Arab Spring Sprung?

How’s democracy doing so far in the much celebrated and slightly mislabelled Arab Spring?

There are 22 members of the Arab League, which include such Arab countries as the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia and Sudan. The only six countries affected by the “Spring” are Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria, in chronological order. Let’s review them.

In Egypt, a military junta hijacked the popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak and is toiling to hand the country over to a coalition of army and Islamists.  Moderate and liberal forces appear sidelined. Elections will at best create a deadlock between a nationalist president with weak Islamic but strong anti-Western credentials and a Muslim parliamentary bloc strong on both. The economy is in freefall, a development more favourable to toxic populism than democratic consolidation. In short, civil rights, Christians, women, economic development and Israel beware.

Tunisia still offers a moderate chance of orderly transition, but Islamists are slated to make significant electoral gains. In Bahrain, harsh repression and foreign occupation shielded the regime from having to adopt change. A fragile stability has returned to the country, with many ordinary Bahrainis bruised and battered in prison. Libya is embroiled in a civil war but with no end in sight. Syria faces a very real risk of descent into sectarian violence and civil war and is undergoing a ferocious repression by the regime. If democracy is on the march in both countries it is a slow process, although they offer more promise of a real overthrow of the regime, as opposed to the cosmetic changes in Egypt.

Yemen may be closer to democracy than before President Ali Abdullah Saleh left for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. Still,  there is a real chance that the country will fall apart, and the real question will be what it runs out of first — weapons, qat or water. It could become a democracy. It could also increasingly look like Somalia, or become an Arabian haven for al-Qaeda. The odds do not favour democracy.

There has not been much earth-shattering change in the remaining 16 countries.Neither Sudan nor Somalia is showing any prospect of democratic change. But southern Sudan has a real chance to develop into a democracy, provided the north leaves it alone-again, an open question.

As for the rest, in Oman, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, protest fires were quickly put out.In Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, Mauritania and the UAE there were either no protests or not enough to cause a stir. In places like Qatar or the UAE, the downtrodden who should be asking for democracy are not the indigenous Arab population.

Where does this leave us? There is little doubt that Arab stirrings have to do with a demand, strongly felt across the region, to change the basic social contract between rulers and ruled — and the change must take the dignity of the ruled into account more than in the past. But dignity in the Arab world is not the same as individual freedoms in the Western world, and the coincidence of turmoil with steep increases in commodity prices should be a warning against drawing facile comparisons between Araby in 2011 and Eastern Europe in 1989.

Enthusiasts misjudged the resilience of regional powers — especially the local monarchies-and the aspirations of the protesters. They also forgot the region’s boundaries. If 1989 offers any lesson for the Middle East, it is the descent into chaos of the Balkans or the many tribal wars and ethnic tensions that erupted as the Soviet empire collapsed. After all, most Middle East countries are largely colonial inventions held together by strongmen. Even if revolutions spread, democracy might have to wait for civil wars and ethnic cleansing to redraw regional boundaries — not a happy prospect, but a very real one.

There is another fundamental difference between 1989 and 2011. In 1989, Eastern European nations sought to free themselves from the yoke of Soviet and communist oppression and looked at democracy as the only viable political alternative to their predicament. Their transition from Warsaw Pact to Nato members, from communist dictatorships to liberal democracies, did not encounter robust domestic opposition.

But Arab protesters in 2011, who wish to free their countries from their dictators’ superpower sponsor, more often than not see America and the free world behind their authoritarian rulers. And as they denounce authoritarianism, democracy finds in Islamism — the opposition ideology in much of the Arab world — a fierce competitor. This year may thus turn out to be a big disappointment for the promoters of democracy in the Arab world and their Western supporters. Spring may still come, but only after a very long winter.

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