One Year Later: Five Lessons from the Arab Revolts

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

One year after the Arab revolts began, it is worth taking a step back and taking stock. What, exactly, have we learned?

Here are five major takeaways:

  1. The impossible is possible. This is, by now, something of a cliché. But we continue to suffer from a failure of imagination. It remains difficult to visualize just how countries like Saudi Arabia or Algeria might succumb to mass protest. In fact, the fall of any number of autocracies seems so unlikely that there is a whole genre devoted to explaining why a given country is not like Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya. It is worth remembering that this all began in Sidi Bouzid; not one Middle East analyst, to my knowledge, foresaw revolution in Tunisia, long considered the most “stable” of the Arab autocracies.
  2. The impossible, though, is still often unlikely. Because of their institutional set-up, and reservoirs of historic, cultural, and religious legitimacy, Arab monarchies are in a stronger position to manage dissent and engage in what I call “pre-emptive reform.” The three successful revolutions—in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia—and the two ongoing revolutions—in Yemen and Syria—have all taken place in republics. This is not an accident. If real democratization occurs in the monarchies it will be slow, uneven, and—as in Europe—painful and, perhaps, rather bloody.
  3. Islamists are the future. Arab dictators always warned their American counterparts: “It’s either us or the Islamists.” Well, they were right. But fear of Islamists is no longer a legitimate reason to resist or oppose Arab democracy.
  4. Instability can be constructive. In the short-run at least, there is a tradeoff between democratization and “stability.” Interests and ideals do not always converge. The United States and other Western powers should, therefore, build a higher tolerance for instability, particularly as the Arab spring enters into its long, uncertain middle stage. Rather than fearing or avoiding it, the United States should take instability as a given and formulate more creative policies to anticipate, manage, and get around it.
  5. Caution is overrated. Another Arab spring cliché is the notion of getting on the “right side of history.” Getting there is easier said than done. If we really do believe this is a moment of historical import—on par with 1989, 1945, or 1848—then we should act like it. The Obama administration, though, has approached the Arab revolts with an occasionally remarkable lack of sure-footedness. This is not a time for recklessness and off-the-cuff grandstanding. Nor is it a time, however, for excessive caution and slow deliberation. While the Obama administration insists it has chosen the “right side,” Arab activists, protestors, and revolutionaries seem to disagree. Among pro-democracy forces in the region, America is still seen as a friend and supporter of the region’s autocrats. In fact, U.S. favorability ratings, in several countries, are lower under President Obama than they were during the final days of the Bush administration (see this poll for example).

This was a long year—exhilarating and unnerving in equal measure. 2012 is likely to feel even longer.