“Middle East historians and analysts say that the political and economic stagnation under decades of autocratic rule that led to the uprisings also left Arab countries ill equipped to build new governments and civil society,” Ben Hubbard and Rick Gladstone write for the New York Times:
While some of the movements achieved their initial goals, removing longtime leaders in four countries, their wider aims — democracy, dignity, human rights, social equality and economic security — now appear more distant than ever.
The current transitions also confirm the adage that democratization is not an event but a process.
“The old regional order has gone, the new regional order is being drawn in blood, and it is going to take a long time,” said Sarkis Naoum, a political analyst at Lebanon’s An Nahar newspaper.
“All the people in those countries lived under similar suppression despite the differences in their regimes, so the uprisings were contagious,” Mr. Naoum said. “But nobody in Syria, Libya, Egypt or Tunisia who wanted to get rid of the regime was prepared for what came next.”
As a new report from the Washington-based RAND think-tank reveals, the transitions have exposed and exacerbated profound fissures in Arab societies, aggravating tensions between secularists and Islamists and between different ethnic groups and religious sects.
“This is political polarization on steroids,” said Jeffrey Martini, a RAND Middle East specialist and co-author of the report. “You’ve got both sides trying to banish each other from politics.”
The crackdown in Egypt invalidates references to any form of political transitions, says a leading expert.
The Obama administration has no good options in response to Egypt’s crisis, says Amy Hawthorne, a former State Department official who worked on Egypt policy until last year. But it could have responded more forcefully and coherently from the start, she told the Washington Post.
“I think we should stop talking about a democratic transition in Egypt as something that is happening,” said Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “I don’t think there’s any democratic transition unfolding right now.”
Other analysts are reluctant to go that far, but they suggest that any process of democratization is likely to be turbulent and protracted.
“I am not writing these transitions off; I just think we’re heading into a period of extreme unrest,” said Mona Yacoubian, a senior Middle East adviser at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
Others noted that such turmoil often obscured subtle but profound societal changes, Hubbard and Gladstone write for the Times:
Zaid al-Ali, a constitutional expert based in Cairo, said it had now become normal for citizens of Arab Spring countries to insult their rulers — unthinkable only a few years ago.
“This dynamic of free expression, of political liberalization where now you have lots of political parties and people expressing themselves freely, this will lead us in a positive direction in the long run,” he said.