Seven reasons why the Arab uprisings are eclipsing western values

By Mark Leonard
January 21, 2014

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall — an event that led Francis Fukuyama to predict the end of history and the beginning of universal western liberal values. It is three years since the Arab uprisings threatened to upend the Middle East and North Africa. Many at that time predicted that the region would embrace liberal democracy and human rights.

Ewan Harrison and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell argue in a new book — “The Triumph of Democracy and the Eclipse of the West” — that the spread of democracy has come at the very moment that the West is experiencing decline — and that the future will see a “clash of democratizations” rather than a westernization of the world.

Harrison and Mitchell argue that the Arab Spring should be seen as a “second struggle for independence” — throwing off the shackles of western-backed dictators in the same way that earlier generations rebelled against direct rule by the West. But the paradox is that these protesters are increasingly using western-style freedoms and technologies to reject the liberal tenets of the West. From the muddled reaction of western governments to the uprisings in the Middle East, we can already begin to see that this awakening is leading to an eclipse of the West. Here are seven reasons why:

  1. The counter-revolutions have been more powerful than the original revolutions — and they may have a longer-lasting effect. Vested interests across the region have been quick to react. Assad’s repression of the protesters has created a regional sectarian struggle with enormous consequences. Rich gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have used their money to buy off their own citizens and to back regressive forces across the region, while poorer monarchies such as Morocco and Jordan have implemented cosmetic reforms. The recent referendum for a new constitution in Egypt was ostensibly about democracy and stability, but it was actually part of a harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that seems to have the goal of excluding the group permanently from the country’s political life. This is likely to force some Islam practitioners to become more extreme and embrace violence.
  2. Middle Eastern states may not have changed much, but their awakened societies will be harder to govern. Some leaderless revolutions have not led to the rise of liberal governments or changed the deep structure of their states. However, the youth bulge, high unemployment, satellite television, social media and the role of organized labor have made the power of governments more conditional. The threat of people taking to the streets could mean that unpopular governments will resign. However, the unruliness of these transitional societies will also make it harder for reformist governments to emerge and could encourage some to rely on brutal repression.
  3. Rather than a split between secular forces and Islam, there is a split between different interpreters of Islam — between the Shi’ite and Sunni sects as well as between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. The French scholar Olivier Roy argues that this religious pluralism could be an antecedent to political tolerance. The idea of a unitary “Political Islam,” he says, is being replaced by “Islam in politics.” However, as in many countries, it seems likely that sectarian strife will have to come before a politics of tolerance.
  4. The Middle East has left the post-colonial era. Before the uprisings, repressive governments diverted popular discontent to American or Israeli foreign policy, leading to a sense of infantilization and disempowerment. Today, external actors such as the United States and Europe seem peripheral to the politics of the Middle East.
  5. The decline of influence of great powers like the U.S. and Russia on the Middle East is leading to a rapprochement between them. This has created a co-operative relationship on Syrian chemical weapons and Iran. As Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey argue, the Geneva II talks this week offer an opportunity to form an inclusive international contact group that includes the key regional actors Saudi Arabia and, despite the associated challenges, even Iran.
  6. One of the dividends from the concert of great powers is the chance for a détente between Iran and the West, which could transform the politics of the Middle East. Normal relations could also reduce the dependence of western countries on the Gulf states that are nurturing virulent forms of political Islam, prosecuting a sectarian war, powering a regional arms race and supporting terrorist groups.
  7. From the beginning, Israel has most feared the Arab uprisings. While the world around it has changed, Tel Aviv has refused to engage in the substance of a peace deal, focus on growth and social welfare or reconfigure the relationship with Saudi Arabia. However, the Arab uprisings have made Israel less central to the Middle East and undermined of the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership. If there is no progress toward a two-state solution, Tel Aviv could one day face a “Palestinian Spring” where a peaceful leader makes the case for a “One State Solution.”

When the Arab uprisings started three years ago, many commentators saw this as Fukuyama’s revenge. They predicted that this part of the world — so rich in history — would finally embrace western modernity. But next week, when Egypt holds a constitutional referendum and the leaders go to the Swiss resort of Montreux for talks on Syria, we will see that history is still on the march in the Middle East.

The political awakening is about people claiming democratic rights to emancipate themselves from the traditional influence of the West, rather than trying to join it. In that sense, rather than being a region mired in the past, the clash of modern practices in the Arab World might offer some lessons for the future world order.

PHOTO: A woman flashes the victory sign during a demonstration outside Yemen’s foreign ministry to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa October 17, 2011. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

11 comments

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Awesome Mark!

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

The uprisings are akin to teenagers complaining that they don’t have enough freedom, and rebelling against ‘the man’. They’re rebelling for the sake of rebelling… It’s not based on logic or any real plan. The problem with being given more freedom, is that you have more chance to screw everything up. And just like teenagers crashing the car after begging for the keys, the adults always end up cleaning up the mess. The end of imperialism proved that giving some people more freedom, is often a disaster. Sticking your arm in the air and waving flags, is the easy part.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Pollyanna had a better sense of reality than does the author. The complex multitude of social conflicts across the region will generate continual instability throughout society that were suppressed by Ottoman occupation and European colonialism. The conflicts have now burst forth, triggered by resentment and desperation. Entirely new political, economic, and social institutions will have to be devised. These circumstances will persist for several generations.

Posted by SLOjohnny | Report as abusive

The Arab interpretation of freedom is very different than that of western democracies, especially when it comes to the influence imposed by their theology.

Their post-colonial actions always seem to include the need to dominate (or kill) those of a different religion or sect.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

“western liberal values” don’t exist in the US. We have what really should be described as corporate socialism. That’s where everyone works for the benefit of the corporations. We see the facist aspect of this growing too, as both democrats and republicans continue to take away what were once considered innate freedoms of american citizens. This is what the fearmongering is about. Maybe Iceland has western liberal values, but not the US. We’re corporate socialist on our way to corporate facism, because the scary terrorists are coming to get us.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

What a fatuous article. Equating the civil war within Islam with a rejection of Western values is profoundly dense. After any long length of time under an oppressive regime a (nearly) equally long period of violent outbursts from the people is due – their shame of being so dominated forcing them to lash out. The West has done well to mainly stay out of these conflicts (except Iraq, which arguably set this whole thing off in the first place).

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

CDN_REBEL
actually you are correct, Iraq was the strting point for all this (the uprisings); and that was our point. To show that arab dictatorships were wrong and that democracy was an option. Unfortunately Islam does not support a democratic mindset, since a central theme is submission. The whole arab face/shame culture does not help for since it replaces western guilt/innoncence; so democratic justice is also mostly unreachable..

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

@VultureTX
While Islam do have ‘submissive’ notes – like all the rest of major religions (even jews and protestants, it’s just interpretations that differ ), real problem is that these regions conserved older types of societies until modern times.
I mean – mindset of their older generations and poor is tribal, with number of harsh ‘rules’ and ‘laws’ which are mistaken by westerners as ‘muslim’ really having no relation to Q’aran or Prophet but to tribal customs.

Look how fast asian exUSSR republics turned to that state from soviet formal democracy.

Current democracy can only arise by itself in a relatively prosperous society which is already more or less equal (like Revolution-era USA which had no super-rich or ‘dynasties’ yet or Republican France where they killed off most of nobility – and then new nobility was failing again and again).

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

Good article

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Could it also be that the West is becoming so lenient in allowing Islam in the various countries? We keep hearing the mantra of “Islam is a peaceful religion” – really? Sunni against Shia – and both are Islamic.

We allow the female members to wear their burkas – we allow mosques to be built and do not know if they are preaching peace or terrorism – could we be going too far in our “inclusiveness”?

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

“Western values” is an oxymoron.

Our “values” are based on the principle of “Manifest Destiny”, which is a totally racist philosophy not much different than Hitler’s White Supremacy ideas.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive