The Middle East’s Next Moment of Reckoning

When the Arab Spring erupted in December 2010, advocates for change in the Arab world had reason to be hopeful. But, as we saw in 2016, authoritarianism has returned, and whether that trend can be reversed in 2017 will depend on how well regional and international leaders have absorbed lessons from the recent past.

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STANFORD – When the “Arab Spring” erupted in December 2010, advocates for change in the Arab world had reason to be hopeful. But, as we continued to see in 2016, authoritarianism has returned, most notably in Egypt, which is now ruled by a repressive military-backed dictatorship.

Meanwhile, Syria has been so ravaged by civil war, vast refugee outflows, war crimes, and human rights violations that it will take at least a generation to rebuild that country and its society – that is, if it can ever be rebuilt. Yemen, for its part, is being sundered by civil strife and a Saudi Arabian-led military intervention; and, since Muammar el-Qaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, Libya has remained a deeply divided, largely ungoverned country. And, of course, no one can ignore the rise of the Islamic State.

Tunisia is often seen as the Arab Spring’s one “success” story. But while its democracy has miraculously survived in the midst of so many failures elsewhere in the region, Tunisia is not exempt from geopolitical forces that burden its security apparatus and threaten its economy. And the Tunisian government’s repressive use of anti-terror emergency laws has now called into question the future of its democratic experiment.

As we head into 2017, we should consider lessons from the Arab Spring and its aftermath to determine whether the region’s tilt toward autocracy can be reversed. For starters, we know that state-managed reforms often fall short. While Arab autocrats often resort to the “stick” of repression to buttress their power, they also employ the “carrot” of limited political reforms. This option appeals to autocrats because, by creating a regulated political space, they can curtail and co-opt their opponents, while allowing their disaffected societies to “let off steam.”