Whatever happened to the “Arab Spring”? When demonstrations erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, ultimately leading to the demise of three old and weary dictatorships, no-one knew which forces, institutions, and procedures would emerge from the protesters’ demand for democracy.
And yet, despite the unprecedented and unforeseeable nature of events – or perhaps because of it – hope ran high.
What has happened since shows clearly what everyone knew all along: nothing about regime change is simple. None of the three countries has yet found a stable institutional solution that can defuse intensifying internal tensions and respond effectively to popular demands.
Other countries in the region, including Yemen and some of the Gulf states, have experienced degrees of turmoil as well. Sectarian violence is again consuming Iraq, Syria is facing open rebellion with Islamists seeking to gain the upper hand ahead of a transition should the regime collapse. Even in Morocco, a king, Mohammed VI, with absolute power as Commander of the Faithful has been forced by public outrage to move toward a more inclusive form of political Islam.
Several related factors underlie the region’s chronic instability. One is underdevelopment. While oil has made a few presidents and princes staggeringly rich, the rest of the population has received little benefit.
The region’s protest politics also reflects growing rejection of dictatorship and arbitrary rule. Despite the lack of a tradition of open dissent, globalisation has made it plain to all that economic development requires regime change.
Finally, political Islam is common to all of the region’s conflicts, and should not be viewed in isolation from these countries’ economic woes. Simply put, Islam – practised by nearly one-quarter of humanity – missed its development take-off.
There are no easy ways out of underdevelopment without challenging traditional lifestyles, customs and social relations. Indeed, religions do not resist the pressures of economic change well.
For Jews, the diaspora allowed development in the absence of a homeland, with civil emancipation in Europe giving rise to reformist movements aimed at reconciling faith and modernity. Christians, whether Catholic or Orthodox, blocked economic development for centuries until internal reformists redefined theological positions on money and banking, the nature of progress, and science and technology. Religious reform gave rise to global capitalism.
This dynamic extends even to atheist China. Communism, a perfect secular simulacrum of religion, has been the primary victim of development since China launched its market reforms in 1979.
But everywhere in the Arab world reformists have been jailed, killed or marginalised.
In the absence of an analogue to the West’s Industrial Revolution, Muslims (and especially Arabs) have faced multiple humiliations and partial colonisation over the past two centuries. The resulting legacy of grievance, shame and anger is part of what underpins the region’s current malaise. Indeed, some of the street demonstrations leave no doubt that many people are moving away from religion altogether. This is as visible in Egypt and Tunisia as it is in non-Arab Turkey. But the grim reality for the Islamic world is that, in times of widespread uncertainty, the forces of tradition tend to speak more loudly and clearly than those of change.
Peace in this vital region can prevail only if its countries manage to protect themselves from ideological extremes and political excesses. The importance of this should be abundantly clear to westerners, whose modern civilisation grew out of religious dissent that was initially met by the violence of the Inquisition and the counter-Reformation. If Islam is on a similar trajectory, long-term instability in the region is all but assured. Mutual understanding is the only way to moderate the consequences.
• Michel Rocard is a former first secretary of the French Socialist Party, an MEP, and was prime minster of France, 1988-1991.