The Arab Spring Is Over, But the Struggle for Democracy Isn’t

Photographer: Kabil Bousena/AFP/Getty Images

August 3, 2022 at 1:00 AM PDT

The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
After a year of democratic backsliding, Tunisia went over the edge last week when President Kais Saied institutionalized his autocratic rule with a referendum on a new constitution that gives him near absolute power. The outcome of the vote was never in doubt: Having already suspended parliament and secured the support of the military, Saied had further tilted the playing field by appointing his own election commission and judicial council, jailing opponents, and muzzling the media.

Since approval of the constitution was preordained, most Tunisians demonstrated their disapproval by turning their backs on the process: More than two-thirds of those eligible opted not to vote.

This is almost exactly how democracy withered in Egypt, the only other country where the seeds planted in the Arab Spring — the popular protests that toppled several dictators in the Middle East and North Africa in the early 2010s — had taken root. Like his counterpart in Cairo, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Saied represents the triumphant return of the old order.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for these failures.

Start with the revolutionaries. In Tunisia as in Egypt, the young, mostly liberal and secular-minded protesters who toppled the tyrants neglected the nitty-gritty of democracy — forming political parties, building policy platforms, contesting elections. This initially allowed conservative Islamist parties, which were better organized to win votes, to form governments.

The protesters also had unrealistic expectations of instant economic dividends from democracy: When the jobs and opportunities they wanted did not immediately materialize, they lost faith in the new political system.

In response, the overturned establishment regrouped around retrogressive figures like Sisi and Saied, who tapped into the popular discontent with the democratic new order to acquire power — and then to rewrite constitutions to complete the restoration of autocracy. 

Some blame also goes to the leaders of the free world, who rejoiced in the flowering of Arab liberty, but then let the saplings shrivel in the elements. There was a pronounced Western squeamishness about working with Islamist-led governments in Cairo and Tunis, which undermined their ability to repair the damage left by decades of dictatorship.

Like his two immediate predecessors, President Joe Biden expended little effort to help the Tunisian government rescue the country’s stricken economy. His administration has offered only cursory criticism of Saied’s power grab. It may be too late to turn the clock back, but Biden and other democratic leaders must learn from their recent failures and resolve to do better next time.

And there will almost certainly be a next time. Young Arabs will soon discover that their new autocrats have no solutions to the economic problems at the root of their discontent. Saied has shown no greater grasp of his country’s economic challenges than the government he sacked. Under Sisi, Egypt’s economy has grown, but so too has the proportion of the population living in poverty.

As economic conditions worsen with the worldwide slowdown, Saied and Sisi can expect no more patience from young Tunisians and Egyptians than the governments they overthrew. The next political upheaval may not be long in coming. 

When the wheel does turn, the democratic world must be prepared to act swiftly. The first priority will be to fully embrace elected governments, regardless of their orientation. Next, wealthy Western nations must ready a package of foreign aid and debt forgiveness as well as favorable trade terms, all designed to allow the elected governments to deliver economic dividends for an impatient populace.

Just as important, there must be careful vigilance for signs of democratic backsliding. Any leader showing an authoritarian streak must face real consequences. The military elites, in particular, should understand that their access to Western resources is contingent on a commitment to defending democratic institutions.

Arabs will try again for democracy. The next time, the world must not fail them.

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