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What these sentiments fail to appreciate, however, is that the Arab Spring is not a single event but rather a long-term process of political change. Its precipitating factors were both political and economic; and while history has yet to render its ultimate judgment, fundamental questions remain about how best to understand the nature, character, and trajectory of the Arab revolts. What are the key historical reference points, the optimal analytical framework, and the most salient political themes that can help us make sense of the Arab Spring?

These questions are extremely pertinent today given the perception that the Arab Spring seems to be coming apart at the seams—from Tunisia, where the government has resigned following the assassination of a prominent opposition figure; to Egypt, a country plagued by a constitutional crisis; and on to Libya, which is awash in renegade militias and regional rivalries and which possesses a weak central government.

How can we best approach this subject? Three recent books on the Arab Spring offer different points of entry. Writing during the early days of the Arab Spring, all three authors are optimistic about the political transformations that have taken place and about the future democratic prospects and political trajectory of the region. The concept of karama dignity is useful in understanding the recent events in the Middle East. In previous uprisings against dictatorial rule in other parts of the world, this issue hardly surfaced in the way it has recently.

It was a core theme, however, of the Arab uprisings, which united Arabs from Morocco to Oman. This subject remains poorly understood in the West. The theme of dignity, or its converse, indignity, and its relationship to modern Arab politics is a multidimensional phenomenon. It exists both at the level of the individual and the collective. Recall the story of Mohammed Bouazizi. This twenty-six year old street vendor from a small town in central Tunisia struggled to feed his family, for which he was the primary breadwinner.


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One day his weighing scales were confiscated by a member of the police force because he failed to pay a bribe. When he tried to resist he was slapped and spat upon. He complained to the local authorities, but his protests went unheard and he was reportedly further mocked. His economic plight was theirs. His frustration, humiliation, and anger resonated and touched a deep personal chord.

Copycat self-immolations soon followed, and the region quickly erupted in revolution. For the Arab-Islamic world the twentieth century was an extremely bitter one. European colonialism and imperialism thwarted the aspirations of millions of Arabs for self-determination. The state system that emerged after World War I reflected the economic and geostrategic interests of London and Paris more than it did popular preference on the streets of Cairo or Damascus. The birth of the modern Arab world thus left behind bitter memories and poisoned relations between Muslim societies and Western ones.

This was compounded by Western support for the national rights of Jewish settlers in Palestine over those of the indigenous Palestinian population—the legacy of which continues to afflict the region and our world. The aftermath of World War II saw the gradual loosening of European control of the Arab world and the emergence of a brief moment of optimism. Many thought that an opportunity had finally arrived for the realization of meaningful self-determination. But this opening did not last long.

The region soon found itself awash in nationalist military coups, single-party states, and authoritarian monarchies, the latter of which were supported by the West. Within the span of a couple of decades a new postcolonial elite came to power and a familiar political landscape took shape. Yes, the new rulers were native to the soil and had Muslim names, but they started to behave in ways that were eerily familiar. A new chasm between state and society developed that replicated the old colonial one, only this time the ruling elites were Arabs instead of Europeans.

The term neocolonialism is an apt description for this state of affairs. The first was from the French and the second will be from the Assad dynasty. The structures and processes of political rule retained a particular authoritarian continuity that over time generated deep resentment, he observes. The two key regime imperatives were survival and legitimation. The strength of this book lies in the connections that Owen makes between the political, economic, and historic contexts of the modern Arab world on the one hand, and the behavior of individual leaders on the other.

This perspective has been popular in the West partly because it reinforces widespread stereotypes about Muslims, but also because prominent Western scholars such as Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, and Ernest Gellner have given this perspective an academic stamp of legitimacy. Jettisoning an Orientalist explanation about an alleged enduring Arab or Muslim cultural essence, Owen unpackages, historically and comparatively, the debate on Arab exceptionalism.

He focuses his attention on the unique regional history of the Arab world during the twentieth century by identifying a set of internal and external influences that shaped the political landscape of the region. In his reading, the demonstration effect of the Nasser and later Sadat models of government and management in Egypt were of paramount influence to other states in the region, as were the geostrategic policies of Western states toward the Middle East.

Reflections on the Arab Uprisings

The foregoing narrative is easy for most Western readers to digest. The travesties and tragedies of authoritarian rule in the Middle East are well known, even if the extent of Western support for this regional order may not be. At a much deeper intellectual level, however, beyond basic questions of dictatorship and democracy, the Arab Spring has generated new debates over interpretation. How best can we understand these revolts and which analytical framework is most helpful?

He simply uses this event as a foil for a radical critique of existing intellectual paradigms and concepts. Instead, he calls for a more inclusive universalism that incorporates the historical and political experiences of the non-Western world, and that is not based on Western history and terms of reference. This is where the Arab Spring fits into his narrative. Dabashi is a postcolonial critical theorist, which means that his book is filled with academic verbiage that is almost unintelligible.

For example:. Imperialism has always been an Empire, and Empire imperialist, if we simply recognize that capitalism never had a center, and the civilizational manufacturing of boundaries was a heuristic mechanism to sustain the autonormativity of instrumental reason as the heteronormativity of benevolent progress p.

Passages such as this one abound in the text. But if one can get beyond his jargon and anger the book provides food for thought on how to see and think about the world and its problems in global terms, especially from a non-Western perspective. In calling for a more inclusive universalism, Dabashi echoes the writings of the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra. In his latest book, Mishra argues that it is misleading to think that the most important events of the twentieth century were the two World Wars and the cold war.

The Arab Spring is the continuation of a longer struggle and quest by the Arab-Islamic world for self-determination from both external and internal authoritarian forces. For a Western audience, one of the most bewildering and alarming developments of the Arab Spring has been the rise to power of Islamist-based parties. This was not how it was supposed to be. One reason why the Arab Spring was initially widely celebrated in the West was because the demands of the protesters were decidedly secular. Moreover, we were repeatedly reassured that this was not about Israel or the West but rather about internal Arab despotism; Islamist parties and actors played no role in instigating the revolts and they only joined the protests at a much later stage.

But the fear of another Iranian Revolution and religious takeover loomed in the background; and these fears have been heightened with the electoral victories of Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt and their rise to prominence in Syria. Such concerns are certainly legitimate, but two years after the start of the Arab Spring, a discernible set of political trends involving religion-based actors confirm an argument I made four years ago. First, the role of religion in politics needed to be democratically negotiated in emerging Muslim democracies, and political secularism had to be earned and not assumed as it often is in much of the media and intellectual debate about Muslim politics in the West.

In other words, it was a fallacy to presuppose that Muslim societies had long grappled with the deeply emotional and divisive issue of the normative role of religion in politics and that a broad democratic consensus exists on the topic. Stated differently, Western history is not universal history, and it is analytically flawed to assume that the Muslim world has had the same historical experience as the West with respect to negotiating the proper role of religion in government. This process is just beginning as a result of the Arab Spring.

Second, I argued that religion-based parties and religious intellectuals could play a critically important role in the democratization of their countries, provided they reconciled their political theologies with universal standards of human rights and the modern demands of democracy. This latter development is taking place— gradually, to be sure, but its manifestation is undeniable. While the case of Egypt and religion-based parties is far more complex, a similar trend is visible there as well. In Islam and the Arab Awakening , Tariq Ramadan explores these themes with considerable insight, optimism, and clarity.

The early parts of the book are problematic. Ramadan comes dangerously close to suggesting that the Arab Spring is a Western conspiracy to dominate the Islamic world. The evidence and arguments he advances are unconvincing and, frankly, disappointing, coming as they do from a leading Muslim intellectual who was born and raised in the West, and from whom one would expect more nuance and depth of understanding in deciphering Western policy toward the region.

His quasi-conspiratorial claims are especially disturbing given the prevalence of conspiracy theories in Muslim societies, to which, sadly, Ramadan contributes. Ramadan is on stronger ground when he warns about the pitfalls and dangers of unregulated neoliberal economics dominating the region after the fall of dictators. The most insightful chapters in Islam and the Arab Awakening explore the role of Islam and its potential in promoting democratic transitions in the Arab world.

For example, he notes that the future of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa will be deeply intertwined with the ability of Islamic-oriented political actors to develop and indigenize a form of political secularism that is compatible with their cultural traditions. This can be better appreciated if we lower our expectations and take the long view of history.

Stated differently, in order for democracy to survive in a religious milieu there must be a clear distinction and mutual respect between political authorities and religious bodies, and this needs to be negotiated democratically, over time, based on an evolving consensus. In the Arab context, achieving this consensus will be difficult, partly because this process is inherently conflict-ridden but also due to the brutal legacy of the postcolonial secular state in the Arab-Islamic world, which has left societies polarized and deeply distrustful of one another, as we are seeing today in Tunisia and Egypt.

Today in Syria, for example, the Assad regime justifies its rule partly in the name of secularism.

At the same time it has responded to pro-democracy protests with such extreme brutality that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria have all charged the Syrian regime with pursuing a policy of state-sanctioned war crimes and crimes against humanity. The demands of Algerian protestors echo those made by their predecessors in other North African countries during the Arab Spring uprisings of : dignity, greater economic opportunities, political freedoms, and justice.

Like their Arab Spring predecessors, the Algerian protestors are largely leaderless, mobilized through social media and word-of-mouth networks. Because of this, in all of the Arab Spring countries, youthful demonstrators had a hard time translating their success on the streets into political movements that could challenge the entrenchment of old regime figures and the organizational prowess of Islamists.

In Morocco, the ruling monarchy survived the Arab Spring intact after offering significant democratic concessions. Lacking a monarchy and the special legitimacy and national unity that royal leaders can draw upon, Algeria is certainly no Morocco.

The Arab Spring

It is also a relatively open society and diverse economy with extensive linkages to Europe and the United States. The Libyan experience offers a limited guide to what may happen in Algeria. Libya was in many ways the only true revolution of the Arab Spring in that the entire previous political order was overthrown, in large part because Gaddafi was that order.

The Algerian army still runs the show. The fighting that has erupted in Tripoli in recent days further reinforces for Algerians the dangers of state collapse. Like its Egyptian counterpart, the Algerian military is a powerful institution with deeply entrenched economic interests and networks. It has used appeals to revolutionary legitimacy and its historical role as a symbol of national identity to maintain its privileges.

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It did just that in , precipitating an eight-year-long civil war. However, Tunisia had many well-known advantages that Algeria lacks, including its small size, history of constitutionalism, and lack of a powerful military. A much-hailed National Dialogue of represented an inclusive approach that helped keep the democratic transition on track.

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Likewise, in Algeria, what happens will depend on whether elites opt for inclusion and compromise rather than exclusion and revenge. Finally, we cannot neglect the role of the international environment. Powerful external forces such as Russia and the Gulf states are likely to oppose genuine democratization in Algeria while backing their favorite faction, which is likely to be the military.

This is also what happened in Egypt. Not that Algerians, for historical reasons sensitive to external meddling, would welcome much outside influence in any event.

Will It Lead to Democratic Transitions?

Resurgent authoritarian actors and institutions can quickly undermine democratic progress. There is a lot of uncertainty ahead, but ordinary Algerians have made clear that the status quo is unacceptable. Do you like our reporting? Sunday, September 22, Home Opinion. Will Democratic Transition Succeed in Algeria? April 10, Share on Facebook Share on Twitter. Arab Spring The demands of Algerian protestors echo those made by their predecessors in other North African countries during the Arab Spring uprisings of : dignity, greater economic opportunities, political freedoms, and justice.