Tag Archives: Arab Spring

The Arab Spring in Review

The Arab Spring, a wave of democratic movements that swept across North Africa and the Middle East from 2010 through 2012, was celebrated as a moment of significant change in the region. Longstanding dictators like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Mummar Gaddafi in Libya, and Ali Abdullah Salen in Yemen were swept from power, and widespread  popular protests in countries like Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco, and Oman led to democratic reforms. But the celebrations were short-lived as the power vacuum created in the wake of the protests created an opening for groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to operate freely. It also created an opening for radical Islamic parties to roll-back liberal freedoms demanded by protestors in the first place.

What do you think? Should the Arab Spring be judged as a success or a failure in hindsight? Should the United States have supported forces to remove dictators like Mubarak and Gaddafi? Why? How would you have advised President Obama to respond to the Arab Spring? Why?

Happy World Press Freedom Day!

Friday, May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. In observation, Reporters Without Borders produced this map exploring the scope of press freedom around the world.


Most of the findings of the accompanying report  are not particularly surprising… Places experiencing civil unrest and or home to oppressive regimes are pretty bad places to be a journalist. Witness the poor rankings of countries like North Korea, Syria, Somalia, Iran, and Eritrea. The report also notes that 2012 was the deadliest year for journalists worldwide, with some 103 journalists killed, at least 70 of which were killed directly because of their work.

What is interesting, though, the report’s discussion of the impact of the Arab Spring. The report observes that,

After the “Arab springs” and other protest movements that prompted many rises and falls in last year’s index, the 2013 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index marks a return to a more usual configuration. The ranking of most countries is no longer attributable to dramatic political developments. This year’s index is a better reflection of the attitudes and intentions of governments towards media freedom in the medium or long term.”

The report notes that nearly three years after the Arab Spring began, the Middle East region still remains in last place in terms of press freedom. Only one country (Kuwait) places above 100th place globally, with most falling much further in the rankings.

  • Syria, 176th Place
  • Iran, 174th
  • Yemen, 171st
  • Bahrain, 165th
  • Saudi Arabia, 163rd Egypt, 158th
  • Iraq, 150th
  • Oman, 141st
  • Tunisia, 138th
  • Morocco, 136th
  • Jordan, 134th
  • Libya, 131st
  • Algeria, 125th
  • United Arab Emirates, 114th
  • Lebanon, 101st
  • Kuwait, 77th

What do you think? Are you surprised by the lack of press freedoms in the Middle East despite the Arab Spring? Would you have expected the Arab Spring to generate a higher level of concern over freedom of the press? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Libya: The Drivers of Democratization

Pro-US Protester in Libya

Pro-US Protester in Libya

In continuing developments in Libya, protestors on Friday stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia and the Sahaty Brigade. Both groups were believed to be involved in the recent attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi.

Anti-American protests continue to reverberate across the Middle East in response to a trailer for the controversial film The Innocence of Muslims. The trailer—which makes B-movies look like Academy Award material by comparison—was apparently shot to promote a film which (given the quality of the acting, thankfully) was never made. Nevertheless, many protestors believe the film was produced and that it mocks the Prophet Mohammed.

While protests against the film continue in many parts of the Islamic World, in Libya, the protests now appear to have a different message.

Pro-US Protester in Libya

Pro-US Protester in Libya

Protestors there have taken to the streets there to demand justice for the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stephens last week. Many have carried signs like those here.

There appears to be reason to believe that Libya has, as the BBC put it, “bucked the Islamist trend.” While democratization has been a boon to the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Egypt, in Libya there appears to be much less support for fundamentalist parties.

There is a rich tradition in political science of exploring why some countries move towards liberal democracy while others do not. Common theories center on one or more of the following variables: wealth (gdp per capita), education (especially female education), a free market economy, social equality, a civic culture, cultural values, foreign intervention, and even age distribution. Unfortunately it is not clear yet why (or even if) Libya is moving towards liberal democracy while its neighbors are not. At a minimum, though, the contrasting experiences of Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt will likely provide interesting case studies for comparativists moving forward.

What do you think: What drives democratization? Will Libya sustain its move towards democracy? Or will the trend reverse?

The Paradox of Democracy in US Foreign Policy

There’s a famous saying that we should “be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”

A car burns outside the US Embassy in Libya on Tuesday.

A car burns outside the US Embassy in Libya on Tuesday.

Last week was a difficult one for the US foreign policy establishment. On Tuesday, the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was stormed by militants, who killed the US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other American personnel. Stevens had worked closely with the rebel movement that overthrew Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in last year. Fluent in French and Arabic, he was, in many ways, the ideal US representative to the troubled region.

It is now believed that the attack was launched by Islamic militants who used ongoing protests against the United States in Benghazi as cover to launch their operation. But the protests which were initially exploited to cover the operation have since spread. By Friday, US, German, and British embassies in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen were the scenes of often violent protest by demonstrators who objected to an obscure online video produced by an American mocked the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, child molester, and ruthless killer.

The growing protests have been strongest in countries which experienced the Arab Spring, where longstanding dictatorships were overthrown and replaced with fledgling democracies. The leaders of those countries must play a dangerous balancing game. While seeking to retain good relations with the United States, they must also keep an eye on reelection campaigns. When Anti-Americanism runs high, one of the two competing goals has to give.

This tension marks an interesting turn from the historical foreign policy of the United States. During the Cold War, the United States was often criticized for supporting dictators who, while not democratic, were certainly anti-communist. While the promotion of democracy often remained an ideal objective of US foreign policy during the Cold War, in many cases, such as that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the United States was willing to overlook democracy for a firm commitment to anti-communism. Now, the emphasis on democratization has raised new questions arising from the competing demands faced by the fledgling democracies in the Middle East. How do we reconcile those demands?

What do you think? How should US foreign policy engage with democratically-elected governments expressing anti-American sentiment? What is the most effective way to engage with governments like those of Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan, where leaders balance a desire with closer ties with the United States against popular expressions of anti-Americanism? And more fundamentally, what role should the promotion of and support for democratization play in US foreign policy? Let us know what you think.

Institutions and The Egyptian “Counterrevolution”

Egyptian protesters voicing their displeasure at court rulings that have stalled the country’s democratic transition.

This week’s events in Egypt indicate that a counterrevolution is under way by the ruling military authorities (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF).  A court appointed by former president Hosni Mubarak ruled that Egypt’s democratically elected parliament must be disbanded, effectively giving legislative power to the SCAF.  The court also ruled that the Mubarak regime’s final prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, could remain a candidate in the presidential election currently taking place.  The SCAF is also preparing a new constitutional “annex” that will define the powers of the incoming president and will set further guidelines on the composition of the assembly that will draft a new constitution.  For analysis of the implications of these events for Egypt’s transition to democracy, see here and here.

From a political science standpoint, these events provide a stark reminder of the importance of institutions in determining political outcomes.  Institutions are usually defined as including both the formal structures/processes and the informal rules and procedures that govern behavior.  In the case of Egypt, the SCAF knows that in order to preserve its power it must control the process of institution-building and not allow the creation of institutions that will severely limit or eliminate its influence (hence its insistence on micro-managing the selection of the assembly that will draft the new constitution).   The SCAF could continue to exercise power informally despite what the new constitution says–as has happened in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for example–but relying on informal institutions in defiance of the formal ones will be politically difficult in a country gripped by revolutionary fervor and the notion that power must devolve to the people.

Institutions are worth fighting over because they play a major role in determining who wins specific political battles.  They determine the rules of the game, the cast of legitimate players, and the “victory conditions.”  For example, executives in presidential systems (like France and the U.S.) are less constrained in certain ways by their legislatures than are prime ministers in parliamentary systems.  And as comparative politics scholars have noted, certain voting rules (proportional representation systems) allow small parties a chance to be represented, while other rules (“first-past-the-post”) tend to produce two large, powerful parties while stifling minority parties.

What do you think?  Will SCAF succeed in its attempted counterrevolution by creating favorable institutions?  Or are these measures the last grasping efforts of a dying regime that will inevitably fall to an empowered public that will create new institutions of its own?  (Take the poll below to voice your opinion on the future of democracy in Egypt).

Joseph Kony, People Power, and the Inverted Pyramid

Indicted war criminal Joseph Kony is the subject of the viral video "Kony 2012," part of an effort to bring him to justice.

The Kony 2012 video has created enormous buzz on the internet over the past week–first as the video went viral, then as a heated debate ensued about the accuracy, effectiveness, and transparency of the Kony 2012 campaign and its creator, the NGO Invisible Children. Even in Uganda, among the victims of Kony’s LRA, the video has provoked harsh criticism.

Like the Arab Spring (which was driven in part by social media technology like Facebook and Twitter), the Kony 2012 phenomenon relies on this new technology to bypass traditional modes of communication, mobilize large numbers of people, and (the organizers hope) put pressure on very powerful people in top government positions to change their policies.  In fact, the Kony 2012 video claims that in this “new world” of social media and individual empowerment the traditional power pyramid (with a small group of wealthy, powerful elites on top) is becoming inverted.  That is, the masses are finally becoming empowered and claiming their place at the top of the power structure, with the growing ability to bend the elites to their will.  The Kony 2012 creators suggest in the film that these techniques led to President Obama’s decision last October to send 100 U.S. troops to Uganda in pursuit of Kony and his henchmen. 

This empowerment of the individual and the ability to bypass or influence traditional power structures such as state governments, big media outlets, and big corporations is viewed by many political scientists as an important outgrowth of globalization.  But these elite structures are not going quietly, and in places like Syria, Iran, and Egypt, the backlash has been fierce.

What do you think?  Are the creators of the Kony 2012 campaign correct that the power pyramid is becoming inverted, or does a small group of elites really still hold the reins?  If you have watched the Kony 2012 video, do you think the filmmakers’ proposed strategy to capture Kony is going to work, or is it naive?  If the critics are correct that the film stretches the truth and seriously oversimplifies the issues, does this make the effort any less worthwhile?  Is shading the truth justified in the pursuit of a righteous cause?

Is the Best Hope for Democracy Its Short-Term Suppression?

Is America's willingness to "sell out" longtime allies such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to push for immediate democracy in the Middle East a foolish strategy?

An article in the latest issue of the realist journal The National Interest argues that a significant shift is under way in America’s approach to the Middle East.  Nikolas Gvosdev and Ray Takeyh lament America’s alleged abandonment of realism and its embrace of idealism, a development they call the “Triumph of the New Wilsonism” (a reference to idealist U.S. President Woodrow Wilson).

As discussed previously in this blog, realism and idealism are perhaps the two dominant approaches to understanding world politics.  Realism emphasizes the pursuit of national interests (e.g., security and economic prosperity for one’s country) and is willing to subordinate moral principles to those interests.  Idealism, in contrast, allows foreign policy to be guided, at least in part, by moral considerations and believes that concerns such as democracy promotion and human rights should motivate states’ actions.

One key issue that separates realists from idealists today is democracy promotion in the Middle East.  Idealists believe we must support democracy enthusiastically (even if we don’t like the results, like the 2006 election of Hamas in the Palestinian elections) and stand with the masses against authoritarian regimes.  Realists contend that such an approach is foolhardy and undermines the national interests of America and other Western countries.  Gvosdev and Takeyh articulate the realist argument as follows:

“But when [Saudi Arabia’s] King Fahd visited Washington in 1985, he received no lectures about the urgent necessity to democratize his realm. Instead, Reagan took the view that the best way to promote democracy in the long run was to prevent countries from going communist or Islamist in the short run…America’s experience in East Asia and Latin America during the Reagan years buttressed this approach. Over time, in places such as Chile, South Korea and Taiwan, authoritarian presidents created the frameworks for gradual transitions to democracy without undermining their security relationships with the United States. Instead of siding with protestors calling for immediate democratic reform, Washington supported existing regimes in cracking down on the opposition, provided a long-term, gradualist program for change was being implemented.”

Realists today fear that the “Arab Spring”–which has swept away or threatened to topple regimes in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere–could be a disastrous development if Islamists take power and pursue anti-Western policies.

What do you think?  Are Gvosdev and Takeyh correct that supporting democracy in the short term is likely to destroy it in the long run?  Would it be better for America and other democratic countries to support the regimes that are suppressing radical democratic change, and simply press them for gradual reform?