Seven reasons why the Arab uprisings are eclipsing Western values

The Arab awakening is about people claiming democratic rights to emancipate themselves from the traditional influence of the West, rather than trying to join it. Instead of being a region mired in the past, the clash of modern practices in the Arab world might offer some lessons for the future world order.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall – an event that led Francis Fukuyama to predict the end of history and the beginning of universal western liberal values. It is three years since the Arab uprisings threatened to upend the Middle East and North Africa. Many at that time predicted that the region would embrace liberal democracy and human rights.

Ewan Harrison and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell argue in a new book – “The Triumph of Democracy and the Eclipse of the West” – that the spread of democracy has come at the very moment that the West is experiencing decline – and that the future will see a “clash of democratisations” rather than a westernisation of the world.

Harrison and Mitchell argue that the Arab Spring should be seen as a “second struggle for independence” – throwing off the shackles of western-backed dictators in the same way that earlier generations rebelled against direct rule by the West. But the paradox is that these protesters are increasingly using western-style freedoms and technologies to reject the liberal tenets of the West. From the muddled reaction of western governments to the uprisings in the Middle East, we can already begin to see that this awakening is leading to an eclipse of the West. Here are seven reasons why:

  1. The counter-revolutions have been more powerful than the original revolutions — and they may have a longer-lasting effect. Vested interests across the region have been quick to react. Assad’s repression of the protesters has created a regional sectarian struggle with enormous consequences. Rich gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have used their money to buy off their own citizens and to back regressive forces across the region, while poorer monarchies such as Morocco and Jordan have implemented cosmetic reforms. The recent referendum for a new constitution in Egypt was ostensibly about democracy and stability, but it was actually part of a harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that seems to have the goal of excluding the group permanently from the country’s political life. This is likely to force some Islam practitioners to become more extreme and embrace violence. 
  2. Middle Eastern states may not have changed much, but their awakened societies will be harder to govern. Some leaderless revolutions have not led to the rise of liberal governments or changed the deep structure of their states. However, the youth bulge, high unemployment, satellite television, social media and the role of organised labour have made the power of governments more conditional. The threat of people taking to the streets could mean that unpopular governments will resign. However, the unruliness of these transitional societies will also make it harder for reformist governments to emerge and could encourage some to rely on brutal repression.
  3. Rather than a split between secular forces and Islam, there is a split between different interpreters of Islam – between the Shi’ite and Sunni sects as well as between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. The French scholar Olivier Roy argues that this religious pluralism could be an antecedent to political tolerance. The idea of a unitary “Political Islam,” he says, is being replaced by “Islam in politics.” However, as in many countries, it seems likely that sectarian strife will have to come before a politics of tolerance.
  4. The Middle East has left the post-colonial era. Before the uprisings, repressive governments diverted popular discontent to American or Israeli foreign policy, leading to a sense of infantilisation and disempowerment. Today, external actors such as the United States and Europe seem peripheral to the politics of the Middle East.
  5. The decline of influence of great powers like the U.S. and Russia on the Middle East is leading to a rapprochement between them. This has created a co-operative relationship on Syrian chemical weapons and Iran. As Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey argue, the Geneva II talks this week offer an opportunity to form an inclusive international contact group that includes the key regional actors Saudi Arabia and, despite the associated challenges, even Iran.
  6. One of the dividends from the concert of great powers is the chance for a détente between Iran and the West, which could transform the politics of the Middle East. Normal relations could also reduce the dependence of western countries on the Gulf states that are nurturing virulent forms of political Islam, prosecuting a sectarian war, powering a regional arms race and supporting terrorist groups.
  7. From the beginning, Israel has most feared the Arab uprisings. While the world around it has changed, Tel Aviv has refused to engage in the substance of a peace deal, focus on growth and social welfare or reconfigure the relationship with Saudi Arabia. However, the Arab uprisings have made Israel less central to the Middle East and undermined of the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership. If there is no progress toward a two-state solution, Tel Aviv could one day face a “Palestinian Spring” where a peaceful leader makes the case for a “One State Solution.”

When the Arab uprisings started three years ago, many commentators saw this as Fukuyama’s revenge. They predicted that this part of the world — so rich in history — would finally embrace western modernity. But next week, when Egypt holds a constitutional referendum and the leaders go to the Swiss resort of Montreux for talks on Syria, we will see that history is still on the march in the Middle East.

The political awakening is about people claiming democratic rights to emancipate themselves from the traditional influence of the West, rather than trying to join it. In that sense, rather than being a region mired in the past, the clash of modern practices in the Arab World might offer some lessons for the future world order.

The article first appeared on

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


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