Arab states that have held elections: Tunisia and Egypt. So though we all hope for the gradual emergence of fully developed Arab democracies, this is by no means a guaranteed outcome of the uprisings.

Given that the outcome in many states is still very much in doubt, counting the costs seems a particularly useful exercise. As I noted, in most Arab Spring states, the most common answer to the question “Was it worth it?” is still almost certainly “yes.” I trust and hope that this will remain the case, but it’s only responsible to remain cognizant of the dangers of the uprisings and, of course, their very real costs.

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