Tarek Masoud Reflects on the Arab Spring Ten Years Later

As the world looks back on the events that convulsed much of the Middle East a decade ago during what became known as the Arab Spring, the Ash Center sat down with Tarek Masoud, Professor of Public Policy and Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman Professor of International Relations, to discuss the prospects for democracy in the region today.

Photo of Tahrir Square

Ash: Ten years after mass protests ignited the Arab Spring, only Tunisia has the trappings of a stable democracy. Elsewhere we’ve seen a succession of coups and failed states, coupled with an ascendant authoritarianism in some parts of the region. Yet you remain positive on the long-term prospects of democracy in the Middle East. Why?

Masoud: I remain upbeat about the prospects for participatory government in the Arab world. That said, the Arab world is fairly diverse, so I wouldn’t want to make a blanket statement that either dooms the region to a continuation of the grim status quo or predicts a uniformly bright future. Syria, Yemen, and Libya are embroiled in civil war; Egypt and Saudi Arabia are authoritarian regimes; Tunisia is a genuine democracy; Lebanon and Iraq feature some seriously pluralistic politics in which civilian political parties can win elections and assume control of the executive (without having to share power with a king or conclave of generals); and Algeria and Sudan are in transition. I don’t expect the region to be swept by a wave of democratic change overnight, but I do think that democracy remains appealing to large swaths of the Arab citizenry, and that the demand for freedom that we observed during the height of the Arab Spring cannot be held at bay forever. How those demands will express themselves will differ in the different corners of the region, but history suggests strongly that they will eventually express themselves.

Have recent events in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq strengthened the outlook for democracy in the Arab world?

The protests we saw in 2018 and 2019 in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq were certainly inspiring, and they are an example of how democratic demands inevitably express themselves. That said, it would be very easy to work oneself into a state of pessimism regarding the near-term futures of these democratic ventures. The Algerian transition seems to have settled into a broadened form of the status quo-ante, in which the military remains primus inter pares. Developments in Sudan have been promising, but it is one of the poorest countries in the world, and decades of social science wisdom teach us that poor countries that manage to get some democracy have a hard time keeping it for very long. Lebanon and Iraq have somewhat competitive political systems, but they remain bedeviled by sectarian divides that exert a strong pull on citizen loyalties and inhibit the formation of genuinely national coalitions that can push for thorough political overhauls. But the fact remains that, in all of these countries, there are greater prospects for freedom and accountability today than there have been at any point in the last decade (or longer). And if those experiments pan out, they may encourage other Arabs to renew their own calls for participatory government.

Though we’re seeing the re-emergence of democratic movements and government accountability in a number of countries mentioned above, we’ve also seen the emergence of an “enlightened authoritarianism” as you term it in places such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. What accounts for the ascendance of these non-democratic regimes in recent years?

If there’s one big difference between the present era and the height of the Arab Spring, it is that the region’s autocrats no longer justify themselves with simple appeals to stability, but instead bill themselves as agents of transformation and modernization. Now, there is a lot of diversity even within the group of self-styled “enlightened” or “modernizing” authoritarian regimes: The United Arab Emirates, which is a federation of wealthy, competently governed city-states that has long been open to the world, cannot easily be compared to Saudi Arabia, which is an absolute monarchy whose wealth has been mismanaged for decades and which has in some ways been hermetically sealed against outside influences. And Egypt, a poor, dependent country whose infrastructure is crumbling under the weight of its 100 million people, is different still. Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s leaders are momentarily ascendant because they promise their citizens a path toward progress, prosperity, and global influence, and they have logged modest successes in improving the quality of governance, taming the worst forms of corruption, and expanding opportunities for women, but the genuine take-off that they promise will remain elusive if they continue to pursue the top-down, highly-centralized schemes that leave little space for the growth of the private sector or civil society.

Headshot of Tarek Masoud
In all of these countries, there are greater prospects for freedom and accountability today than there have been at any point in the last decade (or longer), says Masoud.

Why is support for democracy at a low point a decade after the Arab Spring?

Democracy is certainly in disfavor in some countries, like Tunisia, where many citizens blame it for some of the economic and political uncertainty they have experienced since their 2011 revolution. But elsewhere, interest in democracy remains strong. The argument that only autocratic government can pursue the hard reforms necessary to transform the Arab world definitely has appeal, but it has not yet carried the day.

How can the tenuous hold that democratic governance has made in the Arab world ultimately be strengthened?

A lot comes down to Tunisia. Right now, Arabs associate that country with raucous politics and a careening economy. If instead Tunisia could be made into a place where democracy was seen to generate good government and economic opportunity, that could have a powerful demonstration effect for the rest of the region. The alternative is that Tunisia becomes a cautionary tale—an example of what goes wrong when the people eschew the leader’s strong hand and try to govern themselves. The Biden administration should be thinking, therefore, of ways to invest in Tunisia and in the success of its democratic experiment. I’d love, for example, to see the administration throw its weight behind the bipartisan effort–spearheaded by Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina– to conclude a free trade agreement with Tunisia. The more the wealthy democratic countries embrace and assist Tunisia, the likelier it becomes that it will hang onto its democracy, and serve as an example to others in the region.

More from this Program

The World’s Protracted and Deepening Democratic Recession, and How to Reverse It
Tarek Masoud introduces Larry Diamond


The World’s Protracted and Deepening Democratic Recession, and How to Reverse It

Harvard community members joined the Ash Center for a Democracy in Hard Places Initiative event featuring Larry Diamond, Mosbacher Senior Fellow of Global Democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power
Cover photo of book behind a backdrop of knives


Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power

In Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power, editors William J. Dobson, Tarek Masoud, and Christopher Walker bring together leading analysts to explain how the world’s authoritarians are attempting to erode the pillars of democratic societies—and what we can do about it.

Hope Persists for Champion of Egyptian Democracy


Hope Persists for Champion of Egyptian Democracy

Shady ElGhazaly Harb MC/MPA 2023, a prominent youth activist during the 2011 uprising, finds new ways to understand the continuing struggle for democracy in Egypt during his time at Harvard Kennedy School.

More on this Issue

Elections and Voting Summer Reading List
Collage of the book covers, youtube graphics, and report covers


Elections and Voting Summer Reading List

A collection of must-reads curated by Ash Center’s Tova Wang showcases new ideas and efforts to build a more inclusive democracy in the US.