The Arab Spring has ushered in a new period of political development across the Middle East and North Africa, but not one that has generated only positive outcomes. Overthrowing the Gadhafi regime in Libya was extremely costly in human life; yet such success has, to date, eluded the protest movement in Syria. Where revolutions succeeded, be it through protest, a military campaign, or a negotiated transition, outcomes, remain uncertain and are often far from what regime opponents within countries and outside expected, such as in Egypt and Yemen.
On the one hand, the journey to democracy motivated a considerable number of the protesters who took to the streets across the Arab world from late 2010; early 2011 onwards has proved much more difficult. Negotiated transitions, as in Yemen and Egypt, have seen an only incomplete removal of old elites and slow progress, if any, towards establishing conditions in which people may enjoy more political and civil liberties and escape the abject economic misery which fuelled their initial uprisings.
On the other hand, deposing the old regimes created a significant degree of instability and insecurity across the region. Libya and Yemen essentially remain countries awash with well-armed rival militia groups, weak central control, and a real risk of sliding ever further into civil war. The aftermath of the UN/NATO-backed revolution in Libya, in particular, has also had serious regional ramifications such as exacerbating already tense situations in Mali and Niger. Arguably even worse, where old regimes have, so far, managed to cling on to power, such as in Syria and Bahrain, human suffering has increased tremendously.
There is considerable debate about whether or not it is possible to simultaneously build a democracy and maintain peace in the aftermath of violent regime transitions. There is also mounting evidence that three “ingredients” are essential in managing such transitions and their aftermath successfully: leadership, diplomacy, and institutional design.
Based on my own work on ethnic conflict and civil war, and more recently on the Arab Spring (especially on Libya and Yemen), I found that these “ingredients” are valuable factors to consider when we try to understand the complexities and varied outcomes of the Arab Spring. In Yemen, the UN, with the backing of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Friends of Yemen, managed to negotiate an end to the stand-off between the regime and different groups of opponents. Yet the situation in the country remains highly volatile. New and inclusive institutions are yet to emerge. A process of negotiating a new institutional design that can lay the foundations for a democratic and united Yemen still needs to be agreed among a group of leaders that was never united by much more than opposition to the regime of Abdullah Ali Saleh. Saleh, together with key allies, remains a powerful influence in Yemen with the ability, at for the foreseeable future, to derail any attempts at a genuinely clean break with the past.
Competing visions of the future also mar Libya’s prospects for achieving a stable and secure democratic state. Claims for autonomy in the east, turf battles between militia groups in the west and south who once fought side by side to oust Gadhafi, and a poorly resourced central government continue to be serious impediments to Libya’s transition. International support and influence, key in aiding the success of the revolution, have waned in light of other, more pressing problems-from the deteriorating situation in Syria to the uncertainty surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.
It would be easy to fault the international community, or individual actors within it, for not “managing” the Arab Spring in a better way because of exaggerated expectations, wrong analyses of in-country and regional situations, short attention span, limited resources, and an essentially self-serving agenda. All this is true. Diplomacy could have been, and should be, more effective, including its coercive side. International diplomats could have made more of an effort to understand local dynamics and assist with designing transparent, accountable, and inclusive institutions.
Yet, quite similar to transitions after civil war and ethnic conflict, we also need to be realistic about what the broader international community is able to achieve in the face of local leaders unwilling to compromise and to spare their countries’ citizens from violence, poverty, and a lack of real opportunity for a better future. Unless and until local leaders rise to the challenge of building such a better future for their countries, the impact of international efforts will remain limited.