The Paused Quest for Humane Governance in the Arab World: Is It Time ‘to fail better’?

EDITORIAL, 28 Feb 2022

#734 | Richard Falk – TRANSCEND Media Service

Looking Back

The acceleration of history encourages us to foreshorten our memory of past events, especially when a drama of disillusionment displaces hope by renewed disappointment. This happened to events widely welcomed a decade ago, viewed as a fresh start for the peoples of the Middle East, epitomized by massive demonstrations whose goals were expressed by such slogans as ‘bread, freedom, and social justice. These uprising were celebrated by the liberal media in the West as ‘the Arab Spring.’ The role of activist youth, the spontaneous displays of populist strivings for a better political future, created the feeling that something irreversible, and for the better, was taking place that had transformative implications.

Yet it was not to be. Conservative forces throughout the region were fearful that the established order was under threat from progressive populism that might along the way create a pathway for grassroots Islam to take control of the governing process in several strategic countries in the region. Israel correctly saw these democratizing trends as threatening greater Arab support for the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, above all the right of self-determination. These apprehensions agitated the U.S. government, which is unfailingly responsive to the security concerns of Israel and Saudi Arabia, its two ‘special relationships’ in the region. What was initially perceived as irreversible was soon reversed, often with accompanying mass violence, renewed and vindictive repression, sometimes producing a governmental collapse caused by strife and chaos, creating in many sectors of society receptivity to a Faustian Bargain consisting of a surrender of the quest for freedom and democracy, and settling for the silences and screams accompanying the autocrats who became the vehicles of restored order.

At this time, when the media focus is on the Ukraine, and renewed geopolitical tensions involving Russia, as well as China, have grown intense, it becomes easy to forget the Arab Spring, its promise and its failure, making us wonder whether the prospect of a second better Arab Spring is nothing more than a futile pipe dream.

Looking back ten years on the apparent failure of the First Arab Spring, the situation of Arab societies in 2021 has dramatically regressed in at least two respects as compared to the conditions that prompted the unexpected uprisings a decade ago. First, the realities of poverty, gross inequality, corruption, and autocracy that motivated the populist movements have worsened in a variety of disturbing respects across the entire region, although to varying extents from country to country.

This assessment does not even take account of the violence and suffering flowing from negative side effects of counterrevolutionary actions devoted to restoring the prior order and punishing the insurrectionist opposition. Additionally political turbulence in several countries in the aftermath of the uprisings produced massive internal and international displacement of peoples that often resulted in a second experience of misery for those fleeing combat zones beset by civil strife and foreign intervention. The Arab Spring despite its initial inspirational display of unarmed protesters demanding freedom, human rights, and accountable democracy soon thereafter became the proximate cause of this tragic sequel in several countries. Ten years later there is very little of a positive character that remains of what seemed for a brief interlude to be a liberating moment for a series of societies enduring dysfunctional and repressive governance.

Secondly, although parallel to the disappointing sequel to the Arab Spring, current regional and global conditions have given rise to a different apolitical set of challenges in the Middle East that make the earlier political quests for more humane and equitable state/society relations seem less capable of reigniting the spirit of 2011 in the near future. These new conditions include a growing awareness that the MENA region is particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. It has been further stressed in recent years by the effects on oil and gas pricing due to global undertakings to lessen dependence on fossil fuels as rapidly as possible by hastening societal shifts to renewable sources of energy. The urgent priority of lessening the adverse consequences of global warming is likely to become even more preoccupying for societies struggling to manage ecological agendas, while diverting attention from the revolutionary agendas that animated the Arab Spring in 2010-11.

Geopolitical Games

As well, nothing has been done in the Middle East or by geopolitical actors to reduce the dangers of war and instability associated with confronting Iran by recourse to coercive diplomacy, including threats, assassinations, and harsh sanctions. In fact, the Palestinian people have been thrown to the wolves while Israel is given the economic and political benefits of normalization with Arab governments without any fulfilling the international consensus of achieving a prior negotiated peace with the Palestinians.

Accentuating these concerns are serious prospects of destabilizing shifts in regional and global alignments that may give rise to making the Middle East once again, as during the Cold War, a site of struggle between global rivals, in this instance the U.S. versus China and Russia. The somewhat diminished role of the United States in the region coupled with the increasing relevance of China and Russia as well as the wider potential implications of Israel’s increasingly normalized relations with Arab countries, which has included making Israel an acknowledged partner in Saudi-led anti-Iranian and anti-Turkish coalitions. Such collaboration with Israel without achieving a genuine peace agreement with the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, including those in foreign refugee camps or involuntary exile, was unthinkable a decade ago. The ‘normalization accords’ initiated in 2020 at the end of Trump presidency have also had the effect of widening the gaps between the pro-Palestinian views of Arab peoples and the elites that govern in the Middle East. Such shifts tend to validate the views of those in opposition that the political leadership of many Arab countries is illegitimate as well as incompetent, corrupt, and repressive. In effect, legitimacy hangs over those governments that have tacitly or avowedly abandoned the Palestinian struggle for the sake of making common cause with the Israelis against Iran, as well as to benefit from trade, investment, and access to arms markets.

Despite these developments, if we look forward in time, there seems present a set of conditions that will in due course give rise to a revival of activist displays of radical political discontent in several Arab countries. Recent political challenges to the status quo mounted in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, and occupied Palestine have already foreshadowed such a future. Although the outcome of these challenges has been confused and unresolved, and far less dramatic than the Arab Spring, their occurrence reveals vitality in civil society as well as fissures at national sub-national levels of governance that amount to an early warning system of political volatility throughout the region.

There are also a variety of indications that the failures of the first Arab Spring have prompted adjustments in the outlook of democratizing activist thought and practice. It may also be relevant that the U.S. appears, at least temporarily, to have wearied of its engagement in regime-changing, ‘democracy-promoting’ interventions in the Middle East being inhibited, at least temporarily, by its notable failures in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and more recently in Afghanistan. Such wariness of military engagement on the part of the U.S. within the region takes some account of the fact that the most elaborate U.S./NATO attempts to alter the orientation and leadership in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Libya were costly and failed to produce the political results that were invoked to justify the interventions in the first place.

A major reaction to the removal of despotic leadership in several countries led to the collapse of national governmental capabilities to sustain even minimal order, producing a dispersal of power within the borders of states, notably Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq. The weakening of governing capacity of the state bureaucracies led to persisting violent strife and chaos as well as death and devastation, and massive internal and cross-border displacement of populations, and this passion for order above all else. These chaotic circumstances on the ground have contributed to the acute economic and political misery of Arab populations, prompting a new wave of rising opposition that is leading governments in the region to rely on ever more oppressive measures of political control. This interaction seems to be generating large-scale resentment and alienation throughout the MENA region, contributing to chronic chaos in several states.

The picture that emerges from looking back ten years combined with an attempt to sketch the present and near future of Arab political development is a bewilderingly contradictory configuration of great complexity, diversity of national circumstances, and radical uncertainty, especially pertaining to geopolitical intrusions in MENA. Going forward, the absence of any positive model in the region upon which to construct a visionary future seems to make unlikely large-scale recourse to oppositional action in the near future.

The search goes on to develop a politics of action that combines fairness in the economic sphere with dignity and participation in the political sphere. This is likely to remain a haunting challenge for those social forces committed to the kinds of drastic change required to engender humane patterns of government throughout the region. The experience of the Arab Spring suggests that even a popular movement strong and determined enough to remove long entrenched political leaders from the pinnacles of governance for alleged abuses of power, incompetence, and corruption may not have the know-how, capabilities, and sustainable support to create a stable aftermath during the aftermath of the seizure of state power consistent with its revolutionary goals and expectations. More concretely, it has become questionable whether a freely elected national government can give rise to a resilient enough constitutional democracy to be hospitable to various forms of political, ethnic, and geographic pluralism that are characteristic features of many MENA states.

Such a generalization applies whether emergent post-uprising leadership is of a secular or more Islamist variant. The dilemma of the aftermath becomes so daunting, and perhaps paralyzing, when it is realized that all of the available governance options in the Middle East have so far led to disillusioning experiences if evaluated from the perspective of either order (stability, national unity, territorial reach) or justice (equitable representation, rule of law, human rights, social protection, ethical norms, public approval by free elections). The truth is that both order and justice must be fused if the goal of humane governance is to be realized.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London,  Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. Falk is currently acting as interim Director of the Centre of Climate Crime and Justice at Queen Mary. He directs the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published March 2021. He has been nominated annually for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2021.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 28 Feb 2022.

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