The Outcomes of 2011

By George Joffé


In the midst of the generalised disappointment about the outcomes today of the Arab Awakening in January 2011, now a year short of a decade ago and at a time of profound political disruption in Algeria and incipient civil war in Libya, it may be worth asking what that outcome has really been.  One possibility, other than outright despair, might be, to echo Chou En Lai in his apparent response to the street protests in Paris in 1968, that it is still ‘too early to tell.’   After all, democratic transitions elsewhere have been imperfect and often long delayed, as the continent-wide experiences of 1848 in Europe – and more recent experiences in the twentieth century – have demonstrated.  Furthermore, authoritarian resilience appears to be more tenacious and sophisticated in exploiting its vested positions than was realised in 2011.   However, it is also the case that what we really mean by ‘democratic transition’ – the presumed outcome of those events nine years ago – is also not so obvious.

At its most banal, the phrase provides a label for the transformation, within the state, of the governance process from one dominated and exclusively controlled by an elite to one in which popular participation becomes the means by which that process is accepted as legitimate by the community to which it applies.  Yet, despite widespread received opinion, particularly in Europe and America, there is no single model that automatically qualifies as generating an inevitable outcome of such popular legitimacy.  Nor is it simply a matter of institutions, such as constitutions and parliaments, for the widespread experience of institutional failure in the post-colonial world throughout the past half-century has demonstrated their fragility.

After all, beyond the widely-accepted superficial meaning conventionally attributed to the phrase, it is only when an essential political culture underpins those institutions and invigorates them, thereby giving them meaning and purpose, that they become truly representative of popular aspirations.  But, as current experiences in Europe demonstrate, ‘culture’ is inherently problematic, impermanent and unpredictable; thus undermining De Tocqueville’s confidence in the ‘habits of hearts and mind’ on which he set such store.[i]  Positive outcomes of the events of 2011, then, could have guaranteed no teleological certainty of success at the time, let alone today, despite the confident assumptions of the participants.  Those could only result, instead, from a paradigmatic shift in social and political engagement, itself the slow, disjunctured iteration of past attempts at developing viable political cultures to inform democratic practice and institutions.  They demand, therefore, constant and conscious renewal before they can become internalised and, thereby, permanent – if, indeed, this is ever a realistic possibility.

This comment, therefore, is intended to unpick what actually happened in 2011 and what its significance might really have been for the outcomes of the political liberalisation process in North Africa.  It will also seek to establish whether or not that process is linear and universal, as is usually assumed to be the case.  There is, after all, a virtually universal assumption that there is only one path towards equitable governance, based on the principles of Europe’s Enlightenment and Liberal eras of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  It is buttressed, furthermore, by a parallel assumption; that equitability is a reflection of the liberal democracy which emerged then, of which the rule-of-law is an integral part.  Yet, other parallel governance traditions also exist – for example, in the Islamic world – which may have the added attraction of cultural authenticity and socio-political legitimacy to enhance their appeal, although they are rarely taken very seriously by mainstream political scientists.

Perhaps, however, they should be and this, too, is another objective of the comments made here.  And, in conjunction with that objective, there remains, implicitly, perhaps, a third; to question the assumption that the European paradigm provides the sole path to a permanent solution to the challenge of liberal governance, as Francis Fukuyama had suggested in 1989.[ii]  The evidence, in reality, suggests that the reverse might be the case – governance can be contingent, fragile and impermanent; as European history itself has repeatedly demonstrated.  And, if that is so then, perhaps, we should set the experiences of the last decade in the Arab world against the rather longer purview of the nineteenth and twentieth century experiences in Europe and elsewhere before rushing to premature judgment.

The current situation

From the standpoint of late 2019, the political outlook in the Arab world seems almost universally grim, certainly if observed from the viewpoint of the achievement of participatory, equitable governance, and in the wake of the aspirations raised in the Arab Awakening movement in 2010-2011:

  • In the Middle East and in Egypt, in particular, authoritarian resilience appears to have re-asserted itself with vigour despite popular demonstrations almost a decade ago for participation in the political process. Syria and Yemen, albeit for different reasons, have collapsed into civil war and have become the cockpits for proxy wars for geopolitical objectives.  The Pearl Roundabout demonstrations in Bahrain were suppressed by joint Emirati and Saudi intervention as the first round in the replacement of the regional geopolitical challenge by Sunni-Shi’a sectarian confrontation.  The other Gulf states have reasserted their old authoritarian bargains – neo-patrimonial or neo-prebendal reward in return for unchallenged, submissive social order and calm – to preserve domestic peace.  In the cases of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, moreover, they have also adopted Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s famous epigram – “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” as the way to preserve their control of established order in the Gulf and the Peninsula.  Only in Lebanon – a metastable consociational democracy – and in Jordan – a relatively benign liberalised autocracy – were popular demands appeased without radical intervention, whilst Iraq has continued to slowly emerge from the traumas of the invasion in 2003 and the eruption of ISIS/Da’ish in 2014.


  • The situation in North Africa is not dissimilar. The disappearance of the Qadhafi regime in October 2011 at the end of the civil war in Libya presaged the collapse of the Libyan state itself into a competing welter of militias which threatens to degenerate into a new dictatorship under General Haftar.  In Algeria, the government adroitly preserved its ‘façade democracy’ through economic concessions in 2011.  This successfully countered violent demonstrations voicing massive economic and political resentment at the time in the wake of the country’s brutal civil war. However, the current vast populist challenge to official claims of an Arab Nationalist ethnic identity from amazighté, together with the parallel stalemate between millions of demonstrators and the army command over the constitutional and political course of Algeria’s future belies the regime’s ability to maintain that bargain any longer.  Morocco, too, was able to deflect public anger over governance and economic hardship in 2011 through its cosmetic constitutional reforms which built on a traditional pattern of engaged governance.  That, however, is now beginning to break down, challenged as it is, by the hirak movement and the amazigh socio-political challenge in the Rif, the social-media mediated boycott movement and renewed wider economic protest in the face of increasingly autocratic governance.

  • Only in Tunisia do the original aspirations apparently survive. There, at least, the social revolution achieved in 2011 appears to have endured, justifying Western belief in the permanence of democratic transition.  The country has, after all, just held its second quinquennial electoral round under the new 2014 constitution and its multiparty electoral system, now dominated by a moderate Islamist party.  Its social revolution thus seems secure – a unique achievement in the context of the region-wide experiences since 2011 and apparently a radical contrast with what has occurred throughout the region over the past nine years.  The reality, however, is somewhat different.  Unemployment remains high, at around 15 per cent, with poverty in the country’s interior still significantly higher than on the urbanised coast.  Extremist violence, although now largely controlled, is still a threatening reality at the margins of the state.  Remnants of the old authoritarian system are beginning to re-emerge within the economy and even within the body politic.  And, perhaps most disturbing, electoral participation has steadily declined as Tunisians slowly lose faith in the revolution they undertook almost a decade ago.  Electoral turnout in the parliamentary elections was only 41 per cent and in the presidential elections 39 per cent in the first round of the two-stage process (although it exceeded 50 per cent in the second presidential round) compared with 67 and 64 percent respectively in the previous electoral round in 2014.

According to conventional political theory, these would not have been the outcomes originally anticipated from the events of 2011, particularly not from regimes that had sought to defuse the protests through compromise.  Indeed, even full autocracies, perceived by commentators as actors who were ultimately ‘rational’ in their approaches to political processes, were expected to eventually seek to appease demonstrators through some kind of compromise.  The drivers, furthermore, for political change were universally assumed to be economic in nature and connected with the sanctity of property – that was, after all, what modernisation theory had proposed as long ago as the 1960s and confirmed in Samuel Huntington’s ‘third democratic wave’ in the subsequent decades.[iii]  The modes through which this transitional process expressed itself was also said to be universal in nature and, moreover, Whiggist in expression, promising ever-greater, indeed inevitable, evolution towards political liberalisation.  The actual path to this outcome might well be hindered by intermittent failure but the logic of political transition would force iteration and compromise upon them, together with the teleological certainty of eventual liberalisation in the form of democratic politics.

The means by which this would be achieved were enshrined, of course, in the process of ‘pacting’ whereby regime elites maintain their credibility as the ruling superstructure of the state through pragmatic political concessions they were prepared to make, that their opponents were prepared to accept and that the wider public was willing to endorse.  Because of their pragmatic nature, such pacts might only be temporary in nature; they might even be abandoned or reversed on occasion, with or without violence.  However, the simple fact that a ruling elite was obliged to rupture its autocratic façade and accept the autonomous legitimacy of dissident views and actors who commanded widespread popular consent meant that, even if rejected, the concession would have to be repeated at some point in the future as it was, ultimately, the only way in which social peace and political liberalisation and, thereby, communal consensus could be achieved.  Pacting, therefore, would become a vital, iterative process that would, irresistibly eventually produce permanent democratic outcomes.  That had been, after all, the experience of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s – and even in some North African states (at least, in part) such as Morocco and even Algeria in the 1990s

The pacting process, therefore, is in essence a pragmatic compromise, designed to accommodate agonistic political divergence at minimal political cost to all the parties involved.  By its very nature, however, it implies an acceptance of constraints on authoritarian control and freedom-of-action of a ruling elite – in essence, the autocratic regime –  and is thus typically the prerogative of, in Daniel Brumberg’s phrase, a ‘liberalised’, rather than an absolute, autocracy which, to ensure its own survival, has been prepared to recognise and tolerate the autonomy of sub-state actors.  Whilst the elite may consider that such recognition is not a statement of its own weakness but, instead, a measure of its comprehensive incorporation – and control – of disparate dissident political currents, such a concession, by ceding active management for passive monitoring, must, in principle, undermine the theoretical coherence of its autocratic status.   Concessions of this kind, therefore, form part of a dialectical tension within the political process and it is this that can dynamise the evolution of such a process towards liberalisation.  Now other entities apart from the dominant elite can claim a legitimate role inside the state.  Such sub-state entities, often effectively excluded elites in their own right, are inherently part of civil society, and often reflect the social movements that subsequently come to comprise one of the components of civil society in consequence. They thereby gain a double legitimacy and, in consequence, autonomy for they are now legitimised by their membership of civil society as well as by their role within the pacting process.[iv]

Such an analysis, of course, assumes that all the parties involved embrace the principle of pragmatic compromise inherent within it.  However, that assumption implies – correctly – that the pacting process cannot work if a social movement does not admit of compromise, or otherwise has an agenda which is based on immutable principle, rather than the flexibility innate in pragmatism, to justify its claim for power.  Moderate political Islamic movements – dubbed by John Waterbury as ‘mission-oriented’ movements – seem to reflect precisely this dilemma when they move from the social sphere into the political arena.[v]  They, after all, have a moral justification for the claims they make to unshared, exclusive political space in which to operate for sovereignty is now a divine possession rather than a temporal populist attribute.  Equally, if a ruling elite is only prepared to cede power temporarily in order to subsequently reassert its dominant political agency – the essence of authoritarian resilience, in short – the principles behind pacting are bound to be voided and the process will become intermittent or fail.  It has been these twin factors that seem to have lain behind many of the failures of the Arab Awakening as authoritarian resilience collided with mission orientation during and in the wake of the events of 2011.


The inherent antagonism between the modes of action of pacting, as opposed to those of mission-orientation, suggests two other questions; first, are such outcomes irreversible? And second, are there other ways in which the basic objectives of the transitional process can be achieved?  Ultimately, of course, those objectives have the basic aim of satisfying perceptions of social justice, of guaranteeing to the members of the community involved what they, in their majority, perceive as equitable access to the material, social and cultural benefits that the state can provide.  Political action is, after all, the process by which such social justice is ensured or denied and is, therefore contingent, and dependant on political will.  That would suggest that outcomes of the kind described above are reversible and the means by which they can be achieved are basically cultural in nature.  Indeed, their reversibility is inherent in the procedural iteration that characterises the political transition process.

Furthermore, if it is the case that such transitions are essentially cultural in nature, then there can be no single, universal model by which transition is achieved, nor are participants necessarily ‘rational actors’ and neither are they necessarily driven exclusively by economic factors – two of the basic features of universalist transitology theory.  An illustration of this is, ironically enough, provided by the apparent contradiction between mission-oriented social movements and the pacting process.  In principle, such social movements cannot demonstrate the pragmatic flexibility that pacted transitions demand.  In practice, however – and often over time – they do engage in compromises and come to accept that their moral certitude is permeable.  How else can one explain the ability of the Parti de Justice et du Développement (PJD) in Morocco to cope with the complexities of cabinet government over the past decade or Ennahda’s electoral successes and governmental compromises in Tunisia?  Indeed, what other explanation than its inability to compromise is there for the Muslim Brotherhood’s comprehensive failure in Egypt?  Of course many other factors will have entered into the calculus explaining success and failure but the tactical flexibility or rigidity of such movements certainly played a key role.

The challenge in such circumstances, however, is how mission-oriented social movements retain their credibility after apparently betraying moral principle once they engage in pragmatic compromise.  That seems to be a consequence rooted in political culture; although, in principle, theoretical rigidity may be a product of doctrinal morality, in practice the bounds that define and constrain it can be far more flexible than is usually construed to be the case.  Thus, although European visions of liberal political processes are, in Chantal Mouffe’s words, inherently agonist in nature – hence its pragmatism – the Islamist alternative may be consensual and consultative but is legitimised by doctrine and belief.  It acquires moral status from the hadith that, ‘My people will never agree upon an error,’ and that, in turn, implies that the sovereignty thus evinced is divine in origin even if expressed through communal power by those who ‘tie and bind’ (ahl al-ḥall wa’l-‘aqd), not rooted in the inherent empowerment of a polity through its ability to control the political process of which it is the key embodiment.

That would appear to explain the moral certitude of ‘mission-orientation’ identified by John Waterbury and would also apparently make pragmatic flexibility impossible.  Flexibility, however, is generated from the way in which moral constraint is interpreted.  Thus the Shi’a political philosopher, Abdulkarim Soroush, has long argued that collective political actions are divided between what he calls the ‘accidentals’ and the ‘essentials’ in which the former carry no moral weight whereas the latter do.  It is then a matter of which category applies to specific political actions.  For him, very few activities in the political sphere were absolutely forbidden (haram) or enjoined (halal), that is involving moral decision that would exclude them from the category of acceptable actions or of being reprehensible but tolerable.  In addition, Islamic legal practice has also developed other principles and legal practices that enlarge the scope of pragmatic compromise, practices such as maqāsid al-shari’a (underlying juridical intent), mașlaḥa (public interest) or siyasa shari’yya (political jurisdiction).

It has been the mobilisation of such practices that has modified the rigidity of the early Islamist vision of sulța (sovereignty) and has allowed practices akin to the process of pacting to develop from a quite different cultural and intellectual tradition.  This has ensured that the political liberalisation that has been the consequence enjoys a popular legitimacy that, had it been derived and justified purely from European principle, might have been denied.  It has permitted mission-oriented social movements, in short, to parallel their pragmatic counterparts in the development of cooperative iterative processes to enhance and authenticate popular engagement in the political process.  There is no guarantee, of course, that this will be an inevitable outcome, any more than there has been for its European counterpart but there is a mechanism by which this can be achieved which parallels it.


There is also a third way in which such outcomes can be achieved; social and political movements can simply abandon their overt commitment to a mission-oriented approach.  They can then operate as normal, secular social movements or political parties.  There have been hints in this direction as movements previously committed to mission-orientation have split, with one part renewing its commitment to a mission-oriented approach whilst the other chooses instead to adopt the position of a secular – usually conservative – political movement albeit with a moral reference that reflects its religious origins.  Ennahda, for example, has made moves in this direction; the AKP in Turkey long ago adopted a similar approach; and the PJD in Morocco has also moved in this direction.  Indeed, even the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt began a similar evolution.  It is a means by which doctrinal or ideological purity can be preserved without losing political relevance and, interestingly, it mirrors the experiences of Christian Democracy in Europe.

If the discussion above fairly reflects the principles that have lain behind political reform over the past decade, then the pessimism that characterises contemporary evaluations of the outcomes of the Arab Awakening may yet prove to be exaggerated.   Political liberalisation may have ebbed and flowed but that has often been the experience of the past; the revolutionary events of 1848 took many decades to reach fruition.  Violent disruption may well have occurred but that, too, has been part of past experience.  There may not be any universalist model of the way in which transition occurs, contrary to what theorists may claim but there do appear to be parallel cultural traditions that can generate tantalisingly similar outcomes and endow them with real authenticity.

There remains one outstanding question, however; namely, however erratic the path towards political liberalisation, can its achievement be rendered permanent?  Desirable though such an outcome might be, past experience suggests that this is an impossible aim.  There have been too many experiences of the reversal of democratic outcomes, even where the idea of democratic governance has been internalised into the cultural mainstream through which it is expressed.  The inherent agonism of the project and the tensions between moral ideals and the realities of power generate antiphonal outcomes which remain in constant dynamic tension with one another.  The price of its preservation will be constant vigilance for it will always remain a contingent outcome, ever under threat.  In short, then, to paraphrase E.M. Forster, albeit in a very different context, we can only give, “Two cheers for democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism.  Two cheers are quite enough.  There is no occasion to give it three!”[vi]


Boesche R. (ed)(1985), Alexis de Tocqueville 1805-1859: Selected Letters on Politics and Society, University of California Press (Berkeley CA)

Brumberg D. (2014), “Theories of transition,” in Lynch M. (ed), The Arab uprising explained, Colombia University Press (New York NY)

Forster E.M. (1951), Two cheers for democracy, Edward Arnold (London)

Fukuyama F.. (1989), “The end of history?”, The National Interest, 16 (Summer 1989)

Huntington S.P. (1991), The third wave: democratisation in the late twentieth century, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman OK)

Waterbury J. (1994), “Democracy without democrats?” in Salamé G. (ed), Democracy without Democrats? The renewal of politics in the Muslim world, I.B. Tauris (London)


[i] Boesche R. (ed)(1985), Alexis de Tocqueville 1805-1859: Selected Letters on Politics and Society, University of California Press (Berkeley CA); 294

[ii]  Fukuyama F.. (1989), “The end of history?”, The National Interest, 16 (Summer 1989); 3-18

[iii] Huntington S.P. (1991), The third wave: democratisation in the late twentieth century, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman OK)

[iv] Brumberg D. (2014), “Theories of transition,” in Lynch M. (ed), The Arab uprising explained, Colombia University Press (New York NY)

[v]  Waterbury J. (1994), “Democracy without democrats?” in Salamé G. (ed), Democracy without Democrats? The renewal of politics in the Muslim world, I.B. Tauris (London)

[vi] Forster E.M. (1951), Two cheers for democracy, Edward Arnold (London)

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