The Arab Spring: Protest, Power, Prospect

My contribution to this new openDemocracy forum.

What a difference six weeks make. In mid-February 2011, largely peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt seemed to be spreading throughout the Arab world, notably in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. In early April, Bahrain has seen repeated violent repression, Yemen massacres of protesters, and the Libyan revolution has escalated to civil and international war. In Syria, where the protest movement is still spreading mostly strongly, it is also meeting extremely violent opposition.

This is hardly a surprise: revolutions, however peaceful, usually provoke violent counter-revolution. There has been armed repression in all phases of the global democratic revolution – even central Europe’s abnormally peaceful 1989 saw counter-revolutionary violence in Romania, while narrowly avoiding it elsewhere. It is more surprising that authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt gave way without extensive violence, than that the remaining monarchies and republican dynasties are resorting to force.

The idea of an “Arab spring”  conceals a big difference between 2011 and Europe’s 1989. The central European countries benefited from the disintegration of the Soviet empire. Some Arab states are tied in to the looser imperial networks of United States and western power, but local rulers have more autonomy, the US clearly prioritises geopolitical interest over democracy-promotion, and the “empire” is not falling apart.

So the full scale of the challenge facing democratic movements is now becoming apparent. Regimes built up over decades, with efficient security and military apparatuses, habituated to containing and repressing society, will mostly not blow over in the face of a wave of courageous protest. Oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia may combine repression with handouts, but repression is still the core of the response.

Even as more demonstrators fall to regime gunfire in Yemen and Syria, it could be that Libya is where the Arab revolution showed its darker side and began to slow. United Nations and western intervention is unlikely to help the regional momentum unless Gaddafi’s rule collapses with unexpected swiftness.

Yet whatever the immediate outcome in these three crucial states, the Arab revolutions have shown that in the medium term, autocracy is on the way out across one of the world regions in which it has been most entrenched. Democratic change has still to be institutionalised in Egypt, but if it is, it will surely open up the transformed Arab political space still further. Authoritarian rulers everywhere – not least in China – are watching nervously, and with good reason.

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