The Arab Spring is over, but the fight for democracy is not

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After a year of democratic backsliding, Tunisia crossed the line last week when President Kais Saied institutionalized his autocratic rule with a referendum on a new constitution that gives him near absolute power. The result of the vote was never in doubt: having already suspended parliament and won the support of the army, Saied had again tilted the rules of the game by appointing his own electoral commission and his judicial council, by imprisoning opponents and muzzling the media.

Since approval of the constitution was predetermined, most Tunisians expressed their disapproval by turning their backs on the process: more than two-thirds of those eligible chose not to vote.

This is almost exactly how democracy withered in Egypt, the only other country where the seeds planted during the Arab Spring – the popular protests that toppled several dictators in the Middle East and North Africa in the early 2010 – had taken root. Like his Cairo counterpart, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Saied represents the triumphant return of the old order.

There’s a lot of blame to be had for these failures.

Start with the revolutionaries. In Tunisia as in Egypt, the young, mostly liberal and secular protesters who overthrew the tyrants neglected the substance of democracy – forming political parties, building political platforms, running for office. This first allowed conservative Islamist parties, better organized to win votes, to form governments.

Protesters also had unrealistic expectations of the instant economic dividends of democracy: when the jobs and opportunities they wanted didn’t immediately materialize, they lost faith in the new political system.

In response, the toppled establishment coalesced around backward-looking figures like Sisi and Saied, who tapped into popular discontent with the new democratic order to gain power – and then rewrite constitutions to complete the restoration of power. ‘autocracy.

Part of the blame also goes to the leaders of the free world, who rejoiced in the flourishing of Arab freedom, but then left the saplings to shrivel in the elements. There was a pronounced Western sensitivity to working with Islamist-led governments in Cairo and Tunis, which undermined their ability to undo the damage left by decades of dictatorship.

Like his two immediate predecessors, President Joe Biden has done little to help the Tunisian government save the country’s struggling economy. His administration offered only cursory criticism of Saied’s takeover. It may be too late to turn back the clock, but Biden and other Democratic leaders must learn from their recent failures and resolve to do better next time around.

And there will definitely be a next time. Young Arabs will soon discover that their new autocrats have no solutions to the economic problems at the root of their discontent. Saied has shown no greater understanding of his country’s economic challenges than the government he sacked. Under Sisi, Egypt’s economy grew, but the proportion of the population living in poverty also increased.

As economic conditions deteriorate with the global downturn, Saied and Sissi can expect no more patience from young Tunisians and Egyptians than from the governments they overthrew. The next political upheaval may not be long in coming.

When the wheel turns, the democratic world must be ready to act quickly. The first priority will be to fully embrace elected governments, whatever their orientation. Next, wealthy Western nations must prepare a package of foreign aid and debt cancellation and favorable trade terms, all designed to allow elected governments to deliver economic dividends to an eager populace.

Equally important, we must be alert to signs of democratic backsliding. Any leader showing an authoritarian side must face real consequences. Military elites, in particular, should understand that their access to Western resources depends on a commitment to defend democratic institutions.

The Arabs will try again for democracy. Next time, the world must not fail them.

The editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion Editorial Board.

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