[This article is part of the Arab Studies Institute's Ten Years On Project.]
It has been suggested that once the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control, mass demonstrations are likely to again erupt across the Arab world. Widespread protests during 2018-2019 in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, and Sudan have already been embraced as Arab Spring 2.0. As recently argued by Kim Ghattas, “the class of 2019” has learned the appropriate lessons from the failures of “the class of 2011” and is consequently in a better position to meet the challenges of transformative change.
Others remain mired in the decade of despair that displaced the initial euphoria of 2011. For Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, the COVID-19 pandemic and attendant global recession formed the final straw, clearing the deck for pessimism of the most cynical variety:
The region has become a dystopia marked by violence, resurgent authoritarianism, economic dislocation, and regional conflict, with no clear way out … For the first time, it is entirely reasonable to feel hopeless about the Middle East. (Emphasis added)
While Cook leaves little to the imagination, the validity of his cataclysmic assessment is a different matter. It is, for example, irrefutable that the Arab uprisings of the beginning of the last decade represent an unprecedented moment of political consciousness in action. In multiple locations as well as dimensions, the yoke of submission was cast off with an impact that persists to this day. Yet by the same token Ghattas’s confidence seems at best premature. There is for example little evidence, including from Algeria and Sudan, that opposition forces have developed the organizational infrastructure required to not only oust an unpopular head of state, but also decisively defeat the ancien regime and remake the state in their image.
History rarely progresses in linear fashion, and more commonly unfolds as a sequence of cycles and coincidences. It therefore remains important to join Walter Benjamin in searching for traces of the past in the present. Insofar as the upheavals of the past decade indeed constitute revolutions, these exist primarily in the minds of those who took to the streets, and have had a much weaker presence at the political-institutional level.
In this sense the uprisings of 2010-2011, revolutionary or not, represent only the beginning of a lengthy process of upheaval. Their outcome, it can’t be emphasized enough, remains uncertain. Snapshot assessments, so common throughout the past ten years, have been repeatedly and rather predictably overtaken by events. This only strengthens the case for more rigorous analysis that prioritizes longer-term perspectives.
The proposition that dictatorship is an unsustainable form of government and will over the long run necessarily make way for democracy is problematic and naive in equal measure. Studies that proceed from this premise not only indulge in excessive quantities of wishful thinking, but also over-emphasize concepts like “civil society”, which are often poorly defined and presented as panaceas. The more civil society, so the argument goes, the greater the prospects for real democratic change. In effect, optimism willing a democratic future stands in for analysis of complex realities.
No less problematic are approaches that fail to recognize the disparity between the content of protests and their underlying causes. While there was no shortage of slogans demanding “bread”, the emphasis of these protests, and even more so in subsequent electoral programs, was very much on “freedom” and “democracy”, and thus predominantly political in nature. Yet it was and remains the bleak economic reality that deserves primary focus. This was, after all, the main albeit not sole driver of the Arab revolts. It is noteworthy that even in the context of consistently deteriorating economic conditions since 2011, which have been only amplified by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic dimensions of Arab upheaval have received insufficient consideration.
The Past as Prologue
The explanation for this mismatch can be located in the past. As described by economists Dani Rodrik and Sharun Mukand, the transition to democracy in the West resulted from processes of industrialization where the main social conflict was between labor and capital. Yet most developing countries, including the Arab world, followed a different trajectory. In these societies the primary conflict was a political one, in which the objective of mass mobilization was the decolonisation and national liberation of an entire society from foreign domination. In such contexts nationalist ideologies often downplayed or suppressed social contradictions, and more often than not achieved greater currency than class-based ones and triumphed at their expense.
The spirit of the times restricted the political space available to movements that prioritized class-based politics, while those that sought to fuse nationalist with transformative socio-economic agendas faced relentless opposition from within and without. Where those in the former category, like the communist parties of Iraq and Sudan, did achieve prominence they were often successfully eliminated by their nationalist rivals. Those of the latter type, most notably Egypt under Nasser, ultimately succumbed to the combination of organized hostility and their internal contradictions, and were subsequently domesticated under more pliable leadership. Additionally, continued foreign intervention, primarily by Western powers and their regional client states, made the unlikely virtually impossible. Related to this, the persistence of Israeli colonization and the Arab-Israeli conflict further obstructed the transition to the possibilities of independence, while regional polarization within the Arab world and Middle East furnished additional constraints. A further and more recent phenomenon, and one also increasingly prominent in the West, is the infiltration of culture wars and identity politics into national politics, and the commensurate displacement of socio-economic agendas. Collectively, these historical dynamics served to make the emergence of liberal democracy less likely.
The consequences of this history remain with us to this day. Mass politics in the Middle East is far less infused with explicitly class-based agendas than might otherwise be expected, though there are of course important exceptions such as labour protests in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain. As noted by Egyptian analyst Maged Mandour, “Aside from slogans of political change, human rights, and the need to combat corruption, there has been very little social content [in the Arab uprisings]." The open or tacit embrace of neoliberalism by many opposition leaders and intellectuals, including on the left, and no less importantly their general failure to confront it with compelling alternatives, is a longstanding phenomenon in the West that has also afflicted the Arab world. The resultant inability to persuasively articulate the socio-economic interests of their constituents further contextualizes Mandour’s insightful observations on the nature and limitations of the Egyptian uprising.
The above has implications for assessing contributions to the debate that advocate for genuine citizenship (muwatana) and a civil state (dawla madaniyya) governed by the rule of law. While admittedly laudable, such agendas display insufficient consideration of the structural causes of the fragility and organizational weakness of opposition movements. Narratives that reserve a special role for Arab youth are similarly flawed and seem to represent idealism at the expense of reality. Since when do youth form a unified social force or political movement rather than a diffuse sociological category?
That democratization is a more complex process than often conceived is apparent from recent studies that examine the difficult nature of transitions from dictatorship. The initial period following such change is often accompanied by increased instability and insecurity, at both the personal level (unrest, violence) and the economic one (unemployment). Research indicates that citizens often respond to such developments with less rather than more faith in democracy – the so-called "autocratic paradox".
A focus on states where dictators have been replaced by a genuine form of democratic governance, such as Tunisia, confirms this phenomenon. Specifically, it appears that support for democracy is more dependent upon an improvement in socio-economic conditions than an expansion of political and civil rights. While Tunisia continues to conduct free elections and has its secret police largely under control, living conditions have deteriorated sharply during the past decade. Income levels have decreased by a fifth, unemployment rates have grown exponentially, and many young Tunisians aspire to leave the country. Where economic anxiety is accompanied by personal insecurity on account of growing unrest and political instability, it is hardly surprising that people become nostalgic for the era before the country was consumed by upheaval – let alone a global pandemic.
The pandemic’s political consequences were entirely predictable. Without exception, governments have expanded their powers of surveillance and control, and intensified their application. The list of measures is a long one indeed: lockdowns, states of emergency, curfews, arrests, and greater restrictions placed upon the freedom of expression. In states where protests were taking place, like Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon, the authorities availed themselves of the opportunity to cite public health considerations in order to enforce a prohibition on public assemblies. Public spaces that had been occupied by demonstrators, such as parks and squares, were forcefully repossessed by the government and its security forces. Houses of worship were placed under even greater state supervision.
The economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have been devastating and only intensified the trends described above. In October 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projected that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region would that year decrease by an average of 4.1 percent – a further 1.3 percent lower than the dismal forecast it had provided only six months earlier. The tourism sector and migrant worker remittances have been hit particularly hard.
More recently, the IMF has assessed that “the path to recovery in 2021 is expected to be long and divergent”. There is, in other words, little prospect of short-term recovery. To the extent one does take place, it is likely to have an L-shape (stagnant growth marked by persistent unemployment), a series of W’s (a double dip recession), or a K-shape (a recovery that privileges the wealthy).
Interestingly, the IMF indicated that in its initial phases the MENA recession was disproportionately driven by declining oil revenues, with “oil-exporting countries ... hit hardest by a double-whammy of the pandemic and the resulting sharp decline in oil demand and prices”. Although energy prices have largely recovered and there are few signs that upheaval is knocking on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s door, significant further pressure on its members’ social spending capacities, particularly if combined with far-reaching austerity measures, may yet demonstrate that the much-touted “monarchical exception” has little to do with hereditary forms of government. Rather than being an exception to any rule of political change, the Bahraini experience was largely driven by the same dynamics observed elsewhere in the region.
In a region where sixty percent of the population is younger than twenty-five, and youth unemployment is higher than in any other region on the planet, economic retrenchment will result in growing poverty, particularly but not solely in the informal sector. It also bears recollection that the MENA region, which accounts for only six per cent of the global population, generates and hosts the largest number of refugees and internally displaced persons in the world.
The economic challenges confronting the Arab world are thus colossal, especially with respect to employment generation, and this observation also applies to relatively wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia. Oddly, the more educated are more likely to be unemployed.
According to a recent UNICEF report, the region’s economies will need to create about 2.6 million new jobs per year. Egypt, for example, must generate 3.5 million jobs in the coming five years, or 700,000 per annum. This is simply not going to happen.
"What the People Want"
What does this mean for the future of the Arab World, and opportunities for further democratization? Taking into account forecasts regarding the impacts of automatization and digitalization, which suggest a world with fewer rather than more jobs, the Arab world, already reeling before the pandemic, now finds itself in an exceptionally difficult position. The generation of jobs so vital to ensuring economic security is highly unlikely to materialize.
The political consequences may well be cataclysmic. If these jobs are not created, their absence will create an army of the permanently unemployed. Incumbent regimes cannot experience this as anything other than a direct and potentially mortal threat. Yet in the context of the distorted forms of mass politics discussed above, the status quo can prevail for far longer than many hope or expect. Resilient dictatorship and repression is thus the most likely state of affairs, precluding even superficial forms of electoral democracy.
Does this vindicate Cook’s gloomy observation that the situation is “hopeless”? In the short and medium terms things are indeed likely to get worse. Neither Arab governments nor their citizens can exercise meaningful control over pandemics or global recessions. Nor will the maintenance of prevailing economic policies turn the tide. One should also not expect course corrections that come at the expense of vested interests.
There is additionally a dearth of proposals emanating from civil society to rupture the stalemate. Where ideas are being developed to bridge the gap between political and socio-economic rights, these tend to be presented in a piecemeal fashion. It is under current circumstances admittedly an almost impossible task to propose realistic alternatives, yet it remains essential to do so. As argued previously, the first priority is the creation of jobs, jobs, and more jobs. This is “what the people want”. It is a definition of democracy that emphasises economic security, rather than restricting itself to its political dimensions and procedural aspects such as elections and political freedoms – objectives that are by no means unimportant, but insufficient.
Have the Arab uprisings failed? To pose this question a mere decade after the first revolts, while others are ongoing, invites superficial judgments.
If we look at broadly similar processes elsewhere the consolidation of democracy can take in excess of a century. How long did democratization take – and how many setbacks has it encountered – in France, Germany, India, South Africa, the United States, and other countries?
In other words, if the process of societal emancipation proves arduous in the Middle East and North Africa, this hardly makes it exceptional. There are bumps on the road elsewhere, with democratization often taking one step forward before retreating by two.
It is ironic that even the “success story”, Tunisia, resolved an important challenge but unfortunately not the one that was the engine of its upheaval. Instead of much-desired economic improvements, Tunisians obtained a constitutional government. Others achieved even less or ended up in a vortex of bloody conflict.
Whether, when, and in what form the Arab world will achieve democratic governance is of course unpredictable, though we should account for more obstacles than exist elsewhere. This has nothing to do with Islam or other cultural factors, and everything with historical dynamics and geopolitical realities that have militated against the successful development of class-based popular movements that were elsewhere germane to the consolidation of democracy.
The uprisings of ten years ago and their “sequels” in 2018-2019 had and continue to have real and substantive meaning, and it would therefore be simplistic to conclude that they have failed. A realistic assessment of the decade past and those yet to come needs to shun both wishful optimism and dystopian cynicism.
[An earlier version of this article was published by Paul Aarts in Fanack.com]
 See for example Barbara Geddes, “What Do We Know About Democratization After 20 Years?”, Annual Review of Political Science, June 1999; Eva Bellin, “A Modest Transformation: Political Change in the Arab World After the ‘Arab Spring’”, in Clement Henry & Jang Ji-Hyang (eds.),The Arab Spring: Will It Lead to Democratic Transitions? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 33-48.
 The Lebanese social anthropologist and former government minister Charbel Nahas, among others, references “vague terms such as civil society”, and emphasizes the indispensability of “well-organised political parties”, “De explosie biedt ook kans op hervorming”, NRC Handelsblad, 18 August 2020 (Dutch).
 There are exceptions that do try to bridge the gap between politics and economics. See for example the work of Andrea Teti and his colleagues in the Arab Transformations Project. See also various studies by Arab NGOs and think tanks, such as Economic Research Forum, Nawaat, Observatoire Tunisien de l’Economie, Arab NGO Network for Development, and Alternative Policy Solutions, as well as several contributions to Middle East Report and studies by Mark R. Beissinger, Amaney Jamal and Kevin Mazur.
 See also Dani Rodrik, “The Perils of Premature Deindustrialisation”, Project Syndicate, 11 October 2013. For a more general discussion and theoretical treatment of this issue consult Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens, Capitalist Development & Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
 See also the following contributions by Maged Mandour: “The poverty of protest”, Open Democracy, 5 December 2019; "On the absence of Arab intellectuals", Open Democracy, 23 September 2015; "On the absence of Arab intellectuals: counter-revolution and the state", Open Democracy, 11 August 2016; "Where are the workers?", Open Democracy, 11 April 2016; "Whose revolution?", Open Democracy, 21 September 2016; "'The people want’, but what do they want?", Open Democracy, 25 August 2015; "The capitalist roots of Egyptian authoritarianism: demystifying the state", Open Democracy, 11 August 2020.
 Pietro Marzo & Francesco Cavatorta, “The Demise of the Arab Strongman? Authoritarianism and the Future of the Middle East”, in Shahram Akbarzadeh (ed.), Handbook of International Relations of the Middle East (London: Routledge, 2019), p. 265-278; Melani Cammett, Ishac Diwan & Irina Vartanova, “Insecurity and Political Values in the Arab world”, Democratization 27:5 (2020), pp. 699-716; Ammar Shamaileh, “Never Out of Now: Preference Falsification, Social Capital and the Arab Spring”, International Interactions 45: 6 (2019), pp. 949-975; M. Tahir Kilavuz & Nathanael Gratias Sumaktoyo, “Hopes and Disppointments: Regime Change and Support for Democracy After the Arab Spring”, Democratization 27:5 (2020), pp. 854-873.
 See “In Tunisia, The Cradle of the Arab Spring, Protesters want Jobs”, The Economist, 13 August 2020; Alessandra Bajec, “Tunisia: In Tataouine Socio-Economic Marginalization Is a Time Bomb”, Arab Reform Initiative, 24 July 2020; Ishac Diwan,”Tunisia’s Upcoming Challenge: Fixing the Economy Before It’s Too Late”, Arab Reform Initiative, 23 September 2020; Daniel Brumberg & Maryam Ben Salem, “Tunisia’s Endless Transition?”, Journal of Democracy 31:2 (2020), pp. 110-124.
 "Democracy's growing pains. In Tunisia, cradle of the Arab Spring, protesters want jobs. Nostalgia for the old dictatorship is growing", The Economist, 13 August 2020.
 “The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa”, POMEPS Studies 39 (April 2020); Amr Hamzawy & Nathan Brown, “How Much Will the Pandemic Change Egyptian Governance and for How Long?”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 July 2020; Thomas Carothers & David Wong, “Authoritarian Weaknesses and the Pandemic”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 11 August 2020; Francis Fukuyama,”The Pandemic and Political Order”, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2020; Afsoun Afsahi et al., “Democracy in a Global Emergency: Five Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic”, Democratic Theory 7:2 (2020), pp. v-xix; Layla Saleh & Larbi Sadiki, “The Arab World Between A Formidable Virus and A Repressive State”, Open Democracy, 6 April 2020.
 International Monetary Fund, Regional Economic Outlook: Middle East and Central Asia (October 2020), p. 1-2.
 Ibid., p. 2.
 "By 2030, the countries in MENA face a 27 percent increase in the labour force (15-64 years) compared to 2015, and hence 39 million new entrants into the labour market, assuming the labour force participation rate for both men and women follows the trend projected by the International Labour Organization (ILO)". See UNICEF, MENA Generation 2030. Investing in children and youth today to secure a prosperous region tomorrow (April 2019), p. 59.
 Ishac Diwan, Nadim Houry & Yezid Sayigh, “Egypt After the Coronavirus: Back to Square One”, Arab Reform Initiative, 26 August 2020. See also Diana Saadi, “IMF: MENA Needs to Create Jobs for 27 Million Youth Joining the Labour Force”, The National News, 4 August 2018. For a more general analysis of structurally high unemployment rates see Steffen Hertog, “Segmented Market Economies in the Arab world: The Political economy of Insider-Outsider Divisions”, Socio-Economic Review, 13 April 2020.
 On the cases of France, Germany, and Italy, see Sheri Berman, "The Promise of the Arab Spring: In Political Development, No Gain Without Pain", Foreign Affairs, January/February 2013.