An Arab world without a model

Ricard González
Journalist and political scientist
Ricard González

Ricard González

There is always a need to find flashy headlines able to simplify complex realities. Different media have recently resorted to the expression 'Arab Winter' to refer to the supposed failure of the democratisation movements in the Arab world. According to this view, the 'spring' that flourished in early 2011 has already withered as a result of persisting age-old hate and the strength of counter-revolutionary forces.

Nevertheless, the reality is that as of today there is no single model to describe the political processes occurring in Arab states. While it is true that all of them were subjected to the pressure of popular movements with similar demands –freedom, dignity and social justice–, the uprisings have followed different paths due to the varying social and political situations in which they emerged.

In some countries, such as Egypt and especially Tunisia, the processes of transition to democracy have been going through the various stages outlined in their respective roadmaps. Even though the way forward has not been without setbacks and failures, the progress made enables these countries to face the future with relative optimism. Both countries have already held several elections viewed as legitimate by the majority of the population and by the international community, and they are currently in the process of drafting a constitution that guarantees a new framework of freedoms.

On the flip side, there are those countries in which pro-democracy movements have been brutally crushed by the government, such as Bahrain, or have led to a bloody civil war, such as Syria. In these cases, it is indeed appropriate to speak of an 'Arab Winter', as the dreams of freedom have become genuine nightmares and the degree of repression is now higher than it was before the 'Arab Spring'.

However, it is important to note that the regimes in both countries, after several months of using violence, have not been able to fully quell the uprisings. Therefore, we must not yet assume that their revolutionary movements have failed. Nonetheless, the prospects of implementing a pluralistic regime that tolerates the freedoms of the minorities continue to decrease as the use of violence intensifies, and this violence often takes on a sectarian nature –or at least that is how most of the population views it–.

It is probably not a coincidence that the two countries where the 'Arab Spring' has succeeded have a quite homogenous population, while the societies with a marked ethnic or sectarian diversity are the ones where the future is bleaker.

There are two countries halfway between the two extremes, Libya and Yemen, which are just beginning their transition after leaving behind a period of armed confrontation between supporters and opponents of regimes with over three decades of rule under their belts. Marked by persisting tribal loyalties and a rather weak national identity, Libya and Yemen offer both reasons to be optimistic and reasons to be pessimistic. A positive end to these drives for change that overthrew their presidents, Muammar el-Qaddafi and Abdullah Salem, will largely depend on the responsibility of their elites and their willingness to share power.

Equally uncertain is the success of the pro-democracy movements in other Arab countries like Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan. In all of them, and even more so in Saudi Arabia, the brunt of the popular uprisings has been weaker than in neighbouring countries and the governments have been able to appease spirits with a series of economic promises and promises for political reform limited in scope. However, hopefully, if democracy is consolidated in several states in the region, these governments will receive renewed pressure from citizens.

In summary, the diversity of the political processes in the countries of the Arab world makes it impossible to define them with a single label, let alone if this label is 'winter'. Rather, the region is currently experiencing different 'seasons'. Moreover, in most cases, the triumph of the drives for change remains uncertain. The consolidation of democracy often requires years, or even decades, of negotiations and power struggles among political players. Therefore, we currently still lack historical perspective to reach any kind of conclusion regarding the success or failure of the 'Arab Spring'.