fbpx Democracy’s uncertain prospects 10 years after the Arab Spring | Harvard Kennedy School

Middle East Initiative Faculty Director Tarek Masoud says there are still many supporters of reform, but a decade of turmoil and chaos has left many Arabs deeply suspicious of Western-style democracy.

Featuring tarek masoud
march 25, 2021
34 minutes and 29 seconds

Ten years after the rise of pro-democracy movements collectively dubbed “the Arab Spring” the Arab world is a complicated mix of governments and societies that have evolved in vastly different ways. There have been democratic successes like Tunisia, failures like Egypt), and failed states like Yemen and Libya. In some places like Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, authoritarians have evolved to meet the threat to their power, while in others like Iraq and Lebanon democratic impulses still exist, but representative government hangs in the balance. Harvard Kennedy School Professor Tarek Masoud is the faculty chair of the Middle East Initiative and one of the world’s keenest and most knowledgeable observers of the Arab world’s politics. He joins host Thoko Moyo to explore what has happened over the past 10 years, what lies ahead, and what the new US administration can do to support democracy in a region where many still view it with extreme suspicion.

Hosted by

Thoko Moyo

Produced by

Ralph Ranalli
Susan Hughes

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Intro [Tarek Masoud]: I think there is some disillusionment among some people, but there are others who remain open to democracy, and who still believe that it offers the surest path towards the progress and prosperity they want for their region.

Intro [Thoko Moyo]: It's been 10 years since millions of people took to the streets in the Arab world in a wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings challenging some of the region's entrenched authoritarian regimes. That became known as the Arab Spring. Well, where is the region now? Well, that depends on the country, but basically, it's a chaotic mix of fledgling democracies like Tunisia, civil war-plagued, failed states like Syria and Libya, and countries like Iraq and Lebanon where representative governments still exists, but hangs by a thread. And even as advocates say the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring lives on, they admit that the region's autocrats have gotten better at marketing themselves as an acceptable alternative. Professor Tarek Masoud, director of the Middle East Institute at Harvard Kennedy School joins me today to explore what's happened over the last decade, and what the new US administration can do to keep nurturing democracy in a region where many still view it with suspicion. Welcome to PolicyCast.

Thoko Moyo: So, 10 years after the Arab Spring, where is the region? What's going on?

Tarek Masoud: The Arab world is a really big part of the world, 22 countries, 450 million people. But broadly speaking, I'd say there are two big trends in the region. On the one hand, those pro-democracy movements that were so inspiring to so many people around the world are actually continuing. We saw, for example, in the last couple of years, pro-democracy protests that actually succeeded in bringing about a measure of regime change in Sudan. We saw the same thing happen in Algeria. And we've even seen some pro-accountability movements, movements for more democracy and more pluralism in Lebanon and in Iraq, and those things have had a real impact, and so that's continuing. Now, in many other parts of the Arab world, of course the democracy movement is in abeyance if not completely suppressed. So, for example, if you look at a country like Egypt, democracy is really not on the cards in a country like Egypt. If you look at a country like Saudi Arabia, similarly. Saudi Arabia, today is in the news because it is a highly repressive country, and the Crown Prince of which was implicated in the murder of a journalist.

And so, I don't want to give this picture that the democracy movements are flourishing across the region, but they're certainly not dead. Now, on the flip side, there is... Even these authoritarian countries that I've described, they are not stagnant. And so there's change happening in those countries as well, and basically the way that I would describe it is that the autocrats of countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have decided that they need a new governing formula, that in fact, they have to somehow be responsive to some of the demands for change that underpinned the Arab Spring. And so they're making a lot of outsized promises to their people that we are actually going to address some of the decades of mismanagement, the state incapacity, our crumbling infrastructure, our hidebound social mores that don't allow women to achieve their full potential, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, but all within an authoritarian context. And the kind of the way I summarize this dual that you have in the region is that on the one hand you have that inspiring, continuing Arab Spring mission to change the leaders that dominate the region by bringing democracy, but now on the other side, we have attempt not to change the leaders, but to change the people, right? These autocrats who are saying, "Look, we're going to modernize, et cetera." And if you start to dig into the details of their modernization program, it's all about changing how the people act and changing how the people behave, and changing what the incentives are that people face, et cetera. And so those are the two big trends that I see in the region right now.

Thoko Moyo: I’d love to hear a little bit more about this idea of the autocrats trying to modernize. Could you give us an example of where this is happening? What's sort of the specific ways that they're trying to reinvent themselves?

Tarek Masoud: I think the classic example of a self-described modernizing autocrat might actually be somebody like Mohammed bin Salman who's the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. So, if you think about Mohammad bin Salman and his pitch, both to Saudi citizens and frankly to Western audiences, it was that, "I am the man who is going to finally take Saudi Arabia onto this new path where we wean ourselves from oil, and we wean ourselves from our commitment to this very conservative form of Islam that denies women the right to drive, that denies women the right to seek employment without the permission of their, "Male guardians," that denies women the opportunity to travel, that denies young people the opportunity to watch movies in cinemas, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera." And so he's really established himself as the exemplar of this type of modernization. And if you look at some of the things he's done, some of it you have to admit has been quite positive and revolutionary in that context So, for example, this is one of the first Saudi leaders who really talks in a very credible way or talked in a very credible way about taming corruption. We might remember for example, that he took all of these Saudi business leaders and princes, and rounded them all up and put them in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel until he could get them to give up their ill-gotten gains. And that looks odd to us here in the West, but in the context of an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia in which that class of people are used to operating with impunity. And remember, some of those people were actually members of the Royal family. And then suddenly you have the Crown Prince saying, "Nobody..." And literally I'm quoting him here. "Nobody, no matter how high up they are can escape the long arm of justice." That is kind of revolutionary. And so he's certainly the kind of exemplar of it if you were to ask the average Westerner, I don't think he lives up to his promise.

But sorry, just to... Because you asked me for an example of a place that really does this, I would say the United Arab Emirates is probably the truer example of a country that is not democratic. It's also not an absolute monarchy, it's got an unusual governance structure, think of it as a kind of federation of city states. But when it comes to the way that country is run, it's very modern. It's very open to the world, and they're doing a lot of things to create citizens, as one scholar said, "Create Globalization-ready citizens." And you absolutely see this in their education system, and in the culture that the government is trying to promote among young Emiratis.

Thoko Moyo: And how was this received though? Do you think the autocrats are likely to succeed in this sort of kind of action?

Tarek Masoud: Yeah. Well, that's a great question. So, there's two questions there, right? How was it received and are they likely to succeed? So, how was it received? I think a lot of people, including a lot of young people who were actually inspired by the Arab Spring, and supported the pro-democracy movements, I think they're open to this new kind of autocratic modernization. The autocrats are coming to them and saying, "Look, we've understood there are serious problems. We're going to use the authoritarian power of the state, not to aggrandize ourselves, or just keep our citizens under lock and key, but actually to make the kinds of decisive social changes that are necessary to bring our countries into the 21st century, to transform our countries from these stagnant dependent places that sell nothing that anybody wants to buy, that are completely subordinate to outside powers, non-influential to countries that are actually competent and innovative, and that everybody looks to as examples. And so I think people are open to that in part, because they see that the Arab Spring turned out so badly in so many countries. So, if you look at the Syrian example, that was not a very inspiring model to follow. That's a country that basically had a decade of civil war in which ultimately the bad guy won, the autocrat, Bashar al-Assad has basically been able to remain in power. But even if you look at a "Successful place," like Tunisia. Tunisia today is certainly its economy is in trouble. It's racked by ongoing labor strikes. And they recently elected a president who has a very populist kind of tendency. And so that's a country that doesn't look very stable. And then of course, think about Egypt, which also had its brief flowering of democracy during the Arab Spring, which was experienced by a lot of people as chaotic, as a period of declining economic opportunity, et cetera.

And so, we don't really have a lot of examples of the Arab Spring of democracy producing benefits in people's lives. On the other side however, you look at a country like the United Arab Emirates, it looks great. If you look at some surveys, if you believe some surveys that are conducted actually by the United Arab Emirates, it seems like most Arab young people want to live there. And I actually find that to be fairly credible, because I, not as a young person, but as an Arab, I think, "Oh, I could totally live in this country to very well run. There would be opportunities for myself, for my family, et cetera." So, I think people look at models like that, and think that they're not so bad. And then of course, remember we have the shadow of China, right? If you were to ask the average Arab about China, they would say, "China is this very successful country that managed to move from poverty to global influence, and they did it by being autocratic." And so maybe autocracy isn't a recipe for stagnation and dependency. Maybe if you get the right kind of autocracy, we can take off, but then you ask, is it likely to succeed? And I think it depends on where you look. So, if you were to look at a place like Egypt, for example, and you look at what the president of that country, a gentleman named Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who was once minister of defense, a former army general, and then field marshal. If you look at what he thinks modernization is, some of it is actually right. He talks about the need to inculcate critical thinking, the need to liberate ourselves from highly conservative medieval interpretations of religion.

Then we really look at what they're doing, it's a lot of building of roads, these big infrastructure projects, and this white elephant project to build a big new capital city in the middle of the desert, right? It's this kind of what one scholar would call... Jim Scott would call the high-modernist dream of like, "We're going to just start from scratch and build this modern new thing in the middle of nowhere." And you think, "Is this really solving their country's problems or escaping from them?" And then you compare that to a country like the United Arab Emirates, which certainly has its gleaming infrastructure and it's beautiful new cities, et cetera, but it also has more of the substance of modernity, right? It does have the education programs to inculcate critical thinking. It does have the programs in their public schools to inculcate in their citizens morality that isn't derived from religion, right? If one of the things you're trying to do is make our citizens less religiously conservative, you got to teach them that, "Well, look, you can be a moral person without constantly having to refer to one Holy book." And in the UAE, they actually have an educational curriculum that tries to do that. If you look at the opportunities that that economy provides to people from overseas to invest, to start businesses to... It's just a much more open place. It's much more open to the world, much more accepting of best practices in the rest of the world. So, you look at a place like that and you say, "Well, certainly there are some ways in which the country operates that, maybe I wouldn't necessarily agree with." Which is true of every country, but there's also these positive reforms that really signal that they get what it is that really brings modernity, and part of it has to do with being open.

Thoko Moyo: And that's what I want to ask you about. So, you mentioned that there are some young people are actually looking at this autocratic reform or modernization as a possible option, and then thinking maybe it's not so bad. Are you suggesting then that these are disillusionment about democracy, or do you think democratic models also still retain some sort of allure, where do you stand on that?

Tarek Masoud: Yeah. That's a great question. So certainly, I think there is some disillusionment among some people, but there are others who remain open to democracy, and who still believe that it offers the surest path towards progress and prosperity they want for their region. And so really, we're in this dual between models. So, I think if you're the average Egyptian, right? And I don't bring up Egypt just because my people are from Egypt, but because one of every four Arabs is an Egyptian.

Thoko Moyo: So, is that right? Wow. Okay. That's Nigeria with Africa, I think.

Tarek Masoud: Exactly. Nigeria and Egypt, the two great African countries. So, if you are the average Egyptian, you're looking at Tunisia as the, this is what I can get with democracy, this is what democracy would deliver to me. And you look at the UAE as the aspirational model of what this alternative form of highly competent authoritarianism could bring. And look, I will say, if you look at some of the survey data and in this article that I wrote, I trace the survey data from the Arab Barometer over a number of years, and the support for democracy ebbs and flows, but I'd say more than half of people in the region still think democracy is the right form of government for their country. When you ask people, what they think about democracies, about this claim that, "Oh, democracy is really bad at maintaining order. If you get democracy, you're going to get chaos." Except in Tunisia, most Arabs still think, "No look, democracy isn't bad at maintaining order." The problem is in Tunisia, a lot of people think that.

Thoko Moyo: I want to get your perspective as to whether or not you think democracy would be the way for the Arab world to go. What's most your inclination when you look at it?

Tarek Masoud: Well, I think ultimately democracy which... Let's define it as decent government that is based on a principle of accountability to the citizens who are affected by the policies of the government, and in which citizens can expect a high degree of bodily integrity, and freedom from arbitrary action by the state. I think that is the only way forward. I have a rock bottom, almost religious commitment to that. And so I think ultimately, maybe this is almost a religious statement that I think that ultimately this is where the Arab world has to go. And elsewhere, in fact, I've criticized that kind of view, but if you ask me to speak as Tarek Masoud the citizen, I would say, ultimately this is where I think the future of the Arab world has to be and the future of the entire world really has to be. The question is how do we get there?

Thoko Moyo: What about an argument for maybe a phased sort of movement towards democracy? Maybe recognizing that there may be some obstacles or challenges that only an autocratic system could dismantle before you get to democracy, or alternatively given the points that you've made that there are some things that the modernizing autocrats are doing that actually good. Is there an in-between, does it have to be sort of an either, or? Or is there a model that takes the best from both sides and sort of customize this for the region, its history, its context, its culture? Is that simplistic or is that something that one could reasonably think could work?

Tarek Masoud: So Thoko, there's two different ideas in that question, right? So, on the one hand you could be asking, is authoritarianism a or a particular kind of modernizing, liberalizing, benevolent authoritarianism a weigh station on the path to the, "full democracy," that say the people of Sweden or South Korea enjoy? But then the other question you asked is, does actually the democracy that the people of South Korea or Sweden enjoy have to be the end point? Could peoples identify a new form of government that works for them, that doesn't look like Western-style democracy with repeat elections and universal suffrage and all of the [inaudible 00:18:04] of Western-style democracy. Let me answer the second question first, right? This idea is, is there another end point that would satisfy our natural human yearning for decent government that nonetheless didn't look like Western-style democracy? And I would have to say, absolutely I can accept that idea in the abstract. I'm certainly not smart enough to tell you what that would look like, but I'm also not arrogant enough to say that the political institutions that a bunch of Caucasian males came up with in the 18th century is the best way to organize political systems all over the world. And certainly, if you were to look at countries like say Kuwait, which has this... It doesn't quite look like a democracy to us, even though it has a parliament, et cetera, but it's also got features of an absolute monarchy, but they also have this institution of the Diwaniya, which is basically a series of gatherings that notable people and leaders will have where they can receive complaints of citizens, and deliberate with citizens. And you could look at that as the scholar, Lisa Wedeen has done in another context, University of Chicago scholar, and said, "This could be serving the function of the kinds of democratic institutions we're familiar with in the West."

So, I'm completely open to the idea that a decent accountable government that respects human rights in a real sense might have a different institutional setup, than the electoral democracies we're familiar with. However, I should also say, I don't know what that would look like, and I further would push back a little bit and say, I actually think that the institutions of electoral democracy are not so particular to the West. It doesn't require the sort of Western imagination or being steeped in the Western canon to come up with the idea of voting. And so I actually, I'm not sure that a culturally distinctive end point would look all that different from the types of democracy we have in the Western world.

Now, the other question you asked is, okay, given that the end point is a kind of electoral democracy in which citizens' voices are heard regularly, they get to choose their leaders and get to throw them out when the leaders aren't doing a good job. Is democratic revolution where the people take to the streets and tear down the statue of the leader and throw them into prison, is that the only path? Or actually, is there an evolutionary, not revolutionary path? And I actually hear... And this is where many of my much more morally upright democratic friends are disappointed with me. Yeah. I actually think there is an evolutionary path. And in fact, again, thinking of me as Tarek Masoud, the citizen, I'm not a revolutionary, right? If you ask me for example, how did the United States become a democracy? We have a particular potted history that we are taught that we talk about the revolution of 1776, but actually if you think about political institutions and structures that existed in the United States before the revolution, and you think about the ones that existed after, there's actually a great deal of continuity, the political elite did not change dramatically. George Washington was one of the richest man in the colonies, and that he became the president, and so it wasn't actually a revolution from below.

And so I could imagine, and if you think just further about democratic progress in Latin America, the former Harvard scholar, now Stanford scholar, Terry Karl did a study of democratic transitions in Latin American and said, "Actually, the transitions that tend to work are the ones that are really guided from above, in which the old elite controls the pace of democratic change." And that she says it isn't perfect, et cetera, but that also comports with my understanding of how you get democracy that lasts. And so sure if the modernizing autocratic project were one that resulted in economic development, and therefore a citizenry that is more educated and more capable of pressing for its demands in opposition to the authoritarian state, and getting concessions from the authoritarian state, then sure that's ideal. That's the hope, right? The hope is that that's what happens. The modernization project works and the society becomes so modern that they say to the autocrat, "Look, we're not willing to be governed by command anymore. You've got to have a real parliament and real elections, and you've got to give us greater voice," and then democracy sort of falls like a ripe fruit from a tree. And in one narrative that is how you got democracy in Great Britain, that's how you got democracy in Taiwan, and how you got it in South Korea. The problem I see is that if I look at these modernizing autocrats that we have right now, their modernization projects are not real. They're not going to deliver on the promise, because it's a lot of glitz, it's a lot of things that might capture headlines, but there's very little of the substance of modernity there. You can't, for example, in Egypt say, "I'm going to transform our economy," and then have the military control most of the economy, what you've got to do is liberate the private sector. Well, it takes a particular kind of autocrat to have the competence to liberate the private sector, because that's a sector then you don't get to have control over. And so that isn't happening at least in the Egyptian case, or even in the Saudi case. And so I don't see it leading to modernization that would bring about democracy, and I don't see it leading to modernization that would cause the citizenry to say like, "Oh great. The autocrat is awesome. Let's stick with that." So, I think we're on a path towards a rupture, and I don't know when that rupture will happen.

Thoko Moyo: You were about to start to talk about how do we get there, but I want to go back to an earlier point that you had started to make when you were talking about some of the actions or ways that the autocrats are modernizing as it related to religion. And so, let's talk a little bit about political Islam, what's happening with that?

Tarek Masoud: Listeners who will remember the Arab Spring resulted in democratic transitions in at least a couple of countries, Egypt and Tunisia being the most important. And then they had elections, and in both Egypt and Tunisia, the political parties that did best in elections were these relatively conservative religious parties, so-called Islamic or Islamist parties that identify themselves with conservative religious agenda. In the Egyptian case, the idea was we're going to legislate God's law. In the Tunisian case, they were a little more relaxed than that, but still very religious in their orientation. And in the Egyptian case, at least if you talk to many Egyptians, they'll say that they were so fearful of that Islamist project that ultimately Egyptians rejected it, and you had the military coup that overthrew the Islamist and abrogated the democratic experience. Now, of course, there's actually been some evolution in Tunisia. Tunisia to me represents what happens to Islamists when you actually allow them to participate in the democratic process, they become much less conservative. In Tunisia, they declared that they are no longer an Islamist party, they no longer are about political Islam. They call themselves now Muslim Democrats, hearkening to the phenomenon of Christian democrats that you have in European countries, including Germany and Anglo-America is a Christian democrat. So, that's pretty liberal. And so, one of the great successes, frankly of Tunisian democracy is how it started to drain Tunisian Islamists of their, "radicalism" or "religious extremist tendencies." In the Egyptian case, I think that process was happening too. But then when the military abrogated the democratic transition in the summer of 2013, it pushed all those people into exile. And now they are much more revolutionary than I think they would have been if they had just been allowed to continue participating in the democratic process.

And so the important thing is that if you look at how these regimes... If you were to look at somebody like president Sisi of Egypt or Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Islamism and the fear of Islamism, the fear that these Islamists are going to come back, really does shape a lot of how they behave, and I think it underpins a lot of the "social reforms," that they are undertaking. So, for example, in Saudi Arabia, one of the things that they've initiated in the public school is a Western philosophy curriculum which... I grew up in Saudi Arabia. You could never have imagined being taught Western philosophy in a Saudi school in the 1980s when I was a kid there, but now you can get some Western philosophy. And I think the reason they're introducing that as again, because they want to render the Arab mind inhospitable to the appeals of these Islamists. President Sisi in Egypt constantly talks about this. He says, "We need to change the way we talk about religion, so that people understand our religion properly, and aren't easily tricked by these peddlers of religious slogans." So there's a lot of these social reforms I think are intended to make the terrain less hospitable to political Islam. And frankly, I think if I were to pick some reforms that I think are actually valuable or positive, these are ones that I might identify even as I believe that really the right way that you tame Islamists as you let them run, and you let them participate in government and you let them fail, because the governance problems that this region faces are pretty big. And people then knock them off their pedestal, and you didn't have to have a military coup or a period of deeper oppression in order to get there. The concern is that frankly, these autocrats right now are trying to kill this idea of political Islam, but of course, it becomes really hard to kill the idea unless you really expose it to daylight and that they're not doing.

Thoko Moyo: Okay. So, let's come back to where you were starting to head, which is so how do we get there if democracy is ultimately the future that I think would be most beneficial for the Arab region? How do you get there? And as you answered that, let me add a sort of sub-question to that as well. What would the role of countries like the US play in getting there?

Tarek Masoud: I think that what we're seeing in the region right now is really a battle between two alternative paths, and the path that the region ends up taking is really going to be decided by the citizens themselves. And so for democracy to be seen as not just a viable option by the average Arab citizen, but as the right option, they're going to have to be presented with models of democracy, really working and resulting in the dignity and prosperity that the Arab citizens have long called for. And if you look around the world, as I pointed out in the region, the record of democracy is not great, and frankly, around the world, the record of democracy isn't great. Let us not forget the last four years in the United States, and how close we seem to have come to a real... If not abrogation of our democracy, then deterioration in our democracy here in the United States. So, people are going to need to have positive examples of democracy. And so, if the United States is going to have a role, and I'm hesitant to say the US should have a role, because I look at the record of US involvement in the region, and it hasn't been very positive. A lot of what the United States has touched has turned to ashes. And frankly, the idea of the Biden administration pressuring Arab governments to democratize while making nuclear deals with one of the worst autocratic governments in the region, Iran, it just seems odd and unlikely to be received as credible. I think instead of hectoring autocrats into democratic reforms, what we should really do is invest in the country that's already made the democratic transition, and we should be investing in trying to help that country keep the democracy that it won in 2011, and that's Tunisia.

And so I think anything that the United States can do to make Tunisia the most favored nation among the Middle Eastern country... Look, Tunisia is 10 million people. It's tiny, but we should have a really close relationship with that country. So, for example, in the last session of Congress, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Chris Murphy of Connecticut introduced this resolution to conclude a free trade agreement with Tunisia. And I don't know where that is now, but I would love to see progress on that. I would love for us to have much more traffic and trade with Tunisia. I'd love for Tunisia to be much more embraced by the European Union and the Western countries. And I think that would have positive effect on the Tunisian economy. And it would have positive ripple effect on the reputation of democracy in the Arab world. The average Egyptian would say, "Oh, look what happened to Tunisia when they made it to democracy, they suddenly started exporting a lot to the United States, et cetera, et cetera." And so I think that's really the best that the US can do in that part of the world.

Thoko Moyo: Well, this sounds like a great place to stop. This was fantastic. Thank you so much, Tarek.

Tarek Masoud: Thank you, Thoko.

Thoko Moyo: Thanks for listening. I hope you'll join us for our next episode. And if you'd like more information about other recent episodes or to learn more about our podcast, please visit us at hks.harvard.edu/policycast.