Arab Spring paved way for authoritarian backlash, says Rice report

A new report from Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy finds that while the Arab Spring protests that began in late 2010 raised expectations for bridging the democratic gap throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the initial enthusiasm and limited subsequent progress gradually paved the way for an authoritarian backlash.

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Meager openings in democratization were confronted with calculating and capable regimes that adapted their rules to the changing political context, said A.Kadir Yildirim, fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute, who edited the report, “Pluralism and Inclusion in the Post-Arab Spring World: Findings From a Two-Year Study.”

The report is a compilation of issue briefs by authors Imad Salamey of Lebanese American University in Beirut; Mustafa Gurbuz of Arab Center Washington DC; Mirjam Künkler of the University of Göttingen, Germany; Nathan Brown of George Washington University; Mazen Hassan of Cairo University; Valentine Moghadam of Northeastern University; Karen Young of the American Enterprise Institute; M. Evren Tok of the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar; Alanoud Al Sharekh of the University of London; and Peter Salisbury of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C.

“Our study shows that pockets of improvement in pluralism are, by and large, dwarfed by the continuity — if not the regression — of discrimination, suppression and disenfranchisement,” Yildirim wrote. “For example, mechanisms devised by regimes in Kuwait and Jordan, such as new electoral laws and restrictions on freedom of expression, serve this purpose. Economically, existing regimes undermine ongoing reform efforts because of their vested interests in the continuation of exclusive political economic structures. Likewise, while religious parties in both Morocco and Tunisia are included in their respective political systems and took part in governance for the first time in the post-2010 period, both parties faced notable obstacles in their attempts at governance.”

The report’s findings also suggest that various dimensions of pluralism are intimately related to each other, and efforts to tackle one component of pluralism are more likely to find success if such efforts are combined with other components, Yildirim said.

“For example, the interconnected nature of gender and economic inclusion in Tunisia, ethnic and political inclusion in Syria and Iraq, and gender and religious inclusion in Syria and Morocco carry implications for the correct policy approaches to address these issues,” he wrote. “Such interconnectedness similarly underscores the difficult task of overcoming resistance against inclusive policies from multiple sources.”

The improvement of economic conditions in the region remains imperative, Yildirim said.

“An overwhelming majority of Arab public opinion is not convinced that the economies of regional countries made much progress in creating employment, raising living standards or reducing corruption,” he wrote. “Moreover, these societies are imbued with a deep sense of injustice as the elite are thought to have benefited disproportionately from the Arab Spring process according to a recent survey conducted as part of this study and in a separate study undertaken by the Arab Transformations Project.”

Overall, the sense of frustration with how the Arab Spring protests have not led to meaningful reforms since 2010 leaves regimes with little to satisfy the Arab public, Yildirim said.

“The lack of economic improvement, an aggravated sense of inequality, increased ethno-religious tensions and a more restrictive political environment in most countries indicate that the basic conditions that gave rise to the Arab Spring protests in 2010 still hold, arguably more prominently today,” he wrote. “Although there are no indications that a new wave of protests is imminent, there is enough to suggest that the underlying conditions of frustration with the political economic trajectories in these countries may return at some point in the future, and with a more violent streak.”

The report is part of a broader, two-year Baker Institute research project, “Building Pluralistic and Inclusive States Post-Arab Spring,” supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Yildirim and Baker Institute colleague Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East, were principal investigators of the project that concluded in 2018.

Yildirim’s main research interests include politics and religion, political Islam, the politics of the Middle East and Turkish politics.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.