Has the Arab Spring Lived Up to Expectations?

Dec 18, 2012

            On the occasion of the second anniversary of the Arab uprisings, the Wilson International Center for Scholars asked 39 experts from the Middle East, Europe and the United States the following question: Has the Arab Spring lived up to expectations?
            The following are excerpts, followed by a link to the full publication by the Middle East Program.

Ammar Abudulhamid, Syrian dissident; Fellow, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies; and Founder and Director, Tharwa Foundation

           For those who expected a fast and smooth transition to liberal democratic norms, the Arab Spring has certainly failed to deliver. But for those who simply wanted to push their countries into taking one important and necessary step in the right direction by breaking the prevailing political stalemate in their societies, then, the Arab Spring has definitely lived up to expectations.

Raghda Abushahla, Interpreter, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Gaza; and former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center

            It is still too early to make an assessment of the Arab Spring. Revolutions have always been unstable periods during which unexpected and external players attempt to impact, or even take the lead of, the new situation. Historically, both the Russian and French Revolutions were followed by periods of political chaos that cost many lives. Palestinians are yearning for a Palestinian Summer, or even Winter, where conflicts are settled because the Spring has taken so long and is not yet over.

Fahmia Al Fotih, Communication analyst and youth focal point analyst, United Nations Population Fund, Yemen

           Taking a quick glimpse at so-called “Arab Spring” countries, one can see only disappointment and resentment. The positive changes—a civic state and rights, security, and all issues for which Arab people went into the streets—are not visible. On the contrary, turmoil, violence, hatred, and instability are taking place instead and seem dreadfully prevalent. The reality in the Arab Spring countries is that the new powers that replaced dictators have failed to respond to the peoples’ needs and to the new era.

Rachid Ould Boussiafa, Deputy Chief Editor, Echorouk Al Youmi, Algeria; and former Visiting Arab Journalist, Woodrow Wilson Center

           It is obvious that the outcome of the Arab Spring was not up to the people’s aspirations to depose dictatorships and move to a new era of democracy. The Arab Spring turned into terrifying outbursts of violence in both Libya and Syria because revolutions that started peacefully have turned into militarized insurgencies that use arms against regimes. The result has been wide-scale destruction and thousands of deaths. Even in Arab countries where revolutions maintained their peaceful nature, such as in Yemen, Tunisia, and Egypt, post-revolution policies did not improve the livelihoods of the people—who woke up to realize that the social and economic issues, inherited from the old regimes, are still the same.

Patrick Clawson, Director of Research, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

            Healthy democracy requires a loyal opposition, but those in power in too many Arab countries seem to see dissent as sedition and opposition as inherently dangerous. Given how deeply divided most Arab societies are —whether by ideology (liberal state vs. political Islam), sect, or ethnicity—the unwillingness to embrace compromise suggests the path to stable, open, free societies will be long and twisted. On a more cynical note, the new Egyptian authorities seem surprisingly willing to keep up the security relationship with the United States and the peace with Israel, making the correct calculation that this will insulate them from international criticism for their actions at home.

Haleh Esfandiari, Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center

           Hope and expectations are two different things. They part ways when the revolutionary fever subsides and the reality on the ground takes over. The millions of people who came out onto the streets during the Arab Spring called for the end of dictatorship and for dignity, the rule of law, and transparency. They no longer wanted to be treated as gullible fools. As one autocrat after another fell, hopes for a better future, free and fair elections, and a better standard of living rose. These hopes, encouraged by governments, led to expectations that were not necessarily deliverable. Regimes with a strong Islamic component took over in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The focus shifted from democratization to the Islamization of the state.

Hanin Ghaddar, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; and Managing Editor, NOW News, Lebanon

            So far, the Arab Spring has not yielded real citizenship and equality. Women are still treated as second-class citizens, and democracy has become a marketing strategy rather than a genuine need. In order to achieve a real Arab Spring, we have to revolt against ourselves and touch the untouchable. We need to start talking about taboos and understand that with freedom comes responsibility. Citizenship is not only about rights; it also means that a citizen is responsible for his or her actions.

Ellen Laipson, President and CEO, Stimson Center

           At the two-year mark, the Arab Spring looks noisy, messy, and inconclusive. A smooth march to democratic practice, personal freedom, and cultural diversity and tolerance has occurred in none of the five cases. The democratic aspirants in Tunisia and Egypt, and perhaps in Libya and Yemen, nonetheless, hold out some hope that a new political culture can emerge over time. The passionate “battles” over Egypt’s constitution and between Islamists and secular forces in Tunisia have been relatively violence-free. As in most revolutions, the initial courageous actors have been pushed aside by more militant and better-organized forces, and this dynamic creates genuine dilemmas for outside governments and civil societies who want to help the democratic forces yet must limit the degree of involvement for fear of discrediting those forces. This is a long story, and the two-year mark is still an early moment to judge the outcome of the Arab Spring.

David B. Ottaway, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; and former Bureau Chief, Washington Post, Cairo

           The Arab Spring has met some expectations and dashed others. Four autocratic rulers have been unseated. Numerous free elections have been held in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt for the first time ever. The voiceless have found their voice. There is more freedom of expression, assembly, and protest than ever before. Unfortunately, the popular uprisings have also brought to the fore latent conflicts between secularists and Islamists, Shi’a and Sunnis, and Kurds and Arabs. They have opened the door to civil war in Syria and made the fragmentation of Syria and Iraq a real possibility. Finally, the uprisings have provided new space for al-Qaeda to revive and expand its activities. Whether the Arab Spring will have given birth to democracy or new autocracy, Islamic or otherwise, remains to be seen.

Marina Ottaway, Senior Associate, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

           Uprisings, even the most successful ones, never live up to the hopes of the participants, who tend to be naïve and overoptimistic. But the result of the peaceful uprisings of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt is particularly sobering because it indicates that a democratic outcome is probably not possible in most Arab countries at this point. The problem is not that Arab citizens are not capable or willing to make their own political choices. Rather, it is that when they are offered an opportunity to do so, as they were in the elections in Tunisia and Egypt, they show the depth of the cleavage that separates Islamists and secularists.

Fatima Sbaity Kassem, Former Director, UN-ESCWA Centre for Women, Lebanon

           The year 2011 is a watershed for the Arab world. The wall of fear is shattered forever. Women and men took to the streets and succeeded in toppling regimes and ousting despots and dictators. People had high expectations that poverty would swiftly disappear, jobs would become plentiful, equality would reign, and democracy would prevail. The reality is quite different; the road to democracy is never smooth but long, bumpy, and maybe violent.

Robin Wright, USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar and journalist

           Revolutions are never fairy tales. Nor do they create utopias, either instant or long-term. The Tunisian street vendors who now work on the same corner where Mohamed Bouazizi sold oranges summed it up pretty well when I visited them last spring: “We have more freedoms,” one told me, “but we have fewer jobs.” So far—and that is a pivotal caveat—the Arab uprisings have deepened both the political divide and economic woes. Defining a new order has proven far harder than ousting old autocrats. Phase one was creating conditions for democracy. Phase two is a kind of democratic chaos as dozens of parties in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia do political battle (and in some cases physical battle) over constitutions. Anciens regimes have not totally given up, as in Yemen. The cost of change has exceeded even the highest anticipated costs, as in Syria. And half of the Arab world’s 350 million people have yet to witness any real change at all. So, no, most Arabs are probably disappointed with the “Arab Spring” for one of many reasons. But the uprisings were never going to happen in one season. And this is only the beginning of a decades-long process—as most of us in the West should know from our own experiences.

Click here for the full text.


Sign up for newsletter here.

In the News

Our Articles

For more articles, click here.


The Islamists Are Coming is the first book to survey the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Often lumped together, the more than 50 Islamist parties with millions of followers now constitute a whole new spectrum—separate from either militants or secular parties.  They will shape the new order in the world’s most volatile region more than any other political bloc. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals.

The Islamists Are Coming

Our Partner