The Middle East Channel

Not Losing the Arab Awakening

When a Tunisian peddler set himself on fire in December 2010, launching the Second Arab Awakening, many were taken by surprise. While I cannot claim prescience, I did have a powerful sense that we had been there before -- and that if we did not learn the lessons of the past, we would fail this time as well.

Those fears proved well founded. One transition after another has struggled or failed to produce governments that can respond to citizens' longing for freedom and opportunity. The fragility of the once-promising Arab transitions clearly shows the urgency of beginning the painstaking process of constructing an Arab world defined by pluralism and tolerance. Only then can what I call The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism be realized.

Looking back to the "first" Arab Awakening, which began in the mid-19th century, can be illuminating. That awakening took the form of an intellectual revolution in which a wide array of Arab thinkers started questioning the control of distant Ottoman despots over their nations and criticizing their own limited contact with the outside world. Their calls for intellectual, economic, and political change laid the groundwork for a new Arab world, eventually resulting in a wave of independence struggles in the 1940s and 1950s.

Ultimately, however, the first Arab Awakening fell short of the aspirations of many of those who inspired it. In the end, colonial autocracies were replaced with domestic ones -- often military-backed single-parties that took advantage of their revolutionary legitimacy to cement their grip on power. New regimes paid little attention to developing political systems whose checks and balances guaranteed access for all. They saw pluralism as a potential threat and took heavy-handed measures to prevent its realization.

That rejection of pluralism doomed the Arab region to decades of political failure. Unrealized political and economic expectations, the failure to solve the Palestinian issue, and the unwillingness to provide good governance marked the post-independence era in the Arab world. For years, the only groups that contended with the ruling elites were those whose organizing principle was religion. Political Islam emerged as the only alternative to one-party rule. Abuses by government personnel, especially the security and intelligence services, and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few kept tensions seething just beneath the surface.

While the uprisings that breathed new life into the Arab world in 2011 seemed unstoppable, achieving the protesters' goals is not. Whether they succeed in establishing pluralistic governments ultimately rests the hands of the people of the countries involved, and the new generation that demands change. Outsiders however, including powerful Western governments, can affect events. To do so in a constructive fashion requires clear thinking about events and their root causes.

But faulty Western thinking about the awakening has led to misguided, if well-intentioned, policies. In the span of three short years, the West lurched from calling this awakening an "Arab Spring" -- a name that implied expectations of an immediate transition from autocratic regimes to democratic ones -- to seeing it now as some kind of an Arab inferno, because of the rise of Islamic parties with their implicit or perceived threat to liberal democratic advances and their potential flirtation with jihadi violence.

Neither of these two scenarios need be permanent or inevitable. We should take seriously the common refrain that the profound transformations Arab countries are undergoing will take time. Although some eastern European countries can be said to have sped up the clock after the fall of the Soviet Union, revolutionary political transformation usually takes decades, not years. Western observers and policymakers need to have strategic patience as they follow unfolding events.

The rise of Islamist parties was also to be expected, and should neither surprise nor overly alarm anyone. They alone had the pre-existing organizational capabilities required to run nationwide campaigns, and that allowed them to score electoral victories far beyond their level of popular support. But it should also be no surprise that their success in first-ever elections did not necessarily translate into permanent control. Their promise of better governance, which helped attract support from many Arabs fed up with the status quo, was being put to the test. And as they entered the political fray, this time as decision-makers, their perceived "holiness" was confronted with reality, and their ability to deliver was what mattered most. Arab publics are beginning to judge Islamists and secular forces alike based on performance, not ideology.

It will take decades to build the foundations of political systems that actually defend democracy and preserve its basic tenets year after year. It is a process in which some countries will succeed, others will struggle, and yet others will fail. What will help determine any country's outcome is which elements of society will lead the transformation. The Arab world has long been dominated by two forces --an entrenched, unaccountable elite on the one hand and Islamists on the other. But neither of these groups -- which often achieved an uneasy modus vivendi -- has ever demonstrated a genuine commitment to pluralism.

The real hope rests with a new generation, the youth who started it all in the streets and are far more committed to the principles of democracy than their elders. It is this third force that might break the cycle of oppression. So far, this revolutionary young generation has done a better job of defining what it is against than what it is for, and it will take years to establish the organizational capacity and financial wherewithal to achieve a lasting break from the past. This is where Western assistance might most usefully be offered.

If it is to succeed where the first Arab awakening failed, this Second Arab Awakening needs to be an assertion of universal values: democracy, pluralism, human rights. These are not ideals that can be imposed upon a region from outside, but they can be encouraged to grow. This requires patience and an accurate understanding of both the actual conditions and the kinds of actions that are likely to be effective. Only when societies and their elected leaders truly embrace tolerance, diversity, the peaceful rotation of power, and inclusive economic growth will the promise of a new Arab world be realized.

Given the grim news coming out of the region today, some will regard my arguments as a naïve, almost romantic view of an Arab world that does not exist --a mirage in the desert, totally detached from reality. They will point out the tumultuous state of affairs -- and that regional political grievances are turning sectarian.

But do not mistake the grim early skirmishes for the outcome. The battle of ideas has finally started to unfold in the contemporary Arab world and is far from ended. The region will go through a period of turmoil in which exclusionist forces will attempt to dominate the landscape with absolute truths and new dictatorships. In the end, however, these forces will also fade, because exclusionist, authoritarian discourses cannot answer the people's need for a better quality of life --economically, politically, culturally, and otherwise.

There are no short cuts to democracy or prosperity. The Second Arab Awakening has only just begun, and the end may not be known in this generation's lifetime. After all other alternatives to diversity have been exhausted, perhaps the people of the region will finally reject the prospect of waiting so long, and devote their energies to creating a pluralistic Arab world now. Their battle for pluralism is worth waging and winning.

Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan. This article was adapted from The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism (Yale University Press, 2014).


The Middle East Channel

Syria Peace Talks to Begin Without Iran, Overshadowed by Evidence of Torture

Diplomats have affirmed that a peace conference on Syria will begin as scheduled on January 22, after the United Nations withdrew an invitation to Iran to participate in talks. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon unexpectedly invited Iran to attend the conference in Switzerland prompting a strong U.S. objection and a threat by the opposition Syrian National Coalition to boycott. The last-minute disarray and ensuing diplomatic fiasco underscore the challenges facing the conference, which will for the first time bring together the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents. Iran and Russia have expressed anger over the U.N. decision to rescind Tehran's invitation with Iran calling the decision deplorable. The conference is additionally being overshadowed by new evidence of the Syrian government conducting systematic torture and execution. Three international war crimes prosecutors have examined photographs, apparently smuggled out of Syria by a defecting military police photographer, that provide evidence that the Syrian regime has tortured and killed an estimated 11,000 detainees since the start of the uprising in March 2011. The Syrian government has denied claims of abuse. Additionally, Human Rights Watch has accused government and opposition forces of human rights abuses and claimed Russia and China have allowed such abuses to take place by blocking action through the United Nations.


  • A suspected suicide car bomb has killed at least four people in a Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut in an attack claimed by al-Nusra Front in Lebanon, meanwhile clashes have reignited in the northern city of Tripoli.
  • The United States and European Union have suspended some sanctions on Iran after Tehran began restricting uranium enrichment in accordance with a nuclear deal negotiated in November.
  • The UAE has convicted 20 Egyptians and 10 Emiratis on national security charges for setting up an illegal branch of the Muslim Brotherhood issuing sentences of up to five years.
  • Political factions participating in a national reconciliation conference have extended the term of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi by one year and approved a federal system for Yemen.
  • Iran has sent two warships for the navy's first mission to the Atlantic in efforts to extend its reach.   

Arguments and Analysis

'If Everyone Votes Yes, Is It Democracy?' (Peter Hessler, The New Yorker)

"As an outsider, it's hard to be optimistic about near-term prospects in Egypt, but there are a few reasons to temper the pessimism. Despite the disastrous political climate, most experts believe that the new constitution is an improvement on the previous version. It gives far too much power to the military and the judiciary, two institutions that have always been wary of Islamists, and the preamble and other details are off-putting. (Article 44: 'Every citizen is guaranteed the right to enjoy the River Nile.') But there's more attention to basic human rights, especially for women. And it establishes that within five years there will be democratic elections for councils at the village and other local levels, which were never part of the Egyptian system in the past.

The most heartening thing about the referendum, though, was the relative lack of violence. Egypt won't go the way of Syria -- there's too much power in the Army and the police, and too little support for the Brotherhood. And Egyptians have a social cohesiveness that allows them to survive despite a deeply dysfunctional government. Throughout the chaos of the past three years, even a big city like Cairo has remained remarkably safe and functional. There are signs that terrorist activity is expanding, but, thus far, the attacks have been focused on the police, the Army, and other government institutions, rather than on the public. At five o'clock in the morning of the first day of the referendum, a bomb exploded in front of a Cairo court; the façade was damaged, but there were no injuries. The attack was clearly a statement -- but a very different statement than would have been made by a midday bomb at a crowded polling station."

'America chooses the wrong allies in Egypt' (Jackson Diehl, Washington Post)

"Who are the allies of the United States in Egypt? The Obama administration's judgment is crystal clear: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has plied Sissi with more than two dozen phone calls since he led a coup against the elected Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi in July, while Kerry has repeatedly endorsed the general's increasingly implausible claim to be building a democracy -- as opposed to restoring the pre-2011 dictatorship in a more repressive form. The administration just persuaded Congress to pass legislation exempting it from an awkward ban on giving aid to regimes that gained power through a military coup so that the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Sissi's army can keep flowing.

Sissi and his cohort, however, are anything but pro-American. The media they control have been orchestrating an orgy of vile propaganda, charging the United States with everything from seeking to carve Egypt into pieces to subverting its morals.

Maher, Adel, Douma and Abdel Fattah aren't particularly pro-American either -- no one in Egypt is these days. But they at least share core American values. If they and their followers ever came to power, Egypt might come to resemble India or Brazil: a sometimes difficult partner but a democratic one. That is another reason they are in jail: The military's strategy is to present Washington with a choice between their secular thuggishness and that of the Islamists."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber