Has the Arab Spring Led to Democracy?

A Study of Two Comparative Indices

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In this article, Dr. Ofer Kenig, of IDI's Political Reform project, cautiously examines whether the events of the Arab Spring indicate the rise of substantial democracy in the Arab world or whether they merely exchanged one type of authoritarian regime for another—a non-liberal Islamic regime.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock

It has been two and a half years since the opening shots of the chain of events known as the "Arab Spring" were fired. The meaning and implications of these events, which in some parts of the Arab world are still very much underway, are subject to debate among researchers and politicians: Do they indicate real democratization? Or are we simply witnessing a transition from one type of authoritarian regime to another—a non-liberal, Islamic regime?

Although the elapsed time since the outbreak is too short to allow far-reaching conclusions, some interim, short-term conclusions may be drawn nonetheless. In this article, two comparative indices that reflect the level of democracy in the world will be used in an attempt to determine the impact of the Arab Spring on the situation in eight Arab countries.

The first part of the article reviews the sequence of events that began in late 2010, and illustrates how the events spread to many Arab countries, while it focuses on eight countries in particular. The second part explores the various interpretations of the Arab Spring. The third part uses two comparative indices—the Freedom in the World Index and the Democracy Index—in order to determine whether the events reinforced the level of democracy in the countries studied.

The Arab Spring is a term coined by the media for the wave of events that swept through the Arab states in late 2010, which was accompanied by demonstrations, protests, waves of violence, and civil war. The use of the term "Spring" has positive connotations in the discourse of democracy, and is associated with the events that swept Europe in 1848 ("The Spring of Nations") and the anti-Soviet protests that took place in Czechoslovakia in 1968 ("The Prague Spring").

As of this writing, the events of the Arab Spring have led to the removal from power of five leaders: in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt (twice). In other countries such as Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait, the protests did not bring about regime change; in another—Syria—a bloody civil war has been raging for over two years, and has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians so far. Some argue that it is wrong to associate all the events that are identified with the "Arab Spring" with one type of development, since there is a difference between countries where the events took the form of mass protests against dictatorial regimes and countries where the events led to violent conflicts that turned into civil wars in which different power groups vied for control.

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in late December 2010, after a local street vendor set himself on fire to protest repeated harassment by government authorities. That morning, his vegetable cart had been confiscated by a municipal clerk escorted by police, and he had been subjected to public humiliation. Shortly thereafter, the vendor went to the governor’s office to complain, but when the latter refused to see him, he set himself on fire. In solidarity with the vendor's actions, many young people began to demonstrate and protest against the government. The demonstrations intensified further during the following week, after a young man committed suicide because of his inability to find work and after a protester was killed by police gunfire. The demonstrations became increasingly violent, leading to the ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country's esteemed tyrannical ruler, who had ruled Tunisia with an iron fist since 1987. In October 2011, the first free democratic elections in Tunisia were held since the country declared its independence in the 1950s.

About a week and a half after the outbreak of the riots in Tunisia, the unrest spread to the neighboring country of Algeria. Here, however, the protests were on a much smaller scale and were significantly less intense. They also lasted a relatively short time, mostly due to the rapid response of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The President repealed the state of emergency, which had been in force for 19 years, and initiated several institutional reforms in the areas of elections, political parties, and women's representation in political institutions. These measures eased the tension, and as of this writing, the protests have subsided.

Shortly afterwards, the protests spilled over into Jordan, where protesters vigorously demanded reforms that would improve the government's performance and lead the country toward a true constitutional monarchy by increasing competition in the system and limiting the power of the royal family. King Abdullah tried to undertake several initiatives to satisfy the demands of the demonstrators, but as of now it seems that there has been no change for the better. Instead, Jordan suffers from instability, reflected in the turnover of four prime ministers in the two years since the protests began.

On January 25, 2011, the wave of unrest moved on to Egypt, the largest Arab country. Huge crowds of demonstrators gathered in major cities across the country, demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak from power. The center of the action was Tahrir Square, in the heart of the capital city of Cairo. Security forces took a hard line, and killed over 800 protesters during the three weeks of the "Tahrir Revolution." On February 11, 2011, President Mubarak resigned from his post and transferred his powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt, headed by General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Mubarak himself was sentenced to life imprisonment for instructing forces to injure protesters intentionally. The military immediately dissolved the parliament, suspended the constitution, and promised to pass institutional reforms and lift the emergency regulations that had been in force for 30 years. A temporary lull followed, but protests resumed when many felt that the Supreme Council was procrastinating and solidifying its hold on power. As a result, the Supreme Council moved up its schedule and announced parliamentary elections (late 2011) and presidential elections (May 2012), both of which were won by the Muslim Brotherhood. The elected president, Mohamed Morsi, survived for one year in office and was ousted by the army in July 2013, following mass protests against his leadership.

Shortly after the outbreak of violence in Tahrir, the wave of unrest spread to Libya and Yemen. In Libya, protests started in Benghazi, and pulled together the opponents of the regime of Dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled Libya since 1969. The violent demonstrations against the regime soon turned into a widespread civil war, which lasted for a period of eight months in 2011. The war took the form of a power struggle between the different tribes that make up Libyan society. The fighting between Gaddafi's forces and the rebel troops claimed the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians and led to international intervention. In September 2011, the United Nations recognized the National Transitional Council (the political wing of the rebels) as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. A month later, Gaddafi was captured and killed while trying to escape. His official rule thus came to an end, and the civil war was won. In July 2012, the first democratic elections in decades were held.

In Yemen, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the difficult economic situation, rising unemployment, and the government's incompetence. They soon demanded the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the country since the late 1970s. Saleh announced that he would not seek reelection in 2013, but this was not enough for the protesters, and demonstrations continued, despite violent repression by security forces. Waves of violence ensued, almost to the point of civil war, including an attack on the presidential palace. President Saleh was seriously injured and left for Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He returned to Yemen, and in October 2011, with UN mediation, signed an agreement that he would step down from his post in February 2012 in return for immunity from prosecution. The agreement was kept and a fourth ruler was thus ousted in the Arab Spring.

In Kuwait protests began in February 2011 and continued sporadically throughout the year. The emphasis of the protest in this country was the government's conduct and the economic situation, and it led to the resignation of the Prime Minister in November 2011. Kuwait's Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, dissolved the parliament unilaterally, arguing that the severe situation and corruption demanded new elections. The elections that were held in 2012, however, yielded positive results for conservative Islamic forces. Shortly after the elections, the Constitutional Court invalidated the results on the grounds that the dissolution of parliament by al-Sabah was unconstitutional. New elections were scheduled for late December 2012. In preparation, the Emir initiated electoral changes aimed at improving the prospects that a liberal candidate would be elected. Opposition groups responded by boycotting the elections. The Constitutional Court invalidated the election yet again, and elections are expected to take place in July 2013 for the fourth time in less than four years.

Although Syria was the last of the countries affected by the events of the Arab Spring, it appears to have been the country most influenced by them. The protests began in Syria in March 2011. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad tried to quell the protests through steps such as releasing political prisoners, lifting the state of emergency, and dismissing the government. However, these responses failed to prevent the demonstrations from turning into a bloody civil conflict between the opposition forces ("rebels"), who banded together to remove the Assad family from power, and the forces loyal to Assad. As in Libya, demonstrations that began as protest rallies unleashed a tribal "genie" and the conflict developed rapidly into a power struggle between various factions in an artificial state. The civil war in Syria has been going on for over two years now and has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of victims.

Researchers are divided over the main motive that led to the outbreak of the Arab Spring. The prevailing view is that it was a buildup of a number of factors that reached a boiling point. Some of the causes are related to frustration with the economic situation: rising unemployment, widespread poverty, and widening social gaps. Other reasons relate to dissatisfaction with the government's dictatorial style; the regime was characterized by widespread corruption, intolerance for pluralism, and severe violations of basic human rights.

Other researchers see social and demographic changes as the cause for the wave of unrest; they point out that during the last two decades, standards of living actually increased in many Arab countries, with many citizens acquiring higher education and "connecting" to the world via the Internet and social networking. Especially in young people, these developments raised expectations of higher standards of government and brought about a high level of critical awareness of the regimes under which they lived. To many of them, the autocratic regimes were corrupt, ineffective, undemocratic and outdated relics of a failed world. A frequent slogan chanted by protesters in the various countries was "the people demand to bring down the regime," which expressed the desire to replace the autocratic dynasties—monarchies or families that had held power for years (see Table 1)–with regimes that are more competitive and free.

Table 1: Dictatorial Leaders in Eight Countries
on the Eve of the Arab Spring

  Leader/Dynasty Year of Ascent Leader's Fate
Libya Muammar Gaddafi 1969 Groomed successors from within his family; was overthrown and killed in 2011
Egypt Hosni Mubarak 1981 Tried to appoint his son his successor; was overthrown in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison
Tunisia Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 1987 Fled his country in 2011
Algeria Abdelaziz Bouteflika 1999 Still in power
Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh 1978 Resigned at the start of 2012 in response to pressure
Kuwait Al-Sabah Dynasty  18th Century The current Emir is still in power
Jordan Hashemite Dynasty 1921 King Abdullah is still in office
Syria Al-Assad Family 1971  President Bashar al-Assad is still in office

In this respect, there are those who define the Arab Spring movement as a wave of democratic protest that reflects a positive and encouraging development for all those who uphold the values of liberal democracy. This approach was very prominent in the first days of the events: many Western leaders expressed their support and saw the movement as an optimistic expression of a transition to democratization, in which the people renounce tyrannical rulers who inhibited political competition and trampled basic rights, and demand instead free and competitive elections for the political institutions. In May 2011, for example, U.S. President Barack Obama said that the waves of protest were testament to the fact that the values espoused by Al-Qaeda fell on deaf ears among the younger generation in the Arab world. He complimented the protesters for taking the fate of their nations in their own hands: "The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not. In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of a few." French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said: "For too long we thought that the authoritarian regimes were the only bastions against extremism in the Arab world. Too long, we have brandished the Islamist threat as a pretext for justifying to an extent turning a blind eye on governments which were flouting freedom and curbing their country’s development." These types of responses from Western leaders sometimes found expression in direct or indirect support of efforts to overthrow the previous regimes. Such was the case in Libya, where several countries helped during the first stages of the rebellion, and the NATO countries officially joined the effort thereafter. In addition, there has been indirect international involvement in Syria and Yemen.

Others have been wary of providing an overwhelmingly positive interpretation of the events and warned of the inherent danger of replacing secular dictatorial regimes with Islamic regimes. This does not mean that the regimes were beyond reproach. The autocratic rulers in Egypt, Libya and Yemen were far from models of democratic governance. On the contrary, the elections in these countries were largely misrepresentations; they were periodic rituals that greatly limited political competition and were intended primarily to preserve the rule of tyrants under the pretense of a democratic process. These criticisms aside, however, these regimes were quite convenient for Western countries. They were pragmatic, secular regimes that generally maintained good relations with the Western superpowers. The great fear of the skeptics was that the protesters—most of whom were from educated, modern society with a Western orientation—would succeed in removing the tyrants in the short term, but that after initial free and competitive elections, the government would be replaced by Islamic conservatives who do not support the values of modernity and liberal and substantive democracy.

In other words, the greatest concern was that opening the democratic process to free competition will improve the procedural dimension of democracy, but will not bring about a similar improvement in the substantive-liberal dimension of democracy (and may even worsen the situation).

The establishment of free and competitive elections in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt provided the first opportunities to examine these different approaches to the Arab Spring. Although an Islamic party won the elections of 2011 in Tunisia, it stated that it supports a multi-party system of democracy and aims to incorporate moderate liberal forces in the government. The free elections in Libya were also deemed "a promising start" and a "step in the right direction." In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected President of the Republic, not in the least because of support from the extreme conservative Islamic factions. Many were concerned by his election, both in the West and in liberal circles in Egypt. A year after his rise to power, mass protests against Morsi's regime, his ineffectiveness in improving the country's socio-economic situation, and the Islamic direction in which he led the nation, led to a military intervention that brought his one-year rule to an end.

As previously mentioned, the time that has elapsed since the outbreak of the Arab Spring is too short to enable a determination of whether the changes improved democracy in the countries in which they took place. An even shorter amount of time has passed since the first free elections were held in three of those countries. Nonetheless, we will try to examine the nature of the changes and determine whether they made the situation better or worse, by studying two comparative indices that measure some aspects of democracy.

The Freedom in the World Index is an index published regularly since 1972 by the American research institute Freedom House. This index aims to examine the level of democracy in the countries of the world by examining two main dimensions of democracy: political rights and civil liberties. Questions examined within the realm of political rights include: Are the head of the executive and the legislature elected in free, competitive, and fair elections? Do citizens have the right to organize in political parties? Is there a significant opposition that is not limited by the government? Questions examined within the realm of civil liberties include: Does the country have freedom of expression, including a free and independent media? Is there freedom of religion? Is the education system free of blatant political interference? Do citizens have the right to assemble and protest? Is the judiciary independent and impartial?

Each of the two dimensions—political rights and civil liberties—is given a rating on a scale of 1 (best) to 7 (worst). The average of the two ratings is calculated for the final distribution of countries into three categories:

  • "Free" = Countries with an average rating of 1.0–2.5.
  • "Partly-free" = Countries with an average rating of 3.0–5.0.
  • "Not free" = Countries with an average rating of 5.5–7.0.

In order to present the status of freedom in the world graphically, in a user-friendly manner, Freedom House publishes the annual Freedom in the World Map, in which countries are marked with three different colors: "Free" countries are green, "partly-free" countries are yellow, and "not free" countries are blue-gray.

An examination of the scores of the countries affected by the Arab Spring yields some interesting findings. Firstly, in 2010, on the eve of the events, only Kuwait was rated as a "partly-free" country; all of the other countries were ranked "not free." Secondly, the Freedom in the World Index for 2013 defines Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt as "partly-free" countries as well. In the first two of these countries, the improvement was extremely significant: In three years, Libya jumped from the worst possible grade (an average of 7) to an average score of 4.5, while Tunisia jumped from an average of 6 to an average of 3.5, and is on the verge of classification as a "free" country. Thirdly, in two of the countries—Algeria and Jordan—there has been no change in the level of democracy as reflected in the Freedom in the World Index. A slight deterioration can be found in the ratings of Kuwait (probably due to the instability), Syria (because of the civil war), and Yemen.

Lastly, it is interesting to examine the changes in Tunisia and Libya, focusing on their scores in each dimension separately. In the two countries in which there was significant improvement, the ranking for political rights rose far more sharply than the ranking for civil liberties. This finding can be explained as reflecting a reality in which the political process (free elections) quickly became competitive and democratic, while improvement in civil liberties is slower and more moderate. The question that must be asked here, especially by those who are skeptical about the democratization of the Arab world, is whether there will continue to be an improvement in the area of civil liberties in the coming years or whether the progress in this crucial dimension of democracy will slow down or regress.

Table 2: Freedom in the World Index in 10 Countries, 2010-2013
(Right Score = Political Rights; Left Score = Civil Liberties)

  2010 2011 2012 2013 Trend
Tunisia 7, 5 7, 5 3, 4 3, 4 Improvement
Libya 7, 7 7, 7 7, 6 4, 5 Improvement
Egypt 6, 5 6, 5 6, 5  5, 5 Moderate improvement
Algeria 6, 5 6, 5 6, 5  6, 5 No change
Yemen 6, 5 6, 5 6, 6 6, 6 Slight deterioration
Jordan 6, 5 6, 5 6, 5 6, 5 No change
Syria 7, 6 7, 6 7, 7 7, 7 Slight deterioration
Kuwait 4, 4 4, 5 4, 5 5, 5 Slight deterioration
Israel 1, 2 1, 2 1, 2 1, 2 Unchanged
United States 1, 1 1, 1 1, 1 1, 1 Unchanged

Legend: Gray = "Not Free," Yellow = "Partly-Free," Green = "Free"

The Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit is a more recent index that began in 2006. This index also seeks to examine the level of democracy in the world, by ranking countries from the most democratic to the least democratic. The index is a weighted average based on 60 measures in five categories: civil liberties, the electoral process and pluralism, political culture, political participation, and the functioning of government. The weighted value is on a scale of 1 (least democratic) to 10 (most democratic). The countries of the world are divided into the following four categories based on the ratings they receive:

  • Full democracies: Value of 8 or more
  • Flawed democracies: Value of 6 to 7.9
  • Hybrid regimes: Value of 4 to 5.9
  • Authoritarian regimes: Value of 0 to 3.9

Table 3 shows the values of the Democracy Index for the years 2010–2012 (as of this writing, the 2013 Index has not yet been published). As can be seen in the 2010 Index, all eight Arab countries surveyed in this article were classified as authoritarian regimes, with values under 4. In comparison, the United States was included in the "full democracy" category, while Israel was categorized as a "flawed democracy." Two years later, in the 2012 Index, a significant improvement was evident in three countries: Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. These three countries moved up from the category of "authoritarian regime" to the category of "hybrid regime," with an especially sharp increase in the ratings of Tunisia and Libya. The ratings of Algeria and Yemen improved moderately, while the ratings of Jordan and Kuwait had no real change, and the level of democracy in Syria deteriorated sharply.

Table 3: The Democracy Index of 10 Countries, 2010–2012

  2010 2011 2012 Trend
Tunisia 2.79 5.53 5.67 Improvement
Libya 1.94 3.55 5.15 Improvement
Egypt 3.07 3.95 4.56 Improvement
Algeria 3.44 3.44 3.83 Slight improvement
Yemen 2.64 2.57 3.12 Slight improvement
Jordan 3.74 3.89 3.76 Unchanged
Kuwait 3.88 3.74 3.78 Slight deterioration
Syria 2.31 1.99 1.63  Acute deterioration
Israel 7.48 7.53 7.53 Unchanged
United States 8.18 8.11 8.11 Unchanged

According to the most recent Democracy Index (2012), Tunisia was ranked 90th of the 167 countries studied. Libya ranked 95th and Algeria, Kuwait, and Jordan ranked 118th, 119th, and 121st respectively. The other Arab countries lagged behind. In comparison, Israel ranked 37th, the United States ranked 21st, and Norway topped the list.

The overall picture that emerges from an analysis of the ratings of the Democracy Index is quite similar to the picture that emerges from the Freedom in the World Index. The two indices show that in reality, in three countries affected by the Arab Spring, democracy significantly improved: in Tunisia, Libya, and to a lesser extent Egypt, significant processes of democratization have begun, although (as derived from the results of the Freedom in the World Index) the improvement has been primarily in procedural aspects of democracy rather than its substantive-liberal dimensions.

The findings of the two indices also align regarding Syria (where the level of democracy has worsened) and Jordan (where the level of democracy has remained unchanged). It is worth noting that the two indices point to different trends in Yemen; the Freedom in the World Index shows that there has been a slight worsening of the country's level of democracy, while the Democracy Index shows an improvement. It is likely that the difference is due to the fact that the Democracy Index has not yet published data for 2013, and therefore does not reflect the (moderate) exacerbation that occurred in Yemen.

Has the Arab Spring brought about real democratization in the Arab world? In some countries, it emerges that there has been no significant change in the level of democracy. Other countries (most noticeably, Syria and recently Egypt as well) are still in the midst of a violent process, and the ultimate outcome remains uncertain. While the two indices studied show real democratization in three countries—Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt—it is still too early to draw definitive conclusions. The transition of the Arab states from secular, autocratic regimes to more open and democratic ones is far from perfect, and must meet at least two important challenges. The first is the challenge of time: Will frequent, free, and competitive elections that enable orderly changes of government continue over time? The second is the liberal challenge: Will democratization extend beyond election procedures and also lead to the adoption of substantive democratic values such as respect for human rights, freedom of religion, tolerance, and ideological pluralism? Given that in the first free elections that were held, Islamic forces—some more moderate than others—made some impressive achievements, the crucial question remains: Is Islam compatible with democracy?

At present, some might say that in at least some countries, the Arab Spring can be seen as a positive democratic awakening, even if it is ultimately doomed to failure because of structural factors such as a tribal social structure, the lack of a tradition of the rule of law, or lack of party infrastructure.

Bellin, Eva, 2012. “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons from the Arab Spring,” Comparative Politics 44 (2): 127–149.

Dalacoura, Katerina (2013). “The Arab Uprising Two Years On: Ideology, Sectarianism and the Changing Power of Balance in the Middle East,” Insight Turkey 15 (1): 75–89.

Economist, 2012. “The Arab Spring: A Long March,” February 18, 2012.

Lynch, Mark, 2011. “Obama's Arab Spring?,Foreign Policy, January 6, 2011.

Stepan, Alfred and Juan J. Linz, 2013. “Democratization Theory and the Arab Spring,” Journal of Democracy 24 (2): 15–30. 

Dr. Ofer Kenig is an IDI researcher who heads the Political Parties Research Team of IDI's Political Reform project. 

IDI is grateful to our summer intern Dor Cohen for his help in the translation of this article and to Hadas Werman for her help in preparing it for publication.