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Has the Door Closed on Arab Democracy?
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Has the Door Closed on Arab Democracy?

Twenty-five years ago, in this journal’s first foray into the politics of the Arab world, the gifted scholar Daniel Brumberg sounded a hopeful note about the region’s democratic prospects. “The democratic revolution that has swept through Latin America and Eastern Europe has begun to shake the edifice of authoritarianism in the Arab world,” he told us.1 Brumberg was no Panglossian, of course. He noted that “the allure of authoritarianism remains strong in some quarters of the Arab world,” and that the norms of compromise and toleration so essential to democracy were in short supply in the region. But he nonetheless allowed himself (and us) to dream. “Emboldened by the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe,” he declared, “Arab intellectuals are now calling for perestroika and democratic reform.”

The behavior of Arab autocrats in those days offered a measure of justification for Brumberg’s optimism. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had not yet ossified into the avatar of “durable authoritarianism” that he would eventually become. In 1984 and 1987, he had even held relatively free and fair parliamentary elections that resulted in meaningful representation for the country’s Islamist and non-Islamist opposition. In 1989, King Hussein of Jordan announced the reopening of the country’s legislature, which had been shuttered since the late 1960s, and held an election in which non-violent Islamists came out on top. And in Algeria, as Brumberg noted, free municipal and provincial elections in June 1990 promised a dramatic reconfiguration of that country’s authoritarian politics.

As we all know, these hopeful doors soon closed—in some places quietly, in others with a slam, but in all of them definitively. Egypt’s [End Page 74] 1990 parliamentary election was, by many accounts, a stage-managed farce, designed to all but eliminate the opposition. In Jordan’s 1993 elections, the regime responded to the Islamist triumph of 1989 by adopting a rococo set of electoral rules that shrank the partisans of Allah down to manageable size. And in Algeria, a December 1991 parliamentary election that seemed poised to deliver an Islamist majority was cut short by the army, which tried to convince Algerians and the world that it was necessary to destroy democracy in order to save it. Years later, Brumberg would look back on the “trademark mixture of guided pluralism, controlled elections, and selective repression” that characterized the Middle East in the 1990s and declare it not a moment of genuine perestroika that had simply failed to fulfill its promise, but rather the inauguration of “a type of political system whose institutions, rules, and logic defy any linear model of democratization.”2

It would be twenty years before the Arab world would once again inspire hopes of the sort that Brumberg allowed himself to express back in the Journal’s earliest days. In the opening weeks of 2011, young men and women took to public squares throughout Arab capitals. Their inchoate demands for dignity soon hardened into calls for regime change, and in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya those calls were answered (although in the latter case, with an assist from various Western air forces). Autocrats who had come to seem so durable that they were almost considered features of the natural environment were shuffled off stage with a rapidity that made the whole thing hard to believe. Writing in these pages, this author, infected with the spirit of the age, was moved to declare that what the young people of Tunis, Cairo, and Sana‘a had wrought was proof positive that “autocracies are inherently unstable,” and that “small events (such as the self-immolation of a fruit seller in a dusty Tunisian town) can upend the seemingly settled order of things and cause a seemingly apathetic population to bring down a seemingly unshakeable regime.”3

But as with the earlier season of optimism, this one too has proven stunningly unwarranted. As I and my coauthors have pointed out in these pages, the “Arab Spring” may be fixed in the popular imagination as a wave of mass protests that rocked the entire Middle East, but in the end it was largely confined to...