One year on, the time is right to ask whether the Arab Spring as a movement has been successful…
It is of course much too early to affirm or deny this conclusively, but one year on shouldn’t we at least be able to grope our way towards a definition of what would constitute success? Let’s try with the three following categories, which – even if they don’t allow us to measure success absolutely – will at least help to gauge progress.
‘Democracy’ and legitimacy
Elections are underway in Egypt and have already been held in Tunisia and Morocco. Moderate and slightly less moderate Islamist parties have triumphed, in some cases due largely to their oppression under former regimes. While it is not yet clear how tolerant the winners will be towards those of other religions (or of no religion), or how successfully they will engage with the outside world in coming to terms with some of the big issues faced by the region, we cannot pick the winners in free elections (as we learned with Hamas in Gaza).
Meanwhile it is open to doubt in some cases whether there is an effective opposition waiting in the wings at all, particularly in Syria. One of the things keeping Assad in power is surely the region’s lack of confidence in the rebels’ political wing (though this impression is improving).
It is unclear how legitimate the new governments will be in practice. Iram Ramzan has written about the ongoing ubiquity of armed rebels in Tripoli and the possibility that this will not only undermine the National Transitional Council as it tries to bring order to this vast country, but also discourage local business as well as foreign investment.
In Egypt the influence of the military (which, according to the Economist, controls about 10% of the country’s economy) on the emerging Islamist government remains to be seen. It is reasonable to assume that unelected generals will continue to artibrate in political affairs, whatever the protesters on Tahrir Square might be demanding.
The religious question(s)
The role played by religion in public affairs will go some way towards determining the success or otherwise of the Arab Spring. We should not fear parties which describe themselves as Islamists on that basis alone, but their policies must be subjected to forensic scrutiny, especially when it comes to status of non-believers or members of different faiths. Each of the world’s three significant monotheisms lends itself readily to political exploitation, and each of them claims exclusive access to the truth for its own followers; hardly a recipe for successful political bargaining.
Besides the question of whether the Arab Spring countries can start to make their way towards secular government which draws not on religious texts or customs but on a non-sectarian social contract, there remains the prickly issue of interreligious strife, which has not abated since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Indeed, old wounds have been re-opened in countries like Bahrain, but also regionally between Shi’a and Sunni groups, and between moderate mainstream interpretations of Islam, and the more puritanical, anti-Western views of the Salafists, for example.
It goes without saying (yet it always has to be said) that liberal social policies and especially measures favourable to women flow from a reduced role for religion in the public sphere. In this regard constitutional secularism is certainly among the greatest means of assuring and maintaining civil liberties and human rights in the region. In the absence of secular values it is difficult to see how far the rights of women, minorities and dissenters will be protected.
Quality and quantity
Ultimately the success of the Arab Spring as a movement will be measured in both quality and quantity; one or the other is not enough. If, say, Libya’s revolution proves successful and the country develops into a representative democracy with a healthy regional and international influence and a strong economy, but Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco end up embroiled in conflicts over secularism and/or the encroachment of religious politicians into the private sphere (and economic growth is stunted as a result of navel-gazing), then the Arab Spring could not be considered a successful historical movement.
Inversely if revolutions continue to sweep the region, and further afield, but do not lead to any real qualitative change in the political or economic landscape within the affected countries, then the movement would still be a failure. While it is desirable for every country whose people are kept in stultifying, closed societies led by corrupt megalomaniacs to rise up and make their legitimate claim to be heard, we should not encourage or welcome revolution for its own sake, if it is not backed by serious people with serious ideas about how to improve the lot of their compatriots.
This realization will need time to dawn, and may mean that we have to postpone the headlines for some countries’ popular movements, but it will be worth the wait. This will not be a one-year movement, but an epochal one, and it is only through the combination of the quantity of revolutions with the quality of change that we can call the Arab Spring a success, and that the success will endure.
Chris McCourt studied French and German at St Anne’s College, Oxford and now works for a translation company. He has written on the Middle East, Africa and Northern Ireland among other topics. Chris is Sub-Editor at The Pryer blog.