5 Lessons From the Arab Spring So Far

What we learned about Islamists, monarchies, the U.S. role in the region, and more

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Riot police gather in Cairo / Reuters

One year after the Arab revolts began, it is worth taking a step back and taking stock. What, exactly, have we learned? Here are five major takeaways so far:

1. The impossible is possible.
This is, by now, something of a cliché. But we continue to suffer from a failure of imagination. It remains difficult to visualize just how countries like Saudi Arabia or Algeria might succumb to mass protest. In fact, the fall of any number of autocracies seems so unlikely that there is a whole genre of analysis devoted to explaining why a given country is not like Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya. It is worth remembering that this all began in Sidi Bouzid; not one Middle East analyst, to my knowledge, foresaw revolution in Tunisia, long considered the most "stable" of the Arab autocracies.

2. Republics are more susceptible to dissent than monarchies.
Because of their institutional set-up and reservoirs of historic, cultural, and religious legitimacy, Arab monarchies are in a stronger position to manage dissent and engage in what could be called "pre-emptive reform." The three successful revolutions in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia and the two ongoing revolutions in Yemen and Syria have all taken place in republics. This is not an accident. If real democratization occurs in the monarchies it will be slow, uneven, and -- as in Europe -- painful and perhaps rather bloody.

3. Islamists are the future.
Arab dictators always warned their American counterparts, It's either us or the Islamists. Well, they were right. But fear of Islamists is no longer a legitimate reason to resist or oppose Arab democracy.

4. Instability can be constructive.
In the short-run at least, there is a tradeoff between democratization and "stability." Interests and ideals do not always converge. The U.S. and other Western powers should, therefore, develop a higher tolerance for instability, particularly as the Arab Spring enters into its long, uncertain middle stage. Rather than fearing or avoiding it, the U.S. should take instability as a given and formulate more creative policies to anticipate, manage, and get around it.

The Democracy Report 5. Caution is overrated.
Another Arab spring cliché is the notion of getting on the "right side of history." Getting there is easier said than done. If we really do believe this is a moment of historical import -- on par with 1989, 1945, or 1848 -- then we should act like it. The Obama administration, though, has approached the Arab revolts with an occasionally remarkable lack of sure-footedness. This, to be sure, is not a time for recklessness and off-the-cuff grandstanding. Nor is it a time, however, for excessive caution and slow deliberation. While the Obama administration insists it has chosen the "right side," Arab activists, protestors, and revolutionaries seem to disagree. Among pro-democracy forces in the region, America is still seen as a friend and supporter of the region's autocrats. In fact, U.S. favorability ratings, in several countries, are lower under President Obama than they were during the final days of the Bush administration.

This was a long year -- exhilarating and unnerving in equal measure. 2012 is likely to feel even longer.

A version of this post originally appeared at Brookings.edu

Presented by

Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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