New Internationalist

Argument: Has the Arab Spring failed?

October 2013

Writer and academic Myriam Francois-Cerrah and journalist Noreen Sadik go head-to-head.

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.


In August, the Egyptian military reintroduced the state of emergency which had kept [former President] Mubarak in power for over three decades – and the largest Arab state slid back from the promising hope of Tahrir Square. The Egyptian military controls up to 60 per cent of the country’s economy – so any meaningful attempt at democracy would involve curtailing this ‘army-corporation’ – but presently at least half of all Egyptians appear to want exactly the opposite of this. Without taking this into consideration, any civilian government is largely a front.

From the start, I have remained dubious about what outcome would emerge from revolutionary fervour. Steady, gradual change is a more reliable indicator of the direction a country is moving in than rapid, revolutionary change: full of passion and fire but muddled and often uniting very disparate voices for a brief period, only to see that unity subsequently dissolve into intra-civil conflict.

YES: MYRIAM FRANCOIS-CERRAH is a writer and academic with a focus on France and the Middle East. She writes for a variety of publications including The Guardian, the Huffington Post and Al Jazeera English. Currently a post-graduate researcher (DPhil) at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco, she tutors in Middle East politics.

And what is meant by Arab ‘Spring’ after all? The emergence of liberal democracies? If so, not only has the Arab ‘Spring’ failed, but it seems unlikely to succeed in a region where, despite recent events, socially conservative Islamic political movements have proven popular. Women have been sidelined from politics in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, despite the hopes enshrined by Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawwol Karman. Minorities have come under attack. If by Arab Spring we mean the lifting of people out of poverty, not only has it failed, but the instability has crippled national economies and rendered countries more dependent on foreign aid and the strings attached. In many cases, this makes governments more attentive to outside voices than those of its own people. An Arab Spring worthy of its name would see the emergence of freer, fairer, more accountable governments which serve the Arab people and their interests. We’re a long way off.


Although I think that many of the points that you made are valid, I define the success or failure of the Arab Spring by its eventual outcome.

As history has shown, revolutions often start quickly, but their ultimate success can take years. Democracy is new to the Middle East, and although the citizens have grown accustomed to the decades-old regimes, it is clear that they have also become wary of them, and are finally demanding their rights.

NO: NOREEN SADIK is a freelance journalist and writer. Her articles appear in the Jerusalem Post, the Gulf Times and New Internationalist. She received her BA degree from Indiana University, US. She is an American of Palestinian origin and she has lived in several countries, including Egypt. She currently resides in Israel.

Three years have not yet passed since the first revolution began in Tunisia and in this short time, there have been successes.

Tunisian President Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Qadafi and Yemen’s Saleh led their countries for 23, 30, 42 and 12 years respectively, and were all ousted as a result of the Arab Spring.

Egypt was the first country to hold democratic elections: another positive result. Now, a year later, yes, Egypt is critically unstable, but this is part of the process.

The current situation in the Middle East is definitely not the ideal, but internal conflicts cannot last forever.

The presence of women has been obvious in the revolutionary demonstrations and the social media exchanges. Remember the history of the US and the suffrage movement: the US gained independence in 1776 but women were not permitted to vote until 1920. Arab women are confidently no longer silent.

The success of the Arab Spring is a matter of time. It might take many years, but the fact that the people are STILL demonstrating, and continue to express dissatisfaction with power-hungry dictators, is an indication that they are finally waking up to the injustices they have suffered for years. They are willing to die for freedom, equality and justice. Success is inevitable.


I admire your optimism but sadly do not share your belief in the inevitability or linearity of progress; history is replete with examples of one step forward, two steps back. To take just one example – the plight of women in Egypt – sexual harassment has reached epidemic proportions, with women having to employ bodyguards even to attend demonstrations in Tahrir Square. There are now fewer women in the Egyptian parliament than under Mubarak. The slim gains women have achieved are far from written in stone.

You state that democracy is new to the Middle East – I’m not certain it has even arrived. I don’t see instability as much as enduring practices – in other words, continuity. Tunisia is lucky enough to be strategically of little interest to the ‘great powers’ and I hold some hope that despite deep national cleavages, the country may overcome these challenges in time.

The majority of countries that have experienced revolutions remain deeply unstable. It is entirely conceivable that the status quo will stay in place in Bahrain and Yemen (despite the ‘deposition’ of Saleh) and Syria’s civil war is unlikely to act as a midwife to democracy. Foreign meddling in Yemen’s domestic affairs as part of the ‘war on terror’ makes any notion of popular sovereignty laughable.

Steady, gradual change is a more reliable indicator of the direction a country is moving in than rapid, revolutionary change, which often unites disparate voices for a brief period, only to dissolve into intra-civil conflict – Myriam

You state that people are now willing to die for freedom; I would argue that dictatorships have survived based on the cost of repression. The Arab people have been more than aware of the injustices and suffering for decades, but the price of rebellion against ruthless leaders was always too high. It is not unthinkable that such tactics will prevail once more. Same strategy, different faces.

The deposing of various leaders has highlighted the extent to which the problem facing Arab peoples is systemic and goes beyond the symbolic removal of tyrants. A ‘Spring’ worthy of that name would yield a democratic culture which goes far beyond mere procedural democracy.


History has shown that some rebellions have failed, but it has also proved the opposite. Democratic governments in the West were born from many years of revolutionary wars in which hundreds of thousands died for freedom.

I agree that there is a long way to go before women gain full rights. But keep in mind that women have also been very visible in the demonstrations. Women’s rights are very relevant to the Arab Spring, but women are one segment of the population of these countries. The revolutions are not just about women.

The concept of democracy is new. Democracy has not yet arrived in the Middle East. The superpowers have interests that are self-serving, but even the interference of the most powerful nations has not yet resulted in democracy in any Arab country.

I will reiterate what I said previously: change takes time. The Middle East will most likely remain unstable for many years, and though the process is slow, I believe it will change as people begin to understand the attributes of democracy.

The success of the Arab Spring is a matter of time. It might take many years, but the fact that people are still demonstrating is an indication that they are finally waking up to the injustices they have suffered for years – Noreen

As the governments are changing and turnovers are taking place, the possibility of more dictators trying to repress people is likely. But did anyone think that communism in the Soviet Union would come to an end, or that the Berlin Wall would fall? The people made it happen. The Arab people are stronger now, and are no longer willing to accept repression and oppression as their fate.

‘Same strategy, different faces.’ ‘One step forward, two steps back’? I think we should put our faith in the people. Dictators and governments come and go; what remains are the generations of oppressed people demanding change.


I mention women precisely because they were so present in the revolutionary fervour but appear to have been short-changed in the ensuing period. A society’s treatment of its women, particularly those who have fought so hard alongside their male counterparts, is typically a good indication of its progress, and sadly, I see no Spring for women – or men. I admire the courage of those who have fought so hard for change, but I fear they are far from having achieved their aims.

I agree there has been an awakening, a realization that the people have meaningful power and that it can be exercised to voice previously suppressed discontent. But I’m not certain that this will translate into real change, partly because of vested interests in the region, whose meddling comes at a price.

Peter Wissa under a Creative Commons Licence
Arab Spring: Protesters making their voices heard in Egypt. Peter Wissa under a Creative Commons Licence

I am not of the view that efforts at ‘democracy promotion’ in the region were driven by benevolence as much as internationally driven box-ticking. Polls indicate that Arab approval of the US in the Middle East has plummeted and is now lower than under George W Bush. Any meaningful democracy would not provide the US with the privileged relationship it currently enjoys and this has implications for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, among other things.

I agree that the people will not accept a return to the status quo, but I envision a deeply compromised ‘reformed’ system, which purports to take into account people’s grievances and conform to international demand for accountability and transparency, but ultimately maintains much of the previous power structures.


The Middle East is at a dangerous juncture right now. Mubarak’s recent release from prison might result in the continuation of his policies but this time with [General] al-Sisi at the helm. However, it has not stopped the demonstrations.

The meddling of foreign powers stems from self-interest and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining control. It definitely is not coming from a sincere concern.

And yes, in some cases, women have been pushed back since the revolutions started, and there is still much to change. But it’s not all been bad: in Saudi Arabia, the most conservative of the Arab countries, women can now vote in municipal elections. It’s a beginning. Women have had a taste of freedom, and I dare say that they like it enough to continue demanding equality.

Again I say that the success of the Arab Spring will most likely take years. It is a process which moves slowly and will see many obstacles and ups and downs along the way.

Yemen, Libya and Egypt all held democratic elections, showing that change is possible. Granted, Morsi was deposed, but that is part of the ups and downs. A power struggle is inevitable.

Arab citizens are determined not to permit their countries to return to the old ways. Fires have been lit beneath the people. Add a bit of gas to the flames, and we will hear the voices of every Arab shouting. Fear in people is a thing of the past and oppression cannot last indefinitely.

I don’t believe that the desires of millions of people for a full democracy can be denied forever.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 466 This feature was published in the October 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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