Civil resistance in the Arab Spring: what went wrong?


The overriding lesson of the abortive Arab Spring is that getting rid of a dictatorial and corrupt ruler is not enough. Building democratic institutions, and restoring confidence in a flawed state, are much harder tasks, argues Adam Roberts, a senior research fellow in international relations at Oxford University, and joint editor of Civil Resistance in the Arab Spring: Triumphs and Disasters:

Civil resistance, especially in the form of massive peaceful demonstrations, was at the heart of the Arab Spring-the chain of events in the Middle East and North Africa that erupted in December 2010. It won some notable victories: popular movements helped to bring about the fall of authoritarian governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Yet these apparent triumphs of non-violent action were followed by disasters–wars in Syria, anarchy in Libya and Yemen, reversion to authoritarian rule in Egypt, and counter-revolution backed by external intervention in Bahrain. Looming over these events was the enduring divide between the Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam.

Why did so much go wrong? Was the problem the methods, leadership and aims of the popular movements, or the conditions of their societies?

Three strong lessons emerge from this tale of woe say about the capacity of civil resistance to liberate people from autocracy, he writes for The Guardian:

  • The first is that civil resistance does have power – and maybe sometimes too much. It can undermine the pillars on which autocracy rests. However, civil resistance may not work against a ruler, such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who can retain the support of a significant segment of society. And, if it does bring the pillars of autocracy down, its adherents need to recognize the existence, and serious consequences, of power vacuums.
  • The second lesson is that the tradition of seeing civil resistance as by nature superior to the mundane business of government is deeply problematic. Wherever it is used against a regime, there needs to be a credible plan for governing the country: in the absence of such a plan, civil resistance is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Many of the spontaneous and in some cases leaderless Arab spring movements of 2011 were unsuited to taking on the tedious roles of political parties and constitutional lawyers.
  • The third lesson is that in many situations, there is a case for movements to make more modest demands rather than the fall of the regime. In Jordan and Morocco, for instance, Arab spring campaigns had an essentially reformist character. It may be too soon to say how successful they have been, but they have avoided some of the catastrophes.

“The Arab Spring was a moment in history comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the sense that there were major shifts in geopolitical maps, like in the 1990s,” said Michael Ayari, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “We still don’t have a clear reading … At the moment it feels like we are in downward phase, but this is a process that will take decades,” he said.

“It is clear that the Arab transition has taken on a violent, and even scary character,” wrote Hafez Ghanem, whose book “The Arab Spring Five Years Later: Toward Greater Inclusiveness” was published by the Brookings Institution last month.

But he said there was still hope for positive change, if Arab governments focus on more “inclusive” policies to pursue economic growth and good governance.

“The Arab Spring is not a season,” he wrote. “It is a first and important step on the long road to a new political, social and economic order.”

Promoting democracy and good governance round the world is a long and winding road, notes analyst Daphne Davies, who identifies five ways academics and researchers can support their counterparts in the region.

The U.S.-based American Institute for Maghreb Studies runs research institutes in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Devex spoke to the directors of the institute in Algeria — Centre d’études maghrébines en Algerie, or CEMAT — and Tunisia — Centre d’Etudes Maghrébines en Tunisie, or CEMA — to find out the ways these research institutes and their students are fostering intercultural exchange.

  1. Provide grants and practical training in methodology.

Each year AIMS provides short- and long-term grants for U.S. students enrolled in M.A. or Ph.D. programs to conduct research in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco or Tunisia. Grants range from $2,250 to $4,500 for short-term study, up to $15,000 for long-term study. AIMS also offers travel awards for U.S. students researching in North Africa….

  1. Provide policymakers with in-depth knowledge about the country.

Another function AIMS and its students can play to build greater understanding is to provide policymakers with in-depth knowledge about these countries. Dr. Robert Parks, CEMA director, said that CEMA scholars provide information for U.S. and European policymakers: “Before the Arab Spring there was a massive dearth of knowledge in the English-language literature about North Africa, particularly in Algeria. Now interest in what’s happening in Algeria is growing, and policymakers often ask for, and appreciate our expertise in giving them a general background about the region.”… economics, Parks explained, or make sense of some developmental “enigmas.”

  1. Provide research that offers the bedrock for civil society participation.

In Tunisia, CEMAT scholars’ research topics have been strongly influenced by the 2011 “Tunisian Revolution.” The new emphasis is on “citizen power” and much of the Center’s research helps to underpin development, especially related to democracy-building, as Dr. Laryssa Chomiak, the Center’s director, explained….

  1. Provide donors with a research base to support development work.

CEMAT is often asked by potential donors to Tunisia to provide a research base, such as public opinion surveys, to give a solid base for development programs built on their research.

Said Chomiak: “Often an outside organization wants to develop a project, for example, improving the Tunisian media sector, but needs a scoping study, to find out the local situation and show potential funders the value of the project. CEMAT is regularly asked to work with teams of scholars, or to serve in an advisory capacity to give necessary background and contextual knowledge.”….

  1. Provide invaluable local practical knowledge.

Scholars at CEMAT also provide practical advice for development practitioners once a project is underway. “We have good links with the government, which wants to be consulted about what is happening,” said Chomiak. “Development agencies work best when they have cooperative arrangements with the host government so they can understand local needs, and this is where our knowledge can help.”


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