Middle East

Democracy or disorder? The four lessons of the Arab Spring

Mohammed Morsi supporters holding a large poster of the ousted president (7 July 2013)

Some commentators are saying it was all an illusion - that the Arab Spring, which appeared to be the harbinger of democracy, has brought nothing but disorder.

Others go further and argue that Arabs, or Muslims, are so trapped in sectarianism and intolerance that they are incapable of democracy.

Neither claim stands up to scrutiny.

It is obvious enough that the heady days of 2011 - when Arabs took to the streets and overthrew three dictators - are now a distant memory.

Many of those who took part in the protests two years ago are deeply disillusioned. Their lives are no better, and in many cases worse.

But it is necessary to ask what went wrong, and draw the right lessons.

1.It was never going to be quick or easy.

The first lesson is that the Arab Spring is a process, not an event.

Arab rulers, and the elites that gave them sustenance, were never likely to roll over and die.

The West's role was always bound to be ambivalent.

It found itself on both sides - anxious to encourage fledgling democracies, but not to alienate old autocracies.

In societies long suppressed, democratic movements - tolerant, pluralistic, committed to human rights - were never likely to emerge, fully formed, overnight.

This was always going to be, across the region, a drawn-out generational struggle.

2.There is no fixed pattern.

The second lesson - obvious enough in retrospect - is that different circumstances produce different outcomes.

In Tunisia, the armed forces abandoned the dictator - and then withdrew from the political stage.

Image caption In the case of Libya, Western intervention sealed the fate of autocratic leader Muammar Gaddafi

In Egypt, the reverse happened. Twice, after massive popular protest, the military have intervened and removed a ruler.

But having seized power, they have used it ineptly. The notion that the armed forces could be an instrument of democracy was always suspect.

In Libya - so far an exceptional case - it was Western intervention which tipped the balance, sealing the dictator's fate.

In Syria the West is, with good reason, reluctant to intervene - leaving it to local and regional forces to slug it out, so far indeterminately.

There is no fixed pattern - hence no uniform outcome.

3.The Islamists are at a crossroads.

The third lesson is that, across the region, Islamists have had a taste of power - but have used it in very different ways.

In Tunisia, they understood that they could not rule alone.

The Egyptian Islamists, in contrast, made the mistake of riding roughshod over their opponents.

Unable to shake off a deep-seated paranoia, they tended to see all opposition as proof of conspiracy.

And, fatally, they underestimated the power of the military.

But the notion that, regionally, the Islamists are in retreat is mistaken. They are on the defensive, but far from vanquished.

The question is what lesson they choose to draw from recent events.

Some Egyptian Islamists may realise they can't blame everyone else for their fate: they had their chance to exercise power, and blew it.

Others, in Egypt or Syria or elsewhere, may decide that democracy leads nowhere, and that only through violence can the Islamist utopia be achieved.

4.People power is not enough.

Image caption The Arab Spring has shown the limitations of mass protests

Finally, the Arab uprisings have shown the power, and also the limitations, of mass protest.

The idea of popular empowerment has taken root, nurtured by satellite television and the social media. No country is immune.

The Arab Spring may not have overturned the regional balance of power, but it has overturned popular expectations.

It is a revolution of the mind.

But the hard lesson is that, by itself, people power is not enough.

The longer-term challenge is to translate popular protest and popular anger into real and lasting change.

If that fails to happen, the promise of the Arab Spring will be unfulfilled.

Roger Hardy is the author of The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam (2010). He is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and at King's College, London.