From Waves to Stages: Three Inferences about Democratization and the Arab Spring

Bahgat Korany

“Tahrir Square on November 27 2012 (Morning)” by The Egyptian Liberal, licensed under CC BY 2.0

In an age of ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions and their reverberations, democratic sustainability can help us parse the potentialities and actualities of democratic change in the region.

March 22, 2023

Since Plato and Socrates, the state of democracy has fascinated expert observers and citizens alike. In 1991, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington reviewed modern history to identify three waves in the rise of democracy. More recently , a professor at the University of Toronto, Seva Gunitsky  identified thirteen democratic waves, starting in 1776 and ending with the Arab Spring. While ‘transitology’ and the wave metaphors have never been a perfect fit in the region, they can be a useful starting point for thinking about democratic sustainability. This commentary reflects on the outlook for democracy around the world. It then critically invokes to draw comparative ‘transitional’ lessons for democratic sustainability from the cases of Egypt and Tunisia since the Arab Spring.

US President Biden wants “Authoritarianism vs Democracy” to be the great fight of this century, and organized a huge international ‘Summit for Democracy’ last year to this effect.  In his 2023 State of the Union speech, he affirmed that “”In the past two years, democracies have become stronger, not weaker.”This might be self-congratulatory rather than an exact reflection of reality. For instance, the 2023   Freedom House report tells a different story from Biden’s. After reviewing 195 countries and 15 territories according to 25 indicators to see who is “Free, Partly Free or Not Free”, the organization found that in 2022, the scores of 35 countries dropped. Even if the scores of other 34 countries improved, this is a very murky picture of the state of global democracy.

Sustainability Shortcomings: Egypt and Tunisia

The evolution of the Arab Spring of 2010-2023 certainly contributes to this murky picture, due to its lack of democratic sustainability, used here as a synonym for consolidation. Sustainability/consolidation may be understood as loosely  related to the second  stage of what scholars of democratization have called “democratic transition”. The first  phase is its “initiation”, usually through violent or peaceful uprisings, as in most cases of the Arab Spring in 2010/11, notably in Tunisia and Egypt. This first  stage may not achieve  democratic outcomes, despite huge costs in casualties, refugees, internally displaced persons, and destruction of infrastructure.  Present-day Syria is a case in point after twelve years of fighting.  Estimates of rebuilding the country range from $50 to 85 billion, and casualties can never be recovered.The cases of Tunisia and Egypt were indeed different. The initiation of democratic transition was relatively smooth. Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak, were deposed. In both countries, the situation seemed set for the second  stage: sustainability, or as known in the conceptual literature from the 1980s and 1990s, democratic consolidation. In almost all cases of democratic transition, this second  stage proves much more difficult and problematic. Setbacks and relapses to authoritarian governance were not uncommon.

Lessons Learned

What do we learn from Tunisia and Egypt’s transitions?? Three inherent setbacks have been instructive:

1-The coming together of a big coalition or “national front” without establishing a common governance agenda or even  minimum coordination resulted in political vacuums and/or political factionalization. Four years ago, a publication about the Arab Spring by the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris satirically but suggestively titled its front page : “ No leadership of the uprising ?! We had 27 leaders”. These  many leaders competed for influence and fell victim to infighting, thus facilitating the hijacking of the very transition process. In Egypt, The late Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown and jailed by his Minister of Defense who is now  President .  Tunisia’s post-transition process might differ, but at present, the country under President Kais Said is increasingly returning to authoritarianism. 

2- The initial transition phase was misleadingly easy and smooth. These two aspects contributed to an exaggerated sense of optimism, to the neglect of the intricacies and challenges of democratic transition. This over-optimism caught revolutionaries and newly-minted politicians off guard and facilitated the work of counter-revolutionary groups .

3-These  setbacks reveal the need for a redefinition of the basis of governance: legitimacy. Most of us social scientists still think of legitimacy according to  Weber’s typology: tribal , legal-rational , charismatic, or some sort of combination. The Arab Spring confirms a fourth type: performance legitimacy. The masses that rose and protested – especially among the youth – were in search of specific demands. In addition to eliminating police repression and “good governance”, they called for basics such as employment. Hence, many new politicians were even ready for  coalitions with members of the ancien regime to face up to these problems, a sort of pacted sustainability/consolidation similar to what Spain went through after Franco. Eventually, Islamist groups and their coalition partners suffered politically  because they did not offer solutions to people’s immediate, daily problems.

Looking Ahead

Since these socio-economic problems still persist, another wave of the “Arab Spring“ is bound to happen. However, this time, the new ‘revolutionaries’ and politicians possess new  ‘democratic knowledge’   that can allow them to offset political innocence and inexperience.  Their democratizing efforts  will be more context-bound, attuned to people’s needs, and focused  on performance legitimacy: tangible improvements for the publics that bring them to power.  At the conceptual level, their potential experience-based creativity can even ‘democratize’theories of global democracy, towards democratic sustainability.