The Arab Spring: Protest, Power, Prospect

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.

In this second Arab spring, it is apparent that the euphoria of the opening phase, while well deserved, was somewhat premature. With Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak falling after just weeks of protests, there was a sense that “it could happen anywhere – and just as quickly.” But Arab autocrats have redoubled their efforts, growing both more stubborn and more emboldened in their efforts to preserve power.

The lesson many of them seemed to learn from Egypt and Tunisia was almost the exact opposite of what democracy advocates were hoping for. Ben Ali and Mubarak used force (at least 380 people were killed in Egypt) and lost. Perhaps, then, leaders would learn to pre-empt opposition demands by granting early concessions. Instead, in countries like Bahrain, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, they have granted fewer concessions while using even more force. Shooting into crowds has become frighteningly common. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is enthusiastically adopting the dubious role of leader of the Arab “counter-revolution”.

These revolutions, then, will take longer than was expected. Still, it’s worth remembering the main lesson of this opening period: autocracies don’t last forever. They are stable – until they’re not. And then it’s too late. Even if regimes manage to hold on to power, their stability is no longer guaranteed. With a new “protest ethic” taking hold in the region, the threat of the next revolt is now always present. The model is devastatingly simple: bring enough people into the streets and overwhelm the regime with sheer numbers. “No state”, observed sociologist Charles Kurzman, “can repress all of the people all of the time.”

In contrast to the courage of Arab protesters is the relative timidity and incoherence of the international community’s response to the changes underway. The west’s “stability paradigm” – the notion that interests could be exchanged for ideals – has collapsed under the weight of its inherent contradictions. While the intervention in Libya helped western nations gain some Arab goodwill, many in the Arab world are waiting to see if they will consistently apply the “responsibility to protect” with allied countries, such as Bahrain and Yemen, where civilians are clearly in need of protection.

No one is asking for another military intervention, but what about putting real political pressure on regimes to respect opposition demands? With the region’s various political stalemates, the role of external actors is – for better or worse – likely only to grow.