The Failure of the Arab Spring — What Happened?

The Failure of the Arab Spring — What Happened?

The Arab Spring revolutionaries may have swept away most of the perennial dictators in their region, but can hardly be considered a general success. Coincidentally, the only Arab Spring revolution that could be considered a democratic success is the flashpoint of the Arab Spring--Tunisia. The Arab Spring swept through Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. Revolutions were quickly suppressed in Syria, and led to an ongoing civil war. The revolutions in Yemen and Libya soon collapsed into failed states as there was no infrastructure for a functional government, nor any nationally recognized legitimacy of the ‘interim’ replacements. The predominant explanation for most Arab Spring states’ failure to evolve into democracies is lack of military involvement, reasons for which can be broken down into wealth and loyalty.

Military loyalty, which generally comes from hereditary succession of rulers, is paramount. That is to say: if a dictator is able to install his son as the rightful successor, then the military will likely have not sworn fidelity to the state or individual leader, but to the dictator’s entire family line. If the army regulars and officer corps have sworn fealty to the family line, then they will stay loyal to the regime when the time comes to crush a rebellion like the Arab Spring. The fidelity of the “men with guns,” enables an autocrat “to act upon the population rather than in dialogue with it.” Regardless of the strength and fervor of each Arab Spring revolution, it is apparent that a large, well-funded military, with a highly paid officer corps can crush and suppress it.

After the Arab Spring, Egypt seemed as though it would end its line of military dictatorships--even if that meant an Islamic regime--but political change never truly came to fruition. The Egyptian Arab Spring was unable to maintain its post-revolution democracy because it did not have the support of the military. Egypt is a relatively wealthy country with a large and well-funded military, which had been entrenched into the political and economic infrastructure of Egypt for half of a century. The last four Egyptian leaders had been military officers, and the country itself had essentially been under military control since Gamal Abdel Nasser became president in 1956 after a Muslim Brotherhood assassination attempt. Hence, Egypt’s powerful military had become accustomed to being in power, so was not willing to let a Muslim Brotherhood member take control of the country, and power away from the military. The military was only loyal to their own, not to the people or the state’s political well-being. This paradigm of loyalty was clearly demonstrated when Abdel Fatah el-Sisi led a military coup, and succeeded in seizing power from the elected Mohamed Morsi.

The relative wealth of a nation allows the perennial despotic regime to essentially buy-off support through payoffs of the press and key revolutionary leaders--or the militant means to crush them in case they cannot be bought. In conjunction, a wealthy regime can placate some public aggression by publicizing welfare or public works programs. Since 1973, oil wealth in particular has often brought in such high rents that the regimes hardly have a need to tax their populace, again contributing to a complacent populace. An oil-driven rentier state also stagnates industrialization and modernization of the work force, and prevents diversification of industry. Thus, it allows a despotic regime to merely focus one appeasing and powerful industry rather than many. This military entrenchment becomes even more prevalent when the oil industry is state-run, like in Bahrain.

The Bahraini dictator Haman bin Isa Al Khalifa is an opposite example of how resource wealth can purchase subservience. Bahrain’s military, although relatively small, stayed loyal to him during the Arab Spring revolution because Bahrain’s relatively high petrochemical rents allowed him to buy them out. Between 2006 and 2009 alone, Bahrain spend upwards of 14 billion dollars on arms imports. The government was able to placate most of the aggression after the post-revolutionary military coup in 2014 with payoffs, and “carrots”, like public works, and welfare.

However, Al Khalifa did not solely rely on oil wealth. His hereditary regime was inherited from his father in 1999, therefore the aforementioned military fealty was not sworn to the state, but to his family line. The effect of hereditary regime on military loyalty was
demonstrated clearly by the fact that the Bahraini military stayed loyal to Al Khalifa, and quickly suppressed their Arab Spring revolution.

While wealth and military loyalty are the reasons the Arab Springs’ dictators were able to stay in power, the lack of both state characteristics can be just as abysmal for a democracy. Yemen is an apt example of a state in which wealth and military loyalty were absent, and yet democracy was not established in spite of a domestically driven regime change.

Yemen is both poor, and a non-hereditary regime; it lacks the large oil reserves of its near-Eastern neighbors, and is too divided tribally to even have a united military--let alone one loyal to the former despot. Nevertheless, a stable democracy was unable to take root after the revolution ousted Ali Abdullah Saleh, so there must be more caveats than just wealth and loyalty to blame for the failure of democratic establishment. After the ousting of a ruler, a pre-existing infrastructure or foundation of governmental framework is needed for democracy to take roots.

After the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was ousted, his vice president, Abdruhbbuh Mansur Hadi, took over as interim president. The infrastructure for free-and-fair national elections was essentially non-existent.

Yemen soon descended into failed-statehood and civil war, where it still remains in relative chaos and impending state-wide desiccation. Yemen had been an unstable and precarious state since its unification in 1990. This instability only worsened with the rise of a northern Houthi insurgency in 2004. The U.N.-recognized Hadi government of Yemen has been unable to organize into a democracy, or even nationally recognized government.

The Arab Spring was the infrastructural straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Thus, clearly, democracy failed to take root not because of a resource wealth or military loyalty, but because of an absence of foundational infrastructure.

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