PSC Interview: A tortuous road to democracy since the Arab Spring

As the world marks ten years since the upheaval caused by the ‘Arab Spring’, the PSC Report spoke to Moncef Djaziri, senior lecturer at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland and an expert on Libyan politics.

Ten years on, have people realised the change they sought?

The term Arab Spring (originally related to the European People’s Spring of 1848, analysed by Alexis de Tocqueville) refers to a series of pro-democracy uprisings in several Arab countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Bahrain, initiated in 2010–2011 and ultimately resulting in regime changes.

To quote Adam Przeworski, democracy became ‘the only game in town’. Yet for it to become a common game, democratic values have to be shared by all political elites regardless of their ideological orientation.

Given the historical and cultural specificities of Arab-Muslim countries, among other reasons, the road to successfully implementing and consolidating democracy will be long and tortuous. Tragically, ten years after the uprisings, countries still appear to be in a deadlock. People’s hopes for political and social change have had unintended, unexpected and negative consequences, such as social and political regression and civil war. This has been the case in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

As the saying goes, ‘People do history, but they don’t know which history they are doing’ (Raymond Aron). It is fairly easy to move from authoritarianism into political pluralism but much more difficult to enhance state capacity and to have politicians serve the people rather than themselves.

What drove mass uprisings across so many countries at the same time?

A number of factors explain why uprisings in different Arab countries occurred in the same period (December 2010 to March 2011), in a kind of Huntington’s democratic transition wave driven by mass movements hoping to improve living conditions and gain certain civil liberties. Regardless of the political systems in question, activists in these countries were inspired by the hope to better their social and economic conditions. They wanted more social and political freedom, as well as greater participation in political processes.

In the Arab countries, these movements were all, to a greater or lesser extent, inspired by the December 2010 uprising in Tunisia. This is where the Arab Spring started and then spread to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrein.

Why did the military reassert itself in countries like Egypt?

The Egyptian case illustrates the influence of social history in the country and is emblematic of the situation in other transitional Arab countries. Here Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood are seen as transnational militant groups opposed to national interests as posited by the Egyptian army.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 led to some optimism and hope for change. The controversial election of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2012, however, was followed by a return to authoritarian rule in 2013. This began with a coup led by defence minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who captured power and remains president. This illustrates the clear-cut and fierce opposition between the Egyptian army (presenting itself as the protector of national interests) and the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists (inspired by internationalist Islamist ideals).

It is also important to mention that the conflict between the military nationalist elites and the Muslim Brotherhood should not hide the historically complex relations of collaboration and antagonism between these two parties.

Has the Hirak movement in Algeria learnt from the Arab Spring?

Like Libya, Algeria is a rentier state and one of Africa’s major oil and gas producers. Endemic corruption has led to an overreliance on oil revenues at the expense of the country’s agricultural potential, further adding to discontent domestically. As in Egypt, the Algerian army has refused to withdraw from public life and is still heavily involved in domestic politics.

Regarding the Algerian Hirak movement, we have to remember that it began on 22 February 2019 when millions of Algerians began protesting peacefully in the streets, demanding that president Abdelaziz Bouteflika step down, opposing his candidacy for a fifth presidential term. But what started as a protest against Bouteflika’s candidature evolved into a movement demanding regime change and a complete overhaul of the political system.

The strength of the Hirak movement is that protestors seemed to have learned from the transition periods of the 1990s and the Arab Spring, particularly the role of peaceful protest. Millions of people, both men and women, mostly young, participated in weekly marches, occupying public spaces and peacefully demanding a change of regime.

This unstructured and leaderless movement was seeking dramatic change through entirely peaceful means, circumventing the influence of extremist groups, as was the case in Libya and Syria. The problem, however, is that the Hirak protest has been a leaderless mass movement. This lack of common leadership has been a risk and has weakened it.

The strength of the Hirak movement is that protestors have learned from the 1990s and Arab Spring transitions

Immediately after his election in December 2019, incumbent President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced that he was open to a dialogue with the Hirak movement and said his government would ‘consolidate democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights’. Due to political reasons and in order to prevent the Hirak movement from becoming stronger, the elections initially planned for 2022 took place in June 2021.

With the June 2021 elections, the Hirak movement came to an end. Not only did it topple the Bouteflika regime, but to a certain extent it also brought the former ruling elite to their knees; some were even put on trial. This outcome was unexpected and succeeded without violence.

Yet, even if it has died, the Hirak movement might still be alive in spirit and may even be a source of political inspiration for decades to come. One wonders if the Hirak movement and its outcomes could not be considered as a way for the Algerian political system and the Algerian people to experiment with incremental political change.

What is your analysis of the democratic transition and political crisis in Tunisia?

The Tunisian transition – the most advanced democratic experience in the region – is actually facing major problems that other Arab countries will also face in the near future. Tunisia is in its 10th year of transition after the 2011 ‘Jasmine Revolution’. Thus far, it has avoided the chaos and/or authoritarian resurrections that have affected other Arab Spring countries.

The legislative and presidential elections in 2014 were expected to put an end to unstable transitional governments. On 26 January 2014, Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly overwhelmingly voted to adopt a new constitution. The new constitution asserts Tunisia’s Muslim identity, but its framing – creating a civil state and provisions on civil liberties – is seen as a victory for secularists.

The new constitution asserts Tunisia’s Muslim identity, although it is framed as a secularist victory

The vote followed a political agreement under which Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Al-Nahda, agreed to step down from office in favour of a technocratic prime minister in the run-up to the elections. Although it was widely viewed as an achievement, given the difficulty of reaching political consensus, since 2014 there have been tensions between Islamists, secularists and nationalists regarding the ongoing social and economic unrest.

Tunisia has a small territory, a relatively well-educated and homogenous population, a history of encouraging women’s rights, and homogeneous political and social elites. Yet Tunisians are still facing significant challenges in reforming state institutions, addressing economic woes, and responding to security concerns (i.e. Islamist terrorist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and others). Divisions between nationalist modernist elites and Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood have been worsening since the last parliamentary and presidential elections of 2019.

The overwhelming majority of Tunisians are frustrated because their financial and economic situation is worsening rapidly. The economy remains stagnant. Consequently, the euphoria of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution has evaporated. Optimism has been replaced with pessimism, disenchantment with democracy, and rejection of the governing elite, particularly Ennahda.

The 2014 constitution created a mixed and idiosyncratic presidential/parliamentary political system that does not work. In addition, the proportional electoral law gives de facto veto power to Ennahda, which is actually a blocking minority with 19.99% of voters (2019 parliamentary election). Thus, the balance across the branches of government is uneven. The country is facing both a crisis in its political system and a governance crisis, which could lead to a new uprising demanding change.

Optimism has been replaced with pessimism, disenchantment with democracy and rejection of the governing elite

Since 2011 the Tunisian army has returned to barracks, but profound popular discontent, disappointment and frustration with the current democratic dispensation may open the way again for authoritarianism. What is at stake is the enhanced role given to the Tunisian Parliament in the post-revolution political system. Unfortunately, the Islamist-secularist divide has never worked in a democratic way. The parliamentary system, so to speak, is in a tragic deadlock. Tunisia is in need of a new political system.

Recent events are illustrative of this. On 25 July 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced his decision to freeze all the activities of the House of Representatives and dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. The next step for the head of state will be to nominate a new prime minister under his control. He will also formulate new legislation.

The first law he most likely intends to institute is a new electoral law, a majoritarian one, abandoning the proportional law that has led to an inefficient and ‘feckless pluralism’ (according to Thomas Carotters) and the deadlock the country has been experiencing since 2014. He is also expected to propose a constitutional referendum for a new presidential political regime and so return the country on a solid path to a majoritarian and efficient democracy.

What is your analysis of the current situation in Libya? 

The current Libyan crisis is political, economic, social and moral. It is also a crisis of social cohesion. The numerous economic and geostrategic issues of the 2011 uprising against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi (1969–2011) ended the process of incremental transformation that began in 2000. It has led to a crisis of belonging, to national disenchantment, and to the resurgence of regionalism and tribalism.

The weight of economic and social structures is not sufficiently taken into consideration in the interminable transition. In a largely traditional Libyan society, tribal power is underestimated. Their capacity to contribute to peacemaking and secure territory is not integrated into the decision-making processes.

Moreover, the transition has revived a structural and historical conflict over the unequal distribution of oil revenues. Today, oil and gas play a part in the serious crisis that Libya has been going through since 2011.

The social and political aftermath of Western military intervention in March 2011 made the democratic transition very uncertain and discredited the rebels, even though they had hoped to create a better future for Libyans. The international community and the United Nations (UN) also tried to find a solution to the Libyan crisis.

Since Libya is a rentier state, political power bypasses democratic processes

The roadmap adopted by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in January 2021 proposes parliamentary and presidential elections by 24 December 2021. Unlike the United States and other Western countries, as well as the UN, I do not think that the ‘political solution in Libya lies in the elections scheduled in December 24, 2021’.

To move from the roadmap to reality, constitutional and legislative arrangements must be adopted first. And here lies the real difficulty, because to adopt such constitutional arrangements there must be an agreement between Benghazi and Tripoli, between the Chamber of Representatives (Parliament in the east of the country) and the National Unity Government (Tripoli). Furthermore, there should be a consensus between the nationalist elites’ tribes and the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.

In short, the Libyan transition imposed by the war is a failure. Oil resources that are unevenly distributed across the country are one of the causes of the civil war (2018–2019), along with the polarisation of regional, ethnic and tribal identities. Since Libya is a rentier state, which does not depend on taxation for its financial resources, political power bypasses democratic processes because it does not depend on tax-paying citizens.

Therefore, elections are not a solution. One should first rebuild the Libyan state, unify state institutions and try to draw up a consensual constitution, and then go ahead with elections. The process needs time and the input of the Libyan tribes. (See M Djaziri, “Libye: propositions pour sortir de la crise”, in Politique Internationale, 159 [Spring 2018].)

Can the African Union play a more central and meaningful role in Libya? 

Neither the AU nor the Arab League or even the UN are in a position to have meaningful influence and a central role in Libya. The AU in particular is torn between non-intervention in Libyan affairs – according to the Lomé Declaration on Unconstitutional Changes of Government (2000) and the Constitutive Act of the African Union (2002) – and supporting democratisation in Libya.

Nevertheless, the AU’s opposition to the NATO military intervention in March 2011 and its position in favour of a negotiated settlement between the rebels and Qaddafi for a smooth and incremental political transition, through an inclusive peace agreement combined with a democratic transition, give the AU trust capital with the Libyan people to have a friendly and moderate yet real influence.

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