"THE ARAB SPRING may be fixed in the popular imagination as a wave of mass protests that rocked the entire Middle East,” writes Tarek Masoud, associate professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). But the phenomenon was largely limited to six countries, and of those only Tunisia has “achieved any semblance of the democracy for which people took to the streets in the first place.”

“Outside of that tiny North African republic, Arab democracy seems further away today than it has at any point in the last 25 years,” Masoud writes in “Has the Door Closed on Arab Democracy?” which appears in the Journal of Democracy.

Twenty-five years ago, Masoud notes, as the world saw democratic revolutions sweeping through Eastern Europe and Latin America, political scientists looked at the Arab world as the next domino to fall. In Egypt, in Jordan, and in Algeria elections were held. But reacting to the growing power of the opposition, including the strong showing of Islamist parties, those “hopeful doors soon closed – in some places quietly, in others with a slam, but in all of them definitively,” Masoud writes.

Now, another “season of optimism … has proved stunningly unwarranted,” Masoud writes. In Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Yemen, the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” ranges from bloody civil war to a return of the old regime.

Democracy in the Arab world then, Masoud argues, is in decline and prospects for its arrival look dim. To those who would argue that transition to democracy always takes time, Masoud points to the rapid democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. The contrast between the aftermaths of the Velvet Revolution and the Arab Spring point to the importance of structural differences between the economies and societies of Eastern Europe and those of the countries of the Arab world.

Masoud notes that the failures of Arab countries to convert the openings of the Arab Spring into genuine democratic moments will no doubt give ballast to those who argue that the region’s democratic prospects are hampered by culture or religion. Nationally representative surveys of Arabs show them to hold a complicated mix of admiration for democratic governance and acceptance of the military’s role in civilian life. “The upshot is that the debate about Islam, Arab culture, and democracy is one that the Arab Spring has only intensified,” Masoud writes. “And it is one in which the Tunisian example will take on increasing importance.” If that country manages to hold onto its fledgling democracy, Masoud argues, it will find itself invoked as a living rejoinder to essentialist arguments about Muslims’ and Arabs’ propensity for authoritarianism.

One thing the past few years have made clear is that popular uprisings are unlikely to sweep away old dictators and usher in democracy. The autocrats “crack down (as in Syria or Bahrain) or bide their time (as in Egypt), but they never disappear.”

Drawing on research on democratization in Latin America, Masoud notes that “if democracy is to alight in that part of the world, it will likely be through a process that is more evolutionary than revolutionary, one in which authoritarian elites dictate the pace of reform.”

Thus, according to Masoud, “the Arab world’s most promising prospects for reform are likely to be those regimes that were strong enough to weather the Arab Spring, but not so strong that they saw no reason to change in response to it.” But there seems to be no swell building, Masoud concludes. “The modest nature of what counts as democratic promise in the Arab world today only underscores how much of a disappointment the Arab Spring has proven to be.”

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