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Adeed Dawisha, former Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Miami University, Ohio, discussed his latest book, The Second Arab Awakening, on the Arab uprisings and prospects for democracy in the region.

On April 17, the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center hosted a book launch, The Second Arab Awakening: Revolution, Democracy, and the Islamist Challenge from Tunis to Damascus, with Dawisha. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Dawisha explained that the book’s title refers to the wave of uprisings that spread across the Arab world beginning in 2011, uprisings that followed the first Arab awakening of the 1950s and 1960s, which brought dramatic social, political, and economic changes to the region. Dawisha noted the first Arab awakening marked, more than anything else, the end of colonialism by the European powers and brought a sense of equality for the people. “The most important and enduring achievement of this first awakening was the sense of dignity that the Arab people gained. People were not treated as second-class citizens anymore,” he stated. However, Dawisha stressed that a revolution only truly occurs when the outcome is democracy. While the leaders of the 1950s and 1960s turned out to be autocrats, freedom and democracy were the cornerstones of the second Arab awakening.

Dawisha argued that where the revolutions began in the second Arab awakening, in Egypt and Tunisia, is where the most progress toward democracy has been made in the region. Toppling their dictators with relatively little violence, the two countries also held free and fair elections, formed constituent assemblies to draft new constitutions, and in the case of Egypt, held presidential elections. Regarding Libya and Yemen, while the revolutions toppled the dictators and free and fair elections were held, the tribal nature of societies, regionalism, and security concerns are hindering democratic progress. In Yemen, the parliamentary process is undermined by the different conflicts in the country between Houthi insurgents in the north and other separatists, al-Qaeda, and Islamists factions in the south. In Libya, the rebels that led the revolution formed armed militias that now control the country and are collectively much stronger than Libya’s own army. On Bahrain, he added, “the revolution died before it even started.”

On the Syrian revolution, Dawisha said “the country now lies in ruins as a result of the ugly civil war” and that while “this ugliness has now spread to both Assad and the opposition,” the regime bears all the responsibility because “had Assad stopped earlier, a lot of things would have been avoided.” Dawisha stated that while revolutions did not reach Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, or Iraq, the countries were all impacted and engaged in preemptive political reforms.

Dawisha addressed the rise of Islamists to power in Tunisia and Egypt, saying that some people believe that they use democracy “as a way to achieve power” and worry about their commitment to minorities and women’s rights. He argued that Tunisia was most likely to be more successful because the Tunisian Islamists have been more willing to compromise with secularists and have been “upfront in conforming to liberal laws, in particular regarding women’s rights.” In Egypt however, where the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party and Salafi parties won over 70 percent of seats in parliament, he said that the Islamists have no real reason to compromise, as they do not face a strong secular opposition like in Tunisia.

By Valérie Guillamo, Middle East Program