As the Arab Spring continues its increasingly dark turn, hope for a more democratic Middle East often seems hard to come by. The US government, for one, appears to be moving on. With cautious optimism about Tunisia overwhelmed by traumatic events in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq, the United States is cutting its funding for regional democracy promotion efforts and shifting toward a narrower, security-oriented approach.
This pessimism might be understandable, but history suggests it is too early to give up on a more democratic future for the region. Comparing the Arab Spring to the transitions that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moritz Mihatsch observes that:
If you ask any observers of the Arab uprisings how they remember the end of the Cold War, you will most likely get the impression that it was a pretty quick affair…This account is however about as far from the truth as you could imagine. The most successful Eastern European countries went through at least a decade of economic hardship. Yugoslavia was thrown into a 10-year-long series of wars…And last but not least, countries such as the Ukraine are still struggling with the post-Cold War shake-up, a quarter of a century after the 1989 revolutions.
The Economist makes a similar point:
The transition from communism, for instance, looks easy in retrospect. Yet three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe was overrun by criminal mafias; extremist politicians were prominent in Poland, Slovakia and the Baltics; the Balkans were about to degenerate into war and there was fighting in Georgia. Even now, most people in the old Soviet bloc live under repressive regimes—yet few want to go back.”
Sustainable political change might be a long time coming, and in some countries it might not come at all. But that does not diminish its importance. Many of the worst problems currently afflicting the region have their roots in decades of stifling, authoritarian rule. Underdeveloped economies, repressive security forces, overburdened state institutions, stunted political life, societal tensions—all of these issues were exacerbated by the Middle East’s long-ruling dictators.
And it is not just a historical legacy. Authoritarian actors have fought back stubbornly—and in some cases viciously—against the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Al-Assad’s violence spurred the radicalization of the Syrian opposition. Resistance from Egypt’s old guard contributed to the fall of the country’s first democratically elected government. The Gulf monarchies have aggressively backed the region’s conservative powers in an effort to roll back democratic change.
Resurgent authoritarians may well succeed in reestablishing power, but their history shows that they are far more likely to aggravate—rather than solve—the underlying drivers of instability in the region. In the best case scenario, democratic change will be a long and messy process. But at least it offers some chance of a brighter, more stable, and more prosperous future for the Middle East.