After the Arab Spring: Democratic Aspirations and State Failure

89 Pages Posted: 20 Jul 2017

See all articles by Ebrahim Afsah

Ebrahim Afsah

University of Copenhagen - Faculty of Law

Date Written: July 14, 2017


The popular protests that erupted in 2010 and quickly remade the political map of the Arab world surprised almost everybody. We all knew the terrible state of Arab governance, marked as it was by rents, repression and regression, still no-one predicted that the people would ever rise. For decades, the Arabs had looked like an exception to global trends towards greater participation and accountability in public life, towards more sensible economic policies and more permissive social mores.

Arab societies appeared exceptional hostile to the ideals of democracy, and modernity more generally. There was a curious absence of politics, because their states were invariably authoritarian and offered no legitimate, peaceful channels for the formulation of competing interests. Repressive, inefficient and often deranged leaders ruled over unproductive, unimaginative but strongly growing societies.

The so-called Arab Spring appeared to end these decades of exceptionalism and bring the Arab world back into the mainstream of global developments. The rebellions promised the return of politics and the reassertion of popular sovereignty against their corrupt and geriatric leaders. Much hope and flowery language greeted the young men and women who deposed their leaders and tried to build new, better societies.

Today, the Arab world is in deep crisis. Of the 22 member states of the Arab League, at least five have essentially collapsed: Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Syria exist only in name today, as their territories have fallen to competing, murderous armed groups. In the remaining countries, the old autocracies have reasserted themselves. The repression at home is now worsened by regional conflict on an unprecedented scale, and the resulting frustration has led to the biggest refugee flows in recent memory. What went wrong?

This short course offers an overview of the structural shortcomings of Arab states and societies, which help us understand why the democratic awakening did not happen but instead “has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism.” This raises the obvious and renewed question whether there is something inherent in the Arab, and by analogy Muslim, condition that makes them special. Does this condition makes this part of the world impervious to generally observable trends towards greater accountability, popular participation in political decision-making, greater generation and fairer division of economic wealth?

Keywords: Arab Spring, Islam, Middle East, Democracy, Rule of Law, Development, Governance

Suggested Citation

Afsah, Ebrahim, After the Arab Spring: Democratic Aspirations and State Failure (July 14, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Ebrahim Afsah (Contact Author)

University of Copenhagen - Faculty of Law ( email )

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Copenhagen, DK-1455
+45 35 32 31 53 (Phone)


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