Five years after Tunisia became the birthplace of the so-called Arab Spring, analysts say most of the Arab countries that witnessed popular uprisings in 2011 are now worse off.
The hopes for a peaceful transition from authoritarianism to democracy and social justice were dashed by new autocrats, repression, civil war and counter-revolutionary forces.
"Almost every Arab country is either worse off than it was in 2011 or no significant positive change has occurred, so the phase that the region is in right now is a brutal winter,” said Amy Hawthorne, Deputy Director of Research at Project on Middle East Democracy.
The one exception, she says: partial success in Tunisia.
It was unique circumstances in that country that made for a different outcome.
"Tunisia does not have a very powerful or politically influential military, and that allowed civilian politicians and civil forces to dominate the political transition into democracy,” Hawthorne said. “Tunisia also has a strong civil society and pragmatic secular and Islamist political leaders who wisely managed the transition.”
However, Tunisia is still facing significant security and economic challenges.
Elsewhere in the region, popular uprisings produced less successful results.
In Egypt, the ouster of Hosni Mubarak was followed by unrest, political polarization, and eventually a military overthrow of his Islamist successor, Mohamed Morsi.
“Mighty institutions of the state worked to reverse the democratic transition, elites showed no interest in democracy, preferring [their] own interests, and political actors — secular or Islamists — committed a great deal of mistakes getting involved in ideological fights,” said Amr Hamzawy, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
That, according to Hamzawy, helped set the stage for the military overthrow of the Morsi government in 2013.
But Hawthorne cited more specific reasons for the failed transition to democracy in Egypt.
“Pro-democracy forces were divided and not strong enough to push back against authoritarian forces in Egypt," she said. "The Egyptian military used its influence to obstruct democracy-building, and [the] Muslim Brotherhood [MB] failed to lead the transition. Unlike Ennahda, [the] Islamic Party in Tunisia, MB proved itself to be very selfish and short-sighted.”
The worst failures of the Arab uprisings were in Syria, Libya and Yemen, Hawthorne said.
“In Syria, the level of repression the regime used to crush the peaceful uprising changed it into an armed conflict that became a battleground between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” she said. “In Libya, the lack of political institutions led everything to crumble. And in Yemen, a flawed political transition led by the Gulf countries papered over deep-seated political disputes that led to a civil war.”
Hamzawy, who is also a former member of the first Egyptian parliament after the uprising, cited several lessons to be learned five years after the Arab uprisings.
"Political actors have to avoid being trapped in ideological division,” he said. Another lesson: “not to underestimate the capacity of dictators to reach the highest levels of brutality in order to secure their grip over power.”
Hamzawy argues that one major lesson to be learned is to pay attention to regional actors, like the Gulf monarchies supporting counter-revolutionary forces and suppressing the transition to democracy in the region.
Hawthorne agrees with Hamzawy, and added that organization and planning are keys to successful transitions.
“Pro-democracy movements have to learn how to better organize and to have a clear plan for what comes after the uprisings," she said. "They have to understand that young Arabs revolted for a better system of governance, more open and just societies, social justice and freedom.”
What is next?
Hawthorne strongly believes that while the first wave of popular uprisings failed to achieve their goals, Arab masses are not giving up.
“While the hopes are crushed, they are not dead; the 2011 uprisings were sort of the initial earthquake that will be followed by another earthquake that will come sooner or later,” she said.
Hamzawy agrees, and notes the importance of 2011 is that Arab people emerged with a firm vision of what they are aspiring to.
“People demanded social justice, democratic transition, respect for human rights, modern states — and these demands will reemerge, but no one knows exactly when or in what form,” he said.