Judging the Arab Spring

How to assess whether a post-revolutionary country is actually heading somewhere positive? Tunisia struggles onward, Libya pursues its own unique post-revolutionary path but Egypt’s democratic regression is truly worrying.

In November 2011, with Hosni Mubarak ousted and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) running Egypt, Tahrir Square was once again a combat zone. Thousands of protestors did battle with riot police over what they claimed was the repressive and retrograde rule of the generals. Critics had been silenced and intimidated, protests violently suppressed. One enraged protestor, taking a break from the teargas and buckshot at the front lines, argued that the generals “are trying to take us back to the age of Mubarak. But Egypt has changed. We won’t allow them.”

Ten months later, the SCAF had (at least temporarily) given way to Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected civilian president—longtime Muslim brotherhood official Mohammed Morsi. Within months, whatever honeymoon Morsi enjoyed had evaporated into similar accusations of repression and authoritarianism. At one point, a dissident journalist at the state-owned daily flagship Al-Ahram said that Morsi’s attempt to pack the state journalism ranks with under-qualified yes-men was “even worse than under Mubarak.”

It’s a phrase that’s easy to toss around these days in the Middle East, the laziest and most effective accusation you can make: “Such and such leader is even worse than the deposed tyrant who came before. He is taking us backward!”

But it spawns an increasingly relevant question: How do we actually measure the progress of a revolutionary process–the formation of a more just and democratic society?

The Arab Spring, and its aftermath, has spawned a cottage industry within regional policy and analytical circles doing just that—handicapping, monitoring and assessing the progress of these multiple post-revolutionary Middle East societies. It’s a dizzying task, given the number of chaotically fluid situations and the extent of the often deeply-personal local dynamics at play in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. In each case, there are often complicated shades of progress on display rather than a sudden jump to full freedom and justice.

“At the start of a democratic transition, you never jump all the way to liberal democracy,” said Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center. “There’s a lot that goes on in between and there’s usually a period of ‘illiberal democracy.’ ”

Nevertheless, we’re starting to get nascent post-revolutionary governments & societies that we can actually judge and assess. So what are the metrics? Are there benchmarks we can attempt to apply from country to country without running the risk of over-generalizing?

“There are various checklists about the extent to which there is freedom in a society and respect for human rights in a society and freedom of speech freedom of religion, freedom of political parties and the expression of all those things, obviously, in free and competitive elections,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Middle East & North Africa for Human Rights Watch.

For many, including Whitson, that list begins with freedom of expression, particularly freedom to express views that run contrary to prevailing popular opinion or government policy.

Whitson also places heavy emphasis on accountability—a catch-all for genuine independent oversight on government actions and authorities. It encompasses everything from the behavior of the security forces and a non-politicized judiciary to the ability of civil society organizations to play their own vital watchdog role without interference or persecution.

One foreign ambassador in Cairo, whose responsibilities encompass multiple Arab Spring countries, listed minority rights as a further key indicator tracked by his government.

“How will this society treat its ‘outsiders’ or the people who by birth, choice or belief are outside the mainstream,” the ambassador said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I’m not saying we expect to see a society where every member of a minority group is completely content and without grievance. That country has never existed. But they need to feel protected by the government and they need to feel protected from the government.”

Beyond those basics, the checklist gets more complicated. What about economic factors like corruption or ease of social mobility?

Applying these rough criteria to the various Arab Spring revolutionary countries reveals a variable and unavoidably incomplete result. Regimes in Bahrain and Yemen seemed to have survived their domestic uprisings with little that could be considered tangible progress. Neither country can be considered post-revolutionary.

Syria is still fluid and too early to judge, but clearly the hope of meaningful and sustainable change is becoming harder to envisage. Libya, meanwhile, is essentially too unique because of the highly personalized and idiosyncratic nature of the Moammar Qadhafi regime.

His downfall left a complete administrative vacuum and nobody with any executive experience untainted by affiliation with the previous regime. This post-revolutionary experience is reflected by the basic lack of security and central government control which now supercedes other concerns. The clearest example of that crisis came in October when Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was held hostage for several hours by a militia that had been assigned the task of protecting the capitol.

That leaves Tunisia and Egypt, and a clear winner among them by the criteria we’ve outlined here.

Tunisia’s political situation is far from ideal; the country remains paralyzed by a crippling political deadlock between the ruling Islamist Al-Nahda Party and the secularist opposition Labor Union. The two sides have traded recriminations while negotiating over a new consensus Prime Minister to replace Ali Larayedh. Nahda continues to rule but on shaky ground amid plummeting popularity and increasing street protests.

“Tunisia is the only country I would put in the ‘promising’ category for democracy. The deep state there is not as resilient,” said Hamid, adding that on a recent visit to Tunisia he was surprised at how open and freewheeling the political discussions were—even on state television. “The fact that there is uncertainty in Tunisia is actually promising. They’re close to the edge but they’re still agreeing to act inside the political process.”

The foreign ambassador in the Middle East offers a similar assessment. “Notwithstanding the political gridlock, I think the medium and long-term prospects are not bad for Tunisia,” he said. “The difference is partially the military and the extent to which the military acknowledges the authority and supremacy of a civilian government.”

By those standards just about everything in Egypt is going in the opposite direction. Since Hosni Mubarak’s downfall the country has been run for 15 months by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, then a chaotic and divisive year under Morsi and now a caretaker interim government backed by powerful Defense Minister Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi. Each successive administration has demonstrated both an inability to handle criticism or opposition, and a tendency to rely on heavy-handed security solutions to political problems.

Morsi’s downfall not only set a terrible precedent of a democratically elected president being ousted by force, it heralded a brutal ongoing crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. More than a thousand Morsi supporters have been killed and thousands more arrested on judicially suspicious mass charges. Membership in the Brotherhood or its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party has essentially been criminalized. Critics of the government—including secularist voices—have been vilified and marginalized. A new law passed by the interim cabinet essentially outlaws all unauthorized protests, and a protest against that protest lawwas attacked by security forces and its leaders arrested.

Supporters of the military coup, including some of the original 2011 revolutionaries, insist that the July coup saved Egypt’s democratic transition rather than aborting it. The military, they say, had no choice but to step in and save the country from impending disaster under Morsi. That view is not shared by most international observers—even those who acknowledge Morsi’s many flaws and missteps in office.

“An extremely significant, criteria right now is the overwhelming scale of political persecution that is underway, and that is this campaign to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party and its members from senior officials to midlevel officials to low level officials,” Whitson said. “It’s a long laundry list [of violations]. But it’s going to be very hard for anything else to make that not matter. That is the biggest darkest cloud hanging over everything in Egypt right now in terms of our assessment of what Egypt’s human rights record is.”

So while Tunisia struggles onward, and Libya pursues its own completely unique post-revolutionary path, the implications for Egypt’s apparent democratic regression are particularly dire. Significantly, Egypt—with its long history, geographic location and the largest population in the Arab World—wields tremendous influence over the rest of the Middle East.

“The unraveling of the political process in Egypt is of huge importance, not just because of what happens in Egypt, but because how it is interpreted as reflective of the entire Arab world,” said Whitson. “What happens in Egypt is how people judge and assess all of the Arab world.”

Ashraf Khalil  is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.