No Arab Springtime for democracy

December 11, 2011 

Ousted, survived, killed, ousted, survived, resigned.

These are the fates of six Arab strongmen who were first confronted with popular uprisings against their rule last spring. Zine Ben Ali of Tunisia (ousted), Abdullah II ibn al-Hussein of Jordan (survived), Moammar Gadhafi of Libya (killed), Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (ousted), Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain (survived) and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen (resigned). Saleh's recent resignation completed a quartet of Arab Spring casualties.

The uprisings that sparked in Tunisia spread like wildfire across the region, not just to Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Syria and Yemen but beyond - serious protests threatened regimes in Algeria, Iraq, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan and the Gulf states. To date 24,000 people have died in Arab Spring-related violence, but autocrats have fallen in only four of the 16 cases that saw uprisings.

Few predicted that simmering hatred would be unleashed against dictators with such dramatic force in 2011, but regime survival in the face of popular challenge has become more predictable. Across the region the fate of dictators has turned on the choices of the domestic military and foreign powers.

In Tunisia the army quickly threw their lot in with the ruled rather than the ruler and Ben Ali was done in a flash. After a brief equivocation, the Egyptian army found Mubarak to be a liability and they cut him adrift.

In Bahrain and Libya the army stayed loyal to the sultan and it was left to foreigners to tip the scales - in favor of the regime in Bahrain, and of the rebels in Libya. In Yemen, Saleh's army split down the middle. No foreign power was willing to oust him but he lacked the friends willing to lend him the military might to hold on power. The stalemate bought him a severance package, but not survival.

Autocratic survivors are more likely to be kings than elected presidents. Monarchies appear to have weathered the Arab Spring better than the men who traded in military uniforms for the veneer of civilian power. Abdullah cashed in the residual loyalty Jordanians feel toward the Hashemite royal family and offered minor political concessions, while Hamad brought in Saudi troops to stare down a Sunni majority in Bahrain. Each man has bought more time but the game remains afoot.

How do these lessons speak to the ongoing case of Syria? That nation is poised on a knife edge: it could plunge into civil war or come to rest in a valley of repression where Bashir al-Assad's opponents have fallen. The entrails of the Arab Spring suggest that Assad will be the fifth dictator to fall only if the Syrian military irrevocably splits or if international military force intervenes on the side of the opposition.

Neither looks likely. The Syrian army is dominated by Assad's Alawite minority and foreign powers have demonstrated no stomach to insert themselves into the quagmire of a civil war in Syria which would spark tensions, not just between Turkey, Israel and Lebanon, but would ominously see NATO, Russia and China picking sides.

The way in which rulers fell also molds the nation's chances of becoming a democracy. Because the military stood aside quickly in Tunisia the transitional period was characterized by a strong political society dominant over a dormant military apparatus. That led to a broadly inclusive process where elections led to a body which is representative of all strands of opinion and is sovereign in writing the new constitution. This path ordains that the Tunisian constitution will end up being more secular than religious, more democratic than not, and more protective of minority rights than its neighbors.

Conversely, in Egypt the military took the reins of power after they had signaled Mubarak that his time was up and steered the transition into a repressive dead end. Despite its great effect early on, Egyptian political society became weak in the face of the army and the civilians currently being elected to help draft the new constitution risk being rendered impotent by the generals.

In Libya and Yemen, the regimes' military machines fragmented as generals defected from autocrats to opposition and took their soldiers with them. Unfortunately, the rebels defaulted to their regional clan allegiances, which are becoming the building blocks of their new states. In these cases, the regular army might have been defeated but political society is being choked out by paramilitary society. A seat at the table to write the new constitution of Libya or Yemen is more likely to be bought with packs of armed fighters than votes. And the constitutions that result will reflect regional power plays over national interest.

After the heady days of euphoria in Tunis and Cairo, much of the Arab world is now consumed by the malaise of fatalism that regime change does not equate to revolution. For those Arabs who yearn for democracy, a question hangs in the air: Can anything be salvaged from the revolutionary aspirations which careened off the tracks in so many countries?

Andrew Reynolds is chair of Global Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has been an adviser on election design in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Jordan and is the co-author of the forthcoming book, "The Arab Spring: Political Transformation in North Africa and the Middle East."

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