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The Broken Arab Dream Of Democracy – Analysis


When Bouazizi, the young Tunisian fruit street vendor, was molested harshly by the police force of his country for doing business without a license, he felt humiliated by a repressive regime in his manhood and citizenship and, as a result, poured kerosene over his body and lit a match to put an end to his miserable living conditions. This, same match, that put an end to his life begot a gigantic dream of well-being for the Arab world: a dream of democracy and freedom from the yoke of dictatorship, humiliation and feudal traditions.

Domino-Effect Uprisings

This heroic and unselfish act, heralded the beginning of new era in the Arab region, that was called the Arab Spring. Indeed, the Bouazizi match ignited, also, and most importantly, a popular uprising in Tunisia, and its strong tide, in no time, swept the dictator Ben Ali. Unabated, the Tunisian flame of change was passed on to the youth of Egypt that, through protests, direct confrontation with the police and sit-ins at Tahrir square brought down the repressive regime of Mubarak.

In a perfect domino-effect movement, revolutions reached Yemen and Bahrain creating new political realities. Later, the wave swamped the harshest military regimes of the area: Libya and Syria, where it triggered cruel civil wars, one of them still going on today, claiming thousands of civilian lives and an incredible exodus of the population.

However, Sarah Fergonese,i  a Birmingham Fellow in the School of Geography, Earth, and Environmental Studies and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation, and Security at the University of Birmingham, writing in Society & Space on the Arab uprisings contests the Democratic Domino Theory in the following words:ii

Representations of the ‘Arab Spring’ as a series of dominos sweep away more complex connections between events involving countries on both sides of the Mediterranean. These include commonalities of language (indignation), urban practices (encampments, tents, marches), and aims (socio-political justice: “‘aysh, hurriya, adala al ijtimaiyya! – bread, freedom, social justice!” was among the slogans of the Egyptian revolutionaries) that deserve further exploration. Complicating the domino from multiple viewpoints allows us to understand the ‘Arab Spring’ not a sequence of ‘pieces’, bounded containers falling one after the other within a circumscribed region, but as unexplored networks that span the blurry borders of protest and repression across the Mediterranean into Europe.

There is one most important reason why these unexplored transnational threads need to be teased out. The frequent portrayal of the Middle Eastern protests – at least initially – as an Arab ‘renaissance’, ‘awakening’, a ‘1989-moment’ on their way to freedom, recalls an Orientalist and imperialist attitude that “folds space into time” (Agnew, 1998), relegating some places to the backward stages of the morality play of democracy.”

And she goes on to say, with much force:

Instead, I want to point to those transnational threads of mobilisation, and their rubbing up against transnational state-led repression. These transnational geographies of (in)security and resistance of the present upheavals deserve to be exposed in order to keep blurring the real and imagined boundaries between an authoritarian Arab and a democratic European Mediterranean that is still taken for granted.

What Led To The Uprisings?

Rabaa al-Adawiya, Egypt, during the dispersal of Morsi supporter sit-ins on August 14. Photo by Amsg07, Wikipedia Commons.
Rabaa al-Adawiya, Egypt, during the dispersal of Morsi supporter sit-ins on August 14. Photo by Amsg07, Wikipedia Commons.

Since the independence of the majority of Arab countries, in the middle of the last century, the Arab people were ruled by two kinds of regimes, different in format, but similar in philosophy and outcome:

1. Traditional monarchies: autocratic and tribal claiming religious legitimacy and endearing the population with generous, direct or indirect, cash handouts. Indeed, most of the rulers of the Gulf States, in the aftermath of the uprisings, handed generously money to their people to dump their instinct of change, if any. As for the monarchies that do not have oil, like Morocco and Jordan, to avoid popular ire, they initiated power devolution processes, through either constitutional reforms or more liberal governance.

2. Young republics that adopted pompous pan-Arabism theory and exhibited revolutionary socialist leanings, but cultivated repressive regimes that ruled by the means of corruption, nepotism and co-optation, as well as, intimidation and terror.

These two forms of governance ruled the population through the following schemes:

  • Maintaining the endemic illiteracy of the majority of the population;
  • Encouraging obedience through religious edicts;
  • Triggering automatically harsh repression of discordant voices;
  • Keeping a strict control of the media; and
  • Using the media in its subliminal capacity in brainwashing the grassroots in the love of stability and law and order, even if it is achieved repressively.

These recipes worked more or less for over half a century until the advent of the digital revolution that brought high-debit Internet and satellite television into all homes and, thus, this, ultimately, broke the spell of absolutism. Through television, people learned about other cultures where the individual was respected and celebrated, so they started questioning their political culture in all its different facets.

After that, came the digital revolution that gave the ordinary citizen ultimate power to criticize, question, but, most importantly, communicate aptly with others of his kind. Until then, of course, information was controlled by the state, it was the ultimate strength of the regimes, more powerful than crude force. Governments used it to brainwash citizens in believing that the state is their protector and that the beloved leader zaim is their caring patriarch. Through checking various sources on the net and hearing and reading many accounts and articles, they came to the conclusion that the zaim in question is corrupt and oppressive, so by the means of the Internet they organized their resistance, quietly, until Bouazizi struck his match and kick-started the Arab uprisings, still going on, today, unabated.

The ironic thing about the Arab Spring is that the same very autocratic regimes that were, somewhat, protected by the US, like Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Yemen’s Saleh and Egypt’s Mubarak were, on the other hand, brought down by non-lethal American inventions: the Internet and its affiliated social medias such as Facebook and Twitter as well as YouTube.

Primose Manfreda, writing in ThoughtCo. argues that ten reasons led to the Arab popular revolutions, these are as follows:iii

  1. Arab Youth: Demographic Time Bomb;
  2. Unemployment;
  3. Aging Dictatorships;
  4. Corruption:
  5. National Appeal of the Arab Spring;
  6. Leaderless Revolt;
  7. Social Media;
  8. Rallying Call of the Mosque;
  9. Bungled State Response;
  10. Contagion Effect.

Regime Change: No Change

In the past, change of leader in the Arab World only happened through two means:

1. Putsch: the military unhappy with the reigning zaim, for one reason or another, decide to replace him so they mount a military coup and him and his followers and family are either imprisoned in some gulag of the regime, or literally liquidated to make place to a new team, while the people watch on uninterested because they know that the plight of repression will continue on their lot, as ever; and

2. Natural death of the zaim: the leader dies, out of old age or illness, and the ruling party designates his successor in consultation with the army.

Nobody, in their wildest dreams, ever thought that docile and emasculated Arab youth will lead successfully a popular uprising, simply because such events were always crushed in blood and in total silence. This time, however, things were different, Arab youth had a more sophisticated weapon i.e. PCs, tablets, smart phones and Internet and possessed, also, lethal bullets: social media and powerful allies i.e. the world opinion.

In this regard Philip N. Howard writes in Pacific Standard:iv

“During the heady days of protests in Cairo, one activist succinctly tweeted about why digital media was so important to the organization of political unrest. “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world,” she said.

The protesters openly acknowledge the role of digital media as a fundamental infrastructure for their work. Moammar Gadhafi’s former aides have advised him to submit his resignation through Twitter.

Yet digital media didn’t oust Hosni Mubarak. The committed Egyptians occupying the streets of Cairo did that. As Barack Obama put it, mobile phones and the Internet were the media by which soulful calls for freedom have cascaded across North Africa and the Middle East. Just as the fall of Suharto in Indonesia is a story that involves the creative use of mobile phones by student activists, the falls of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt will be recorded as a process of Internet-enabled social mobilization.”

The digital revolution has allowed every Arab young person to be, at the same time, organizer of political meetings and demonstrations and to be, also, an efficient and fully-operational news agency capable of sending, to the world at large, accounts, communiqués and, most importantly, videos and image, as they truly are, and not as the dictatorships will photo shop them, normally, to lie.

Why Did The Arab Youth Rebel?

The youth, from the word go, were imprisoned in traditional absurd systems that are archaic and unfair and, most importantly, belonging to the Middle Ages. The existing societal systems are basically tribal, in essence, and patriarchal in organization. In such an organization, the individual has no existence, whatsoever, he is part of an extended family ruled by a patriarch who does not accept criticism, dissent or expression of dissent of any nature. As such, the political system is a mirror image of the social system: undemocratic and repressive. Thus, to preserve this way of life, the youth are educated into obedience and allegiance and imprisoned for life in taboos of two kinds:

1. Social taboos:

Arab societies accessed modernization and modernism, but disallowed the youth their fruits. They were not allowed to have girlfriends and date and flirt with them publicly, no sex before marriage, no expression of other sexual identities (LGBT) outside of heterosexuality, total respect of seniority, no independence of thought, no profession of opinion outside of the consensus, no criticism of religious or political establishments, no freedom whatsoever for women, worse, women were considered under age all their life, etc.

2. Political taboos:

The youth are required to express allegiance to repressive regimes and extol their goodness. They are taught to tone down their discontent, if any, and are barred from expressing discordant opinions for fear to go to prison or literally be killed or maimed, in retribution. So, existing regimes instilled fear in the youth for any transgression of the red lines and those who toe the line and show obedience are rewarded for their subservience with money, power and seniority over those who do not, as if to say, neutrality towards the establishment is synonymous of discordance and denial and cannot be tolerated.

Did The Arab Spring Falter?

The Arab Spring did not fail, as many people would argue, it just went out of steam for two reasons:

  • Firstly, the youth lack experience in the management of the post-Arab Spring political situation and, as such, they were supplanted quickly by the regimented and religiously-motivated Islamist groups, who, in turn, are losing the sympathy of the masses due to their harsh handling of daily life; and
  • Secondly, the establishment, in many cases, introduced reforms, that may or may not be genuine, either to defuse the situation or make minimal changes to ride the storm.

On the failure of the Arab Spring, Amanda Taub writes in Vox:v

“The truth is that while the revolutionaries were in fact very brave and the dictators were in fact very bad, the real story of the Arab Spring wasn’t one about individual people being heroic or wicked. Rather, it was a less cinematic — but far more important — story about the dangers of brittle dictatorships and weak state institutions.

Democratic transition, it turns out, isn’t about whom you can overthrow or whom you replace them with. It’s about whether or how you can change the vast network of institutions underneath that person.

If you don’t make those institutions work — and often, by the dictator’s deliberate design, you simply can’t — then your revolution is doomed. No matter how many times you topple the dictator, no matter how pure and good your protesters are, it won’t be enough. That’s the real lesson of the Arab Spring — and it’s important precisely because it’s not as exciting or emotionally satisfying as the good-versus-evil story we prefer to tell.”

However, the Arab youth has given the existing regimes a second chance, but, alas, most of them have squandered it and they have, also, given the Islamist a golden opportunity to govern and prove they are different, but their attraction to religious absolutism made them loose credibility in the eyes of the public, and, thus, they are out, for the time being.

For the time being, the Arab spring is taking a rest in the Arab world but, its universal message is alive worldwide. It manifested itself in Spain in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza ,vi in the uprising of Ukraine youth against undemocratic institutions the “Revolution of Umbrellas” conducted by the youth of Hong Kong,vii dreaming of true democracy , maybe, in all of China, for once.

To Conclude

The Arab Spring is alive and kicking and its next manifestation in the Arab world will not only finish off the political systems affected by the first wave, but might, also, wreck havoc in the rich conservative countries of the Gulf and reach theocratic Iran, where the ground is fertile for a revolution and regime change.

So, every undemocratic regime is, duly, warned of what is to come. Either they will, learn the lesson, and initiate true change or end up in the trash can of history.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

ii. See Sara Fregonese’s most recent Society & Space contributions: Beyond the ‘Weak State’: Hybrid Sovereignties in Beirut and The New Geopolitics of Responsibility in Barack Obama’s Cairo Speech

Selective Bibliography:

Ajami, Fouad. “The Arab Spring at One.” Global. Foreign Affairs, Mar. 2012..

Alhassen, Maytha, and Ahmed Shihab-Eldin. Demanding Dignity: Young Voices from the Front Lines of the Arab Revolutions. Ashland, OR: White Cloud, 2012. Print.

Al-Sakkaf, Nadia. “Celebrating Yemen’s Success but Keeping Future Challenges in Mind  Yemen Times.” Yemen Times. N.p., 30 Jan. 2014. Web. <>.

Amin, Samir. The People’s Spring: The Future of the Arab Revolution. Nairobi: Pambazuka, 2012. Print.

Anderson, Lisa. “Demystifying the Arab Spring.” Foreign Affairs. Council of Foreign Relations, May-June 2011. Web. < %25202012%2FLecturas%2FLisaAnderson_DemystifyingtheArabSpring.pdf>.

Andew-Ghee, Eric. “Making Sense of Tunisa.” New Republic. N.p., 17 Jan. 2011. Web. <>.

“Arab Uprising: Country by Country – Tunisia.” BBC News. N.p., 16 Dec. 2013.

El-Kasaby. Bassel.  Personal interview. 29 March 2014.

Green, Duncan. “What Caused the Revolution in Egypt?” Guardian News and Media, 17 Feb. 2011. Web. <>.

Kilo, Michel. “Reasons behind Syria’s Tense Standoff: People Stronger than the Regime.” Al Arabiya News. N.p., 22 Apr. 2013. Web. <>.

McCaffrey, Paul. The Arab Spring. Ipswich, MA: H.W. Wilson, 2012. Print.

Mekhennet, Souad, and Alexander Smoltczyk. “SPIEGEL Interview with the King of Bahrain: ‘Arab Spring? That’s the Business of Other Countries'”
SPIEGEL ONLINE. N.p., 17 Feb. 2012. <>.

“The Middle East in Transition:questions for US Policy.” The Choices Program (2013). Print.

“Yemen Is the Surprise Story of the Arab Spring.” Yemen a Surprise Success Story of the Arab Spring. The National, 23 Jan. 2014. Web. <>.

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Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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