The Arab Spring, Two Years On… And Future Prospects

Several Arab countries have been marking the second anniversary of the start of mass uprisings against their leaders. Four Arab leaders – Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi, and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh – fell from power, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the King of Bahrain remain in office.

Two years on, the Arab Spring states remain in turmoil. This is hardly surprising, given that it is very difficult for countries where one party or individual has ruled largely unopposed for decades to experience an orderly and peaceful transition to democracy. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe managed this relatively smoothly after 1989, but they had the political, economic, and cultural anchor of the European Union and NATO. Even then, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania became laggards on the road to convergence, while Yugoslavia succumbed to civil war.

Looking around the Arab world, Egypt has made a transition to elected Islamist rule, but the secularists are fighting back. Thus far, nothing that has happened in Egypt has surprised us, except perhaps the identities of the final two presidential candidates in 2012 – the then-little known Mohamed Morsi, and Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

Elsewhere, Tunisia has just been rocked by the assassination of an opposition leader, while Libya remains unstable following the civil war of 2011. Yemen, too, is looking shaky following Saleh’s departure, although the country has in fact long been more fragmented than many Arab countries. Meanwhile, unrest in Bahrain continues to simmer.

Two Mild Surprises

One thing that has surprised us somewhat is that Syria’s Assad has been able to hold onto power somewhat longer than expected, despite a series of major setbacks. We still believe that he is likely to be toppled eventually, but this could take a while longer. Even if Assad is overthrown, we caution that Syria will not return to a state of calm quickly.

Another surprise is that Iran (which is not an Arab country, but shares several of the socio-economic characteristics of the Arab spring states) has not succumbed to mass unrest. Iran’s economy has been suffering as a result of tighter sanctions aimed at curbing its nuclear programme, and the rial currency has collapsed in value.

Overall, the Arab Spring remains a work in progress. To paraphrase former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 in reference to the impact of the 1968 Paris riots on world history, “It’s too early to say”. For a start, we have yet to see mass unrest in Saudi Arabia, despite repeated predictions over the past decade or more.

Indonesia And Pakistan Offer Possible Roadmaps

So what does the future hold?

We recall that when former Indonesian President Suharto was overthrown in 1998, the country became increasingly chaotic, and in 1999-2000, there were heightened concerns that the vast archipelagic nation would fragment into several new states amid civil war. But this did not happen, and since 2004 the country has gradually consolidated its democratic institutions. In recent years, Indonesia has become increasingly favoured by investors.

Unfortunately, Pakistan could also offer pointers as to the direction of Arab Spring states. Pakistan has become almost chronically unstable, lurching from one political or economic crisis to another. Yet, it has managed to muddle through most of these.

Our overall verdict: give the Arab Spring more time. Two years is too soon to expect fully functioning democracies to emerge. However, if these countries still look the same way in eight or 10 years time, it would be somewhat discouraging.