In 2011, when Muhamad Bouazizi, a struggling vegetable seller in Tunis, set himself on fire and triggered convulsions that are still being felt to this day, some believed it would be the beginning of the reshaping of the Middle East. At first, that certainly looked to be the case. Egypt’s strongman, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted from power. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi followed. In Syria, Bashar al Assad faced an uprising that threatened to unseat decades of dynastic rule. But euphoria quickly crashed headlong into reality. The power vacuums left by tumbling tyrants was quickly filled by the Muslim Brotherhood and other, more violent, Islamists. One by one, Middle Eastern authoritarians regained power, or clung on even as their nations descended into civil war. The one shining light was the country where it all started: Tunisia.
On July 25, the Tunisian president, Kais Saied, dissolved the parliament and sacked the Prime minister. Since then, dozens have been arrested and media organizations have been harassed, including the closure of the Al Jazeera office in Tunis. Is this the end of the Arab Spring?
Adnan R. Khan: So, the apparent collapse of Tunisian democracy feels like the final nail in the coffin of the Arab Spring. What went wrong ?
Ilter Turan: If we look at the Arab Spring, what we find is public manifestations against governments by large segments of the population that were unhappy with the way their governments operated. People did not only feel limited in the practice of their liberties; but also their governments failed to meet their economic expectations. There was abject poverty; widespread corruption, unemployment and shortages of basic commodities. For the most part, people were not capable of envisioning a future that would be better for them. So, they rebelled.
The problem was that these protests were not organized by a group rival political organizations trying to force the ruling regimes to initiate a process for the transfer of power. These were spontaneous mass movements. This was the overall weakness of the opposition in all Arab Spring countries: There was no organized opposition that would be capable of competing for power and of running the government if it achieved office. In many societies, the only movement that seemed to have some organizational capability was the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, is not, technically speaking, a political party. It is a social solidarity organization that also has political aspirations. It was oriented more toward resisting governments than replacing them.
So, when order broke down and some kind of transition was affected, depending on local conditions, the Muslim Brotherhood either took over power or engaged in a competition for power against other groups or forces in society. For example, in Egypt, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that was able to take over the government. In Tunisia, a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired organization, Ennahda, which is now being accused of mismanaging the economy as well as the COVID -19 pandemic, became the lead party in the national assembly. Although different formulae emerged to pursue political change, in all cases, neither were those cadres that came to power experienced nor did they have competent people to work with. They also overreached their aims of transforming society according to their own visions, which were not necessarily in line with what the original protesters had been demanding.
Adnan R. Khan: The basic underlying weakness throughout these countries appears to be that their pre-existing authoritarianisms prevented the development of political structures that could manage transitions from one ruling group to another. Is the lesson here that it is easier to transition from democracy to authoritarianism but much harder to build a democracy out of authoritarianism?
Ilter Turan: First, let me emphasize that the transition from authoritarianism to democracy is not impossible, though it is indeed difficult. We have seen these transitions, for instance, in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What is key for these transitions is the presence of structures that can support the changes that are happening, like a functioning bureaucracy or well organized labor unions. Of course, these transitions are always fragile and recidivism easily sets in in the face of continuing social and economic problems. We are seeing backsliding in some eastern European countries.
The failure of the Arab Spring to produce a viable democracy is rooted in the fact that many of these countries lacked any institutional structures that could challenge the existing power brokers. Tunisia came close in part because of its well-developed labor unions, and we will have to see how those unions react to these latest developments. In other parts of the Middle East, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that took up the challenge, but it failed to demonstrate that it understands how democracy operates.
Adnan R. Khan: At the start of the Arab Spring, Turkey placed its bets on the Muslim Brotherhood. A decade later, that seems to have been the wrong choice. What options does Turkey have now?
Ilter Turan: Turkey must recognize that it has to adjust to the new political realities if it is to have a successful regional policy. In fact, we are already seeing some shifts in foreign policy to accommodate the changing political environment. But there are also domestic constituencies that influence foreign policy, and I think the current government may find it difficult to accept and publicly admit that it made a major mistake in transforming Turkish policy in a pro-Muslim Brotherhood direction. It is always difficult to admit failure. It is even more difficult to do so if the admission comes with high domestic and international political costs.
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