The Arab Spring: democracy not the logical next step after tyranny

2013-11-30 11:17

Since the start of the Arab Spring in December 2010, the overall situation in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) has remained volatile. Although new leaders have emerged through elections of sorts, many states have had faltering progress with authoritarian leaders using force to maintain their grip on power. In this sense the Arab Spring has had a wide variety of outcomes to date.

One of the most important lessons learnt from the Arab Spring and other revolutions is that democracy is not necessarily the logical next step after tyranny has been overthrown. More than often, the result is anarchy from which renewed tyranny comes forth. Historic examples include the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions. In the case of Iran the overthrow of the Shah led to the rule of the mullahs. In Russia the Bolsheviks eliminated their rivals when the revolution ended, and in France the revolution resulted in the restoration of the monarchy.

A common thread running through the wave of popular uprisings is the insistence by protesters that a change in leadership is, as such, not enough to steer their countries towards becoming fully-fledged democracies.

What they additionally demand is an opportunity to exercise their rights as citizens without fear or favour. These rights include those of equality before the law, freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. What protesters reject is the utter lack of accountability that enabled rulers, their families and their allies to live in the lap of luxury while they face economic hardship and an almost complete lack of basic services. What is also rejected is the fabrication of manipulated elections and the widespread use of torture by security forces.

What has to be taken note of is that the citizens of many states in Mena will no longer tolerate authoritarian rulers. The Arab Spring proved that these citizens are capable of standing up for their rights and overthrowing very repressive regimes despite being subjected to, amongst other things, live ammunition and teargas. These actions should make future governments in these states more aware of popular demands for good governance.

But the Arab Spring may also have changed the rules of the broader political game for authoritarian leaders elsewhere in the world. These leaders should take note of the fact that the techniques they have been applying to maintain power, including the perceived threat of terrorism, exploiting sectarian divisions in society and police violence have by and large failed to stem the tide of protests and demands for reform in Mena.

It however remains an open question if the change from authoritarian regimes to democratic rule will result in public support for inexperienced representative governments in the long run. Citizens are expecting a rather rapid end to political and economic instability and physical insecurity. These expectations are against the backdrop of the chaos of post-revolutionary transitions, including different factions with diverse points of view and priorities. Uncertain and chaotic times like these might tempt leaders to return to their familiar authoritarian ways, which could result in the loss of democratic gains made thus far.

However difficult the process might be, the transition to a democratic dispensation is the only way of securing long-term sustainability for the region and its peoples. Stalling democratic processes could lead to backsliding towards authoritarian practices with the accompanying cycles of repression and revolt.

What is needed is a sustained effort from leaders to publicly show their commitment to the principles of democracy. By doing so leaders would guide citizens to channel their frustrations through the correct mediums, including peaceful assemblies, the mass media and, most importantly, the ballot box. The onus will then be on the state to respond in kind by not suppressing criticism, but by seeking solutions and drafting and implementing corrective policies.

Arab societies are still on a journey to freedom that is influenced by tyrannical actors embedded within them. These young Arabs were born and raised in dictatorships. They know no other system than one in which a government controls its citizens. It is difficult for these youngsters to understand how personal freedom and liberty function in real life, but it is clear that the culture of killing those with whom they as Muslims do not agree has to come to an end. The millions of protesters who stand for social justice, freedom and dignity cannot allow these extremists to destroy their revolution. They have to realise that freedom does not only mean that the majority rules, but that it also entails intellectual dissidents, religious minorities and women can live their lives without fear.

Although the idealistic goals of revolutions are in themselves not negative, a greater appreciation is needed from especially the West of the risks involved in unconditionally supporting them. A deeper look at the complications of the Arab Spring revolutions is necessary, and the West will have to change its mind set in this regard. Democracy and liberty cannot be brought to the Arab world overnight. They have to realise their own democracies in a process that will be slow and painful, most probably taking decades to reach some sort of conclusion. In contrast, it seems as if the approach of the West has been to send in naval vessels, marines and drones. These actions are likely to have yet a new set of unforeseen circumstances.

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