The Arab Spring and its Contemporary Counterparts

Article Summary
Abdelilah Belqziz here conducts a comparative analysis between the Arab Spring and the revolutions which took place in Europe and Latin America beginning in the 1970s. While he suggests there are important lessons to be drawn, he notes that it is also important to take into account the cultural and contextual differences between Arab and Western democratic movements.

Can we analyse the ongoing Arab revolutions with an eye to the contemporary revolutions of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, which began in Southern Europe, moved to to Central and Eastern Europe and ended in Latin America? Can we draw any lessons from this kind of comparison?

We must consider these questions for two main reasons:

First, Arab societies and Arab political dynamics have much in common with those of the three regions mentioned above. These regions are all economically, politically, socially and culturally backward - though through differing degrees - when compared to Western metropolitan societies. They have both been ruled by an authoritarian political order with similar political features: A monopoly on power and wealth, lack of freedom, violations of rights... etc. In addition, in both [the Arab and aforementioned] cases, change was driven by civilian forces and was for the most part not lead by political parties. In addition, during the phases of change, the military institutions played various roles that each had differing impacts [on the course of change]. All of this is quite different from the way in which democratic revolutions came about in Western societies between the era of the French Revolution and the defeat of Nazism and fascism at the end of World War II.

Second, the contemporary revolutions offer many lessons which can be of benefit to us. The lessons are universal and humanitarian, and political minds can learn from them. We can apply [those lessons] directly to the process of democratic change, or at least learn from the mistakes [committed by these revolutionary currents].

However, the obvious historical and political similarities between our societies and those of contemporary democracies should not blind us to the distinctions and differences between them. Some differences are not only minor details but are rather structural, and these are historically significant. Other differences [between our societies] are more extreme. Therefore it is important for any comparison to take these differences into account if it is to be valid.

Our objective here is not to describe the numerous differences between Arab societies and contemporary democratic societies. These differences are political, social and cultural. There are also undeniable differences in the civil democratic programs for change, whether this change was peaceful or violent and what the armed forces' roles were throughout this process. We wish to emphasize that the comparison will lose its validity if these differences are not taken into account.

These differences render the so-called "science of the transitional phase" inapplicable to an understanding of the post-revolutionary phase in the Arab world - and especially to an understanding of the transitional phase. This "science" is merely a set of descriptive models for various situations and scenarios, and is not a standard model. The modeling of transitional processes - which some call a "science" - has no historical basis and does not take into account the unique conditions that surround every revolution. It rather resembles the type of economic and financial modeling undertaken by International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

We are not saying this to defend an alleged Arab "exceptionalism," as some may accuse us of doing. We simply believe that the revolutionary experiences in Southern and Eastern Europe and Latin America have proven that [revolutionary transitions] do not obey the rules and features spoken of by social scientists. The Greek and Portuguese revolutions - in which the military played a prominent role - affected the revolutions of Eastern Europe (in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and East Germany). These, in turn, differed from the Latin American revolutions, which were concluded by some kind of settlement between the military and the civilian forces. And these Latin American transitions are different than the democratic transition that took place in Spain after General Franco. That transition took place in the context of a settlement between the fascists, the monarchy and the democratic forces. What’s more, the [transition] in South Africa was also unique because of that which took place between the apartheid regime of Fredrick De Clerk and the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela. The path of democratic transition in all of these countries has each time exhibited distinct features and phases.

Found in: transition modelling
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