Reports of the Death of the Arab Spring Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Sheri Berman has penned a postscript to a recent Foreign Affairs article of hers that had me nodding my head and then shaking it.

The dismay at what is happening in the Middle East is legitimate, but the general analysis of its causes and implications is hogwash…This is what political development in the real world actually looks like, and anybody who expected smooth, quick, linear progress from tyranny to liberal democracy was naïve or foolish.

So far, so good. As I wrote here nearly two years ago, most attempts at democratization everywhere have eventually led back to authoritarian rule, and there is no reason to expect countries in the Middle East and North Africa to fare differently.

I’m also with her 100 percent on the deep causes of that turbulence in the democratization process.

The fundamental mistake most commentators on the Arab Spring make is underestimating the scale, scope, and perniciousness of authoritarianism. Tyranny is more than a type of political order; it is an economic and social system as well, one that permeates most aspects of a country’s life and has deep roots in a vast array of formal and informal institutions. Achieving liberal democracy is thus not simply a matter of changing some lines on a political wiring diagram but, rather, of eliminating authoritarian legacies in the society, economy, and culture as well. This is almost always an incredibly difficult, exhausting, and protracted process.

What had me shaking my head at the end, though, was the teleology implicit in her long-term outlook.

What is going on in the Middle East today is not a bug in political development but a feature of it. History shows that illiberal democracy is often a precursor to liberal democracy. What has happened time and again is that a country begins with a nondemocratic regime, proceeds through a phase (or several phases) of minimal or illiberal democratic experience, and eventually emerges with a consolidated liberal democracy.

As a grossly simplified description of the democratization trajectories followed by the United States and much of Western Europe, I think this works. As a road map that the rest of the world will eventually follow, however, I’m not so sure. In historical terms, the period during which the U.S. and Europe could confidently be described as “consolidated liberal” democracies has been relatively brief, and some thoughtful observers argue that that era has already passed. What’s more, the geopolitical, economic, demographic, and environmental context in which political development is now occurring differs sharply from the context in which those earlier arcs unfurled, and the pace of change in that context seems to be accelerating still.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still optimistic that global politics in the twenty-first century will continue to evolve in a more democratic direction. The tumult occurring in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, and other corners of the Arab world is just the latest evidence that it’s getting harder and harder to sustain the kind of full-blown, paternalistic authoritarian rule that was the prevailing form of national politics around the globe throughout the twentieth century. I’m just not as certain as Berman seems to be about exactly what institutional forms that tumult will eventually produce.

Leave a comment


  1. Oral Hazard

     /  July 24, 2013

    Her analysis reminds me (in a bad way) of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic. Are we progressing toward sustainable “consolidated liberal democracies” or do we get the political ecosystems that tend to develop in particular contexts?**

    **Rhetorical question

    • Grant

       /  July 24, 2013

      I was about to comment that her article reminded me uncomfortably about the idea that 20th century Communism/Socialism was somehow the inevitable result of history. That might be a bit cruel to say, but I’ve seen far too many works simply assume that democracy is what’s naturally going to happen.

      • I suppose I’m trying to thread a narrow needle here.

        Like Berman, I believe that political systems around the world are continuing to evolve in a more democratic direction. And when I say “democratic” there, I mean that in the way Tilly uses it, to refer to a form of government in which “political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding consultation.”

        Unlike Berman, though, I’m not confident that future institutional expressions of that trend will continue to look like what we call “consolidated liberal democracy” today. Nor am I confident that cases to which we’d apply that label now won’t (continue to?) suffer significant erosions of the “broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding consultation” that leads us to call them that.

        Does that make any sense?

      • Grant

         /  July 25, 2013

        In general I would say that I agree, at least for the next two or three decades. Beyond that I’d be suspicious of anything that predicts political development. So I’m quite open to the possibility of actual democracy with strong roots developing in, say, Egypt. I just wouldn’t dare be as comfortably sure of Egyptian liberal democracy as the last paragraph you quote suggests that Ms. Berman is.

  2. 🙂 I think I’ll go with Bloviation here – both hers and yours. Ignoring the factor of major power manipulation of minor power politics and trying to run analysis based on local conditions will always run afoul of unforeseen dastardly action. Sometimes it can be subtle – or not. Certainly no small part of unrest in Egypt was caused by unaffordability of food, which was noted at the Davos Conference concurrent with the first election subsequent to the removal of Mubarak’s beneficent tyranny…enforced with US collusion with his torturer in chief who was flogged for Prime Minister.

    • Grant

       /  July 25, 2013

      I might simply be a bit slow tonight, but I’m having trouble understanding what your main point is with the last line. Are you suggesting that America was somehow manipulating Egyptian food prices to get rid of Mubarak?

  3. Scott

     /  July 29, 2013

    Thanks for the interesting post. Perhaps worth noting that the specific trajectory in the Middle East/North Africa will be in many countries affected by the presence of natural resources, which generally have a deterrent effect on democratization. Michael Ross argues that those countries which have fewer natural resources are making more progress on the transition than those which have more (who have succeeded in either buying off or turning back opposition). Perhaps further reason to ‘thread the needle’–perhaps a general trend towards democratization but different countries facing different constraints, some more binding than others.

  4. Alex Jones

     /  July 30, 2013

    Egypt has 5,000+ years of civilisation behind it, this is no ignorant kid. The USA boasts only a few hundred years, it is a baby. History plays a significant role in if a nation is stable or not, and should be taken into account when predictions are made as to where it is headed.

  1. Beware philosophers bearing simple answers – Sharia and democracy | TerraNullius
  2. The Arab Spring and the Limits of Understanding | Dart-Throwing Chimp

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Author

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Follow Dart-Throwing Chimp on
  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 13,612 other followers

  • Archives

%d bloggers like this: