Arab Spring After 10 Years: Understanding Islam, Democracy and Western Imperialism

Ten years after the Arab Spring swept countries across the Arab world, we analyse how the popular uprisings shaped notions of Islam and democracy. Have Western liberal democracies wielded the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism to interfere in the domestic politics of the region?

The term “Arab Spring” is used to refer to a series of anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions that took place in the early 2010s in several countries of North Africa and West Asia.

Ten years on, the Arab Spring protests have produced a mixed legacy—from a democratic shift in Tunisia to protracted civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen. The civil wars have morphed into proxy wars, with the military intervention of regional and global powers who have brought their own geopolitical interests into the mix. The long-drawn conflict in the region has arguably fuelled widespread internal displacement as well as a massive influx of refugees (especially from Syria and Yemen) into Turkey and across the Mediterranean into mainland Europe, culminating in what has been called a “global refugee crisis.”

It has also been surmised that the aftermath of the Arab Spring made way for the rise of the Islamic State.

In this reading list, we curate excerpts from the EPW archives to bring out the interplay of religion and democracy in the Arab world, and the role played by interventionist forces of the West.

Roots of Democratic Politics in the Arab World?

… ever since Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 in a small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, it caused reverberations in west Asia that did the unthinkable – successfully toppling autocrats like Ben Ali (Tunisia), Hosni Mubarak (Egypt), Ali Abdullah Saleh (Yemen) and Muammar al-Gaddafi (Libya), from what seemed to be the unquestioned seat of power, it also sparked significant regional protests in Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Algeria, with an alacrity that took everyone by surprise. 

wrote S S Tabraz (2014), succinctly summarising the spread of the Arab Spring protests.

Although catalysed by the Tunisian episode, Girijesh Pant (2013) contended that, “to appreciate its dynamics it has to be recognised that its resonance was not spontaneous.” The uprisings in the region were a long way in the making and “the objective conditions of its making and evolving were created by the exclusionary nature of the rentier state pursuing neo-liberal economic policies.”

Arguing that the increasing securitisation of the state, combined with neo-liberal economic policies, accelerated the contraction of political space in the region—leading to marginalisation of civil society and the politicisation of religion, Pant wrote:

The polity in the region has been largely defined by the salience of the high security/insecurity dynamics since the second world war. The geopolitics post the war has been perpetually providing the rationale for a centralised security state. From security pacts to arms accumulation, the Arab countries have been part of the western military industrial regime. The centrality of “security-stability” over nation building and development provided the benchmark for legitimacy.

He argued

In a highly restrictive and exclusionary polity the sustainability of the highly centralised state deceived in its capacity to deliver economically and enjoy the trust of “the street”. The social contract in the cultural construct of the region has been defined by distributive norms and concerns. It is well recognised that oil money and strategic premium did provide the state resources to subsidise the consumption needs of the street. Thereby it could appease the people and retain the trust. Yet in the absence of accountability and transparency there have been episodic expressions of suspicion and discontent. The patronising polity however started experiencing a sense of decay with the slippage of the economy from state control leading to a rise of politico-socio transactions in informal space.

His analysis puts forth the picture of a distancing between the state and society, informed to no small extent by economic factors. Pant explained:

The economic genesis of the uprising could be located in the structural distortions caused by the preponderance of rent in Arab finances and the sharpening of its contradictions by the neo-liberal economic policies. Declining agriculture, stagnating manufacturing, and a growing service sector cumulatively depleted the capacity of the economy to provide gainful employment, thereby reinforcing the exclusive nature of the system. Moreover it promoted displacement and migration, leading to informalisation of the economy.

Citing the example of Tunisia, he underscored:

The state-led economy under economic reforms moved towards a market hegemony and yet the ruling regime used the transition not only to abdicate responsibility to protect the marginal segment of the economy but transferred public assets to a close network of the non-entrepreneur classes.

A similar reference to the economic unrest in Libya was made by Vijay Prashad (2012). He wrote:

The employment situation in Libya was catastrophic before the fall of the Gaddafi regime… Among those under the age of 20 who sought work, the unemployment rate was around 50%.

He further contextualised the problems of the regime as:

...from about the late 1980s, Gaddafi would get equal parts angry and depressed about the mirage of Libyan prosperity and make rash promises that he would rarely keep. He had no plan for the structural problem of joblessness, one of the great grievances of the youth in Libya. All that he could muster was the promise of payments into the hands of individual families. Gaddafi had already turned over the state to the malice of privatisation. The Libyan diaspora, led by Saif al-Islam, had brought the International Monetary Fund (IMF) medicine to bear on the country. It was a result of these IMF-driven policies and the harshness of Gaddafi’s political repression that catapulted the country into open rebellion against Gaddafi. He had no answers for the woes of his people. 

In the context of a post-Gaddafi Libya, he added:

Unemployed youth and exploited labour believed that their blood had won the new Libya, and so they deserved to be paid for their sacrifices.

Role of Islamist Parties

Following the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt, elections were held in 2011, bringing to power governments led by the Ennahda (or Al-Nahda) in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—both considered to be Islamist parties. 

An EPW editorial (December 2011) observed:

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was the largest and best organised political (and social) force opposed to former president Hosni Mubarak and has managed to emerge as a dominant party in the past year. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance Party) has won the largest number of seats in the assembly that will draft a new constitution. In other places – Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Libya – the cry of “Allah-o-Akbar” has resounded from the streets as people have come out in ever larger numbers to challenge the tyranny of their despots.

After Ennahda’s electoral victory, Stuart Schaar (November 2011) recounted:

I spoke to a man in a Tunis bar after the elections and asked him whom he voted for. “Al-Nahda”, he answered. I asked him how someone who imbibes so freely can vote for an Islamist Party. Without missing a beat he told me that he had been jailed by Ben Ali for five years and during that time the only organisation that gave his family money was Al-Nahda. The party while underground established networks of social aid that kept many poor families alive.

There is a historic context to the Islamist political organisation against authoritarian regimes, as explained by the editorial (December 2011):

Earlier, after the decimation (and in some cases, co-option) of the left opposition by the Arab tyrannies, it was the Islamic parties or networks which gave expression to popular discontent. Often these became powerful, as in Algeria in the 1990s, and were brutally crushed by the faux secular-progressive rulers who obtained international support on the basis of their supposed opposition to Islamic fundamentalism. It was a piquant situation in which former anti-imperialists and left-progressives had turned authoritarian and aligned with the United States-led imperialist bloc while maintaining a facade of secularism and progressivism. On the other hand, during the 1940s and 1950s, the imperial powers used Islamic fundamentalism as a tool when they confronted the anti-colonial and left-wing movements in the Arab world. Many of the present-day authoritarian regimes came to power struggling both against colonialism/imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism. As these regimes changed their character from being liberatory movements to authoritarian governments, Islamic parties and networks often provided voice to growing popular opposition, at times under the garb of an equally faux anti-imperialism. This changeover was not sudden, rather it was a somewhat uneven process where both sides embodied some aspects of both progressive and reactionary politics.

Schaar (November 2011) emphasised the specific role played by Islam in mounting an opposition to reformist authoritarian structures:

All the secular dictatorial reformers, such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey or Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali in Tunisia, relegated the Islamic religion to the back-burner, in effect depriving their populations of their very souls. Simply stated, Islam permeates Muslim societies. When you learn Arabic, you are told that you must say inshallah (if god wills) every time that you say that something will happen in the future. It is a grave mistake if you do not do it. The religion permeates daily life and has never died out except for a small minority of the population. You cannot find many atheists in society. God permeates the language and the culture. Islam defines Tunisian identity as it does Moroccan, Egyptian, and so on. When left free a sizeable portion of the population will chose an Islamic party over others, because it represents who they are. 

While it must be noted that both the Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt lost power in the forthcoming years (after a political crisis in the aftermath of the assassination of key secular politicians and a military-led coup, respectively), their political downturn was influenced by multiple internal and external factors and cannot be seen as a referendum on Islamist politics in the region. 

Islam and Democracy 

Tabraz (2014) presented a scathing critique on the theory of “Arab exceptionalism,” inherent in the democratisation and post-democratisation paradigms of West Asian studies. He wrote:

What was and continues to be wrong with west Asia, according to this [Orientalist] discourse, is Islam since, and here is the region’s exceptionalism, it refuses to give in to rationality of modernisation and thus condemns Muslim societies to remain retarded. Weaved around Weberian ideas of an inherent incompatibility between Islam and democracy or that only Protestant societies, being able to develop capitalism, were bound to modernise, this culturist thesis of “Arab exceptionalism”, endowed with an uncanny ability to inform popular understandings of the region, must be rejected. 

The Arab Spring presented a contra-narrative to Western academia’s assumptions regarding democracy within an Islamic context. Irfan Ahmed (2011) debunked the myth of “the so-called incompatibility between Islam and democracy,” saying:

The lack of democracy in the Middle East was attributed primarily to the distinctiveness of Islam as a religion. If such an understanding is valid, how do we explain the democratic upsurge in the Middle East? Logically, it will mean that the people marching in the street and chanting for democracy, even sacrificing their lives for it – were not Muslims. That is, their struggle for democracy has no relations whatsoever to Islam. Indeed, this seems to be the case. Now that the Middle East has risen for democracy, most commentators have changed their explanatory paradigm.
… It is clear how the standard of explanation has changed – the absence of democracy is because of Islam; the presence of democracy is in spite of Islam. This notion persists despite the fact that many protestors chanted, inter alia, “Allah o Akbar” (Keane 2011: 3) and their leaflets and badges carried verses from the Qur’an.

He added:

My simple point is that contra the established myth that Islam is hostile to democracy many also participated in the revolution because they were inspired by Islam’s message of democracy and human dignity. 

An EPW editorial (December 2011) noted:

… a simple contrast between the secular and the fundamentalist (standing for progressive and reactionary, respectively) no longer helps us understand the dynamics of the ongoing upsurge in the Arab world. Outside the useless category of “moderate Islam”, some scholars have tried to explain this new politics as “civic Islam” or even “post-modern Islam”. These terms refer to the changed perception of Islam in the political sphere, where religious ideas and practices provide a template for civic engagement but are not seen as doctrines that need to be implemented against all odds. Islam provides a source of inspiration and this politics is willing to pick and choose its agenda.

In fact, it can be argued that Islam, by its very nature, promoted the democratic mobilisation that culminated in the Arab uprisings. Pant (2013) wrote:

As observed by Esposito (2002), Islam in the public sphere is associated with good and just governance. Consequently faulty governance and the failure in delivery of goods or justice are viewed as anti-Islamic. This is as simple and yet complex. It is simple from the imagery of a man on the street who is interested in his secure well-being. And it is precisely the denial of it that makes him insecure. Esposito (ibid) observes that for the ordinary Muslim the sharia holds a lot of appeal because of “overcrowded cities lacking social support systems, high unemployment, government corruption, and a growing gap between rich and poor”. The point made here is that in west Asia, Islam provides legitimacy to regimes on the unstated assumption of a social contract that ordains the sharing of wealth by the state and an order based on justice. The mistrust emanates when the state fails to deliver thereby driving popular sentiments towards those who promise and demonstrate the deliveries to meet their expectation.

De-democratisation and Western Intervention?

While commentators in the West have attributed the Arab Spring uprisings to factors such as youth unrest and availability of Facebook, Ahmed (2011) argued that the protests were “a continuation of yearnings for democracy the history of which is much older than what most commentators would have us believe.” Instead, he ascribed the lack of democratic movements in the region to Western intervention:

People in the Middle East have been desiring democracy for long; it was the western power which continually subverted and derailed it. 

He cited the example of Iran to make his point:

… the 1953 coup against the elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddeq. Mosaddeq enjoyed the approval of Iran’s parliament for his nationalisation programme. As we know, the US-UK alliance organised a coup against Mosaddeq and toppled him … It is clear how Iran’s democracy was sacrificed to serve the national interests of the US-UK alliance.

Iran is the most prominent but not the only instance of such de-democratisation. Ahmed continued:

Another example is Bahrain’s de-democratisation from 1974 to 2002. Bahrain was a British protectorate. In 1971, Bahrain became independent. In 1973 the first elections were held and an elected parliament formed. That parliament challenged the unbridled authority of Al-Khalifa, the family which has ruled Bahrain since 1783. A major challenge to the Al-Khalifa family came in the form of parliament’s demand for the eviction of the US navy base from Bahrain. It is important to mention here that the American military presence in Bahrain dates to 1949. After the withdrawal of British forces, American presence sharply increased subsequently. Legally, Bahrain’s parliament was right in asking for the eviction of the US navy. But the ruling Al-Khalifa dissolved parliament in 1975. Since then there has been no democratic institution until 2002. Various vibrant institutions of civil society such as trade unions were all crushed. So, what mattered to the US was not the voice of the Bahraini people, but America’s national interest, which was to keep the American navy base in Bahrain.

Geopolitics of Western Intervention to ‘Protect’ Democracy

Unlike in the examples of Iran and Bahrain, in the aftermath of the initial Arab Spring protests, the liberal democracies of the West (“self-appointed protectors of democracy”) have sought to intervene in support of protestors. But such interventions are also fraught with national interest motives—most evident in the case of Libya and Syria. 

In the context of Libya, an EPW editorial (August 2011) wrote:

If we were to blindly go by the dominant version dispensed by the global corporate media then, as we go to press, the Libyan “revolution”/“people’s power” is on the verge of “liberating” the country from its “evil tyrant”, Muammar al-Gaddafi, and establishing “democracy”. Tragically though, the reality is one of a military operation planned and executed jointly by Washington, London and Paris, and backed by Rome, after taking political advantage of the Gaddafi regime’s mindless, authoritarian crackdown on the demonstrations in Libya in February this year. Libya has the largest reserves of petroleum and natural gas on the African continent, and these imperialist powers are now on the verge of installing a lackey in Tripoli and dividing amongst themselves control over the country’s vast reserves of crude oil and natural gas, and its exploration, production and refining operations. 

While the Libyan people alone have the right to choose who controls the country and how, the editorial pressed on the need to re-examine the role of external players in the region:

Who is directing the “transition to democracy” in Egypt and Tunisia? Why was such a transition not permitted (by Washington) in Bahrain? Is the transition in Egypt leading in the direction of anti-imperialism, a welfare state, a rejection of neo-liberalism, a sidelining of the reactionary Gulf states and the Saudi regime, a forcing of Israel to recognise a Palestinian state, a strengthening of pan-Arab solidarity?

The editorial concluded:

If the events in Libya are anything to go by, then surely, imperialism is the biggest enemy of democracy.

External intervention, by both Western and regional powers, has fuelled civil wars in Libya and Syria, with democracy nowhere in sight. Rather, the presence of these external players and their support for local proxy groups has converted these states into a geopolitical playground where domestic interests have been sidelined. Drawing focus on Syria, Stanly Johny (2013) wrote:

Among the multiple elements which constitute the Syrian crisis, foreign intervention appears to be the dominant one given the progression of the anti-regime protests into a bloody civil war. Big powers have lined up on both sides. The European Union (EU), the United States (US), Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have publicly offered support, both military and non-military to the rebels, while Russia, China, Iran and Iraq have thrown their weight behind the Assad regime. The geopolitical importance of Syria, especially in a region where rivalries run deep, has transformed the Syrian crisis into a regional crisis.

While the euphemism of “humanitarian intervention” is often invoked by foreign powers to justify their military presence in Syria, Johny outlined the underlying geopolitical motives:

Why do so many influential countries want President Assad gone? The answer lies in geopolitics. Assad’s Syria is the only trusted ally of Iran, which has been on the hit list of the US for a long time. Also, Syria is the main conduit through which Iranian weapons and money are passed on to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
… Hezbollah remains a strategic asset for Iran and that can turn any future Israeli or American attempt to bomb the Islamic Republic into a regional war. For Assad, Hezbollah is both a bet against Israel and a tool to manage the domestic politics of Lebanon where Syria has had a strong presence for a long time. For Hezbollah, whose primary interest is safeguarding its power, the links with Iran and Syria are vital because it knows that once this alliance is broken its very existence would be in danger.

According to Johny, the strategic relationship of Syria–Iran–Hezbollah has positioned itself against the dominant interests of other wealthy actors in West Asia, especially the Sunni Saudi Arabia and their powerful Western backers. And these powers have long been looking for opportunities to break the tri-party axis. 

When anti-regime protests broke out in Syria two years ago, these countries saw glimpses of an opportunity again. 

Regime change in Syria would further the national interests of multiple regional players. Johny explained:

Assad’s fall is in the national interests of Saudi Arabia as well, which has been involved in a long-standing conflict with Shiite Iran for regional domination. For the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, an emerging player in the West Asian geopolitics, the Syrian crisis offers another opportunity to test its smart power based on petro-dollars. For Turkey, ruled by Islamist Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), the Arab Spring opened up new spheres of maneuvering in West Asia. A contestant for regional domination, Turkey hopes the rise of Sunni Islamists in Syria, after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, would embolden its own narrative in the region. Hence the removal of Assad would further the interests of these countries.

The strategic motives behind intervention by the United States (for one) are not mere conjecture or academic theorising. They have been evidenced by the WikiLeaks documents, as highlighted by Schaar (February 2011):

WikiLeaks revelations reassert what historians already know, that the US intervenes at will to enhance its national interests. It is time that the US government catch up with the Information Age revolution and realise that a new world exists out there, which neither they or any other power can control.

Democracy or Liberalism?

The Arab Spring protests serve as a standpoint to re-examine the assumed interrelationship of democracy and liberalism. Tabraz (2014) pointed out:

… these uprisings call into question the orthodoxy of the Anglo-American political science – an almost un-problematised belief in the potential of neo-liberal economic liberalisation to usher in democratic change. In west Asia, however, economic liberalisation of the last two decades pauperised the masses and went on to erode whatever was left of the residual legitimacy of these regimes (Teti and Gervasio 2011). Where liberalisation takes place without democratisation, as it did across the region, the resultant anomaly that it marginalises those very people it avowedly profess to empower should not come as a surprise.

Ahmed (2011) went a step further by critiquing the role of intellectuals in the West in promoting the narrative of liberalism in the Arab world. He wrote:

It is for this pursuit of national interest by the West that, intellectuals such as Fareed Zakaria recently began to advocate constitutional liberalism at the cost of political democracy. In 1997, he wrote an article in Foreign Affairs. In it, his main contention was that electoral democracy is not coterminous with democracy per se for constitutionalism – individual liberty, rights, checks against the abuse of power (by the state, church or society), and so on – are equally, rather more, important for democracy. In itself, this is a valid point and I tend to agree with him. However, Zakaria drew a different conclusion from it – a conclusion which at once legitimised the authoritarian status quo and stigmatised the oppositional forces in the Middle East.

He added:

… liberals like Zakaria have no qualms in justifying the brutal, anti-democratic regimes (continually violating the constitutional provisions) such as Mubarak’s or Salih’s in Yemen on the lame pretext that “Islamists” and ”fundamentalists” might take over the reign of power.

Ahmed concluded that the liberal position that “constitutionalism, not democracy, should be promoted in the Arab world is, in fact, a new mechanism to continue the old western policy of de-democratising the Middle East.”

Yet, Pant (2013) warned against painting the Arab uprisings as a contest between Islamist democracy and Western liberalism either. Instead, he focused on the local nature of the protests and the preponderance of the “Arab street,” which he characterised as “the physical place where collective dissent is expressed.” He explained:

The spatial scale of the “Arab street” is beyond the national territoriality, urban-rural divide, the class conflicts and even binary of secularism and fundamentalism and above all beyond the rhetoric of anti-imperialism or anti-Americanism. In all its connotations, it is the totality of the local that has reflected in its make-up. 

Read more

Whither the Tunisian Citizen’s Revolt? | Stuart Schaar, 2013

A Year Later: Cairo, October 2012 | G Arunima, 2012

Syria Suffers | EPW Editorial, 2013

Blanket No to Intervention: To What End? | Stuart Schaar, 2013

A Hothouse Plant | EPW Editorial, 2017

What Next for Globalisation? | Dhiraj Nayyar, 2017

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