The Next Revolution: A Call for Reconciliation in the Arab World

Ongoing turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East has disappointed many in the West who had expected the 2011 revolutions to usher in a new era of social justice and democratic transformation across the region. There is now no lack of dour meteorological puns on “Arab Spring” to indicate the unfortunate change of season since the uprisings. But the people who rushed to use this term in the first place set themselves up for disappointment. It was rash and ahistorical to presume automatically that after December 2010, the Arab world would go through democratic transitions akin to those which East European countries went through after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite certain vague and beguiling similarities, transition processes in the Arab countries have really had little in common with those in post-Communist Europe.

Picking their way through the wreckage of Communism, the leaders of the 1989 European revolutions were able to tap into their own deep-rooted democratic traditions. The post–Arab Spring political classes had no such foundation, and were faced instead with a dreary and forbidding legacy of autocratic rule. Even as the forces of radical change were gathering in the Arab world, the disenfranchised political elites continued to knock haplessly at the doors of political participation, while the regimes in place—with no real vision for the future—desperately sought to maintain the status quo. Robert Kaplan was correct when he recently wrote, “In post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe the transition was quicker, but that was because those countries had a background of democratic practices and bourgeois culture prior to World War II, to a degree that many Arab states simply do not.”

In addition to having had experiences with democracy, populations behind the Iron Curtain had been close enough geographically to free societies to have seen the way of life their neighbors to the West enjoyed. As the dividing lines began to crumble, membership in an enlarged European community and in transatlantic institutions such as NATO were incentives to bring them all the way down. “Building Europe whole and free” became what Pavol Demes of the US German Marshall Fund calls “an unprecedented mega-project attractive both for the populations and leaders of the democratic West and for those in post-communist Europe.”

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In the Arab world, the revolutions of nearly three years ago occurred against an intellectually arid background made worse by dire socioeconomic crises. By the end of the last decade, for instance, youth unemployment in North Africa, especially among university graduates, was the highest of any region in the world. Poverty was at double-digit levels. Worse still, there were serious development imbalances within the countries of the Arab Spring, and the old regimes at least partly brought the uprisings upon themselves by promoting a narrative of upward mobility they couldn’t deliver on. Rulers such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia tried to ward off youth despair by promoting an ideal of “equal opportunity” which they themselves discredited by tolerating corruption and nepotism around them. Unfettered access to universities created a huge “graduate proletariat” and few value-added job opportunities. Diplomas opened the gates to nowhere for young people who were eventually driven to rebellion by unmet expectations.

Once the old regimes fell, rebellious youth were all dressed up with nowhere to go. They had no thriving nearby region to which they could travel, as young Polish workers had in London and Paris. There was no Arab West Germany willing to take an existentialist gamble on saving a poorer neighbor. Not only were there no Marshall Plans; there was nothing remotely resembling the massive assistance provided by Western Europe and the United States to Central and Eastern Europe after 1989. Instead, there were civil wars, NATO bombings, continuous upheaval and underdevelopment in the immediate vicinity of each of the Arab Spring countries. The only post-2011 “mobilization” undertaken by the West in the region was aimed at countering the jihadist encroachment in Mali, a problem caused in the first place by the lack of an adequate Western exit strategy from Libya.

After the mass protests induced the departure of one ancien régime after another, the socioeconomics did not change that much. The wretched, the unemployed, and the poor remained wretched, unemployed, and poor. The situation could not improve without better security, greater stability, and more seasoned management. As the pace of development and job creation stagnated, the time bomb of youth discontent went on ticking, as it still does. Although the already-shaken state institutions had to handle ever-accumulating problems and challenges, revolutionary zeal deprived inexperienced governments of the contribution of senior cadres who could have helped weather the storm of radical change. The exclusion of officials who had served in positions of leadership under the previous regimes constituted a major handicap for the new rulers as they scrambled to deliver results well beyond their reach.


If the new social order struggling to be born in the countries of the Arab Spring had difficulties dealing with the present, it also had problems dealing with the past. There was ample demonization of things pre-revolutionary, but no objective examination of the past. In post-apartheid South Africa, the people in charge of the transition identified with L. P. Hartley’s words: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Not so with the Arab Spring revolutionaries, who allowed vindictiveness to manacle them to the past. While many former officials lived lives of legal limbo, this did not mean that the suffering of previously persecuted activists, including Islamists, leftists, and others, was properly acknowledged. There were no venues for a constructive disclosure of the truth that could lead to national reconciliation. Inflamed and long-standing issues, which were at the root of the dangerous societal cleavages, went unhealed. Even with the best of intent among Islamist and secularist accommodationists, it would have been unrealistic to expect the untested fusion of religion and politics to proceed uneventfully. But matters were insolubly complicated by radical Islamist fringes’ disparagement of democracy as “a religion contradicting the laws of the Almighty.”

Always ready to use violence, extremists often turned the precarious, post-uprising political stability into shambles. Even without constant pressure from the fundamentalist hard-liners, moderate secularists and Islamists had a hard time building a relationship of trust. The chasm was too deep. The groups seemed at times to live in two different worlds separated by deep divides over cultural identity, the meaning of history, way of life, and visions of the future. As Tunisian constitutional jurist Kais Said put it recently, “The divide is not political, legal, or constitutional. It is existential.” Instead of real dialogue, there was a revival of stereotyping and mutual demonization. On Facebook, and sometimes even in the more traditional media, political rivals were transformed into “rats,” “dogs,” and “snakes.” Political tunnel vision on the one side, and cultural condescension on the other, set the two camps even further apart.

The first casualty of the continuing tensions was the notion of “positive-sum politics.” Simmering hate and distrust transformed political competition into a survivalist chess game. A checkmate over some issue did not mean the start of a new game for all players, but an irreversible “game over” and a trip to the Arab equivalent of purgatory for the loser. The stage was set for endless winner-take-all matches.

The result was an ever-worsening environment deeply hostile to a culture of democracy. After the uprisings, the new rulers seemed too often tempted to hoard power and exclude their opposition. Democratic rules of engagement were not well defined or deeply engrained. Democratic transitions could hardly proceed amid rampant suspicion. Secularists did not trust the newly elected Islamist rulers to ever relinquish power. Islamists felt nothing could save them from being victimized all over again if they should ever be evicted from office. Each camp held to its own form of legitimacy. “Crowd-sourcing” challenged “electoral legitimacy.” Street politics became the preferred form of political jousting. All along, there were even those who believed that monopolizing power at the expense of their rivals could constitute the “second revolution” of the Arab Spring.

Describing the chronic standoff as a form of “political polarization” is a euphemism. Politically inspired violence and the militarization of politics become real dangers. When political factions permanently fail to resolve their differences peacefully, the temptation of armed battalions and political militias cannot be far off.

Civil strife and violent turmoil do still unfortunately loom large in the future of many of the Arab Spring countries. For months, a number of analysts have been announcing “good” news to the West: Nothing to worry about; current conflicts are only intra-Muslim civil wars; the potential for chaos in the region is “tolerable.” But the experts have forgotten to mention that Arab internecine wars could eventually spell trouble for Europeans, Americans, and everybody else. Failed states south of the Mediterranean Riviera would ruin the day for most Arabs and a good number of Westerners, too.

Finding a solution based on the old blueprints for “democratic transition” is unrealistic. There is need to rethink the givens and rewrite the old “regime-change” manuals, and to do so quickly. While legitimately enthusiastic about the Arab Spring revolutions, the democracy builders in the West did not manifest enough awareness about the importance of national reconciliation in the new democratic transitions. As events continue to show, the inability of the new ruling classes to rise above vindictive temptations does not only penalize members of the former regimes. It risks hindering any peaceful transfer of power. Even if elected democratically, new regimes are unlikely to quietly retire if they fear being subjected to recriminations after leaving office. The “one man, one vote, one time” scenario, described once by former Assistant Secretary of State Ed Djerejian, could then become a recurring nightmare hampering smooth transitions.

Overreliance on the judiciary to settle scores of the past only complicates matters. It is difficult to see the redeeming value of involving an already-overburdened court system in cases that are essentially political or administrative in character. In the experiences of many countries, especially in Africa, amnesties helped turn the page of the past. Truths should be told and mistakes acknowledged as part of reconciliation processes. But a protracted and expansive process of “transitional justice” risks creating a new generation of victims and breeding new grudges. Intellectual laziness and political expediency have helped create the misinformed notion that retributive justice is much more in tune with the general mood of the “Arab street.” Despite the readily available rationales for forgiveness in Islam, few of the stakeholders have dared develop a theology of reconciliation.

Complicating the tasks of transition and governance is the problem of terrorism. Tunisia is not the only country that was ill prepared for the release of convicted extremists from jail and the return of others from abroad. It was not the only one to suffer from the trans-border flow of weapons and the trickling in of jihadi fighters, especially after wars in Libya and Mali. Arms smuggled from Libya have found their way to terrorists in West Africa, the Maghreb, the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere. Tunisia’s two leftist activists, Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid, were both killed by the same weapon, a 9-mm semiautomatic pistol smuggled from Libya. From Yemen to Libya, from Syria to Tunisia and Egypt, the threat of al-Qaeda is present more than ever. Turbulent societies and divided political classes tend to weaken the ability of the state to fight terror. Feuding politicians even see terrorist incidents as opportunities to gain political advantage. As the Tunisian minister of the interior, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, bitterly complained in August, “When a country is struck by terrorism, all its citizens close ranks. The only exception is Tunisia where terrorism sets people apart.”

Added to political and ideological divisions, tribal, regional, and ethnic cleavages can put national unity itself in jeopardy. The potential risks of territorial disintegration are obvious in Libya and Syria, for instance. Dangerous tensions are pitting Libyan Saharan tribes against each other. Frictions continue to mark relations between the populations of various cities and whole regions of the country, causing serious disruption of oil production. As score-settling continues to be fueled by the availability of weapons and explosives since the fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, former judges and military and police officers are routinely gunned down. More recently, journalists and political activists have been added to the assassins’ hit lists.

Because they are roiled by insecurity and instability, countries such as Egypt and Tunisia have difficulty attracting the crucial foreign investors and tourists they need. Despite all the regional and international financial support that they could eventually receive, these non–oil rich countries need to launch and quickly implement “economic emergency” programs to avoid default and failure. To ensure their economic recoveries, they need the contribution of all generations of senior cadres. Neglecting a large contingent of the country’s human resources, including highly qualified elites, is not a luxury they can afford.

All these challenges are interrelated. Concerns about the economy and security situation can quickly dampen the enthusiasm about democratic transitions. According to a Pew poll released in September, a majority of Tunisians now prioritize economic prosperity and political stability over establishing democracy.


Even as they deal with internal turmoil, the people of Arab Spring nations are increasingly convinced that, before anything else, they need to restore civil peace. Societies with large middle classes, such as Tunisia’s, clearly treasure their newly gained freedoms. But they also place a premium on stability and security as necessary conditions to preserve their standard of living. People are therefore deeply frustrated with feuding politicians. They want their lives back. They want ruling elites to be more attentive to the needs of everyday people. With mounting violence and worsening economic crises, there is increasing consensus that time is of the essence, even if there is little agreement on what to do.

In almost all of North Africa and the Middle East, people are hypersensitive about any manifestation of foreign interference. But when domestic and regional actors fail, it is unavoidable that international mediators, driven by fear of regional spillover, invite themselves in. The international community’s nightmare scenario is that civil strife does not subside and another shock wave of instability and failure spreads through the Arab world and beyond. But as the Egyptian crisis has shown, outside mediators cannot put national reconciliation on track if the domestic protagonists are not interested.

After the crackdown in August on members of the Muslim Brotherhood, is there still room for reconciliation in Egypt? In the long run, maybe. But with the bloody events of August 14th, national reconciliation has become a complicated and distant objective.

“The Egypt that witnessed scenes of joy and jubilation at images of dead bodies yesterday is not an Egypt to which we should aspire, or with which we should be content,” wrote Ibrahim Negm, senior adviser to the grand mufti of Egypt, on August 15th.

But the turn of events in Egypt may have helped convince political leaders in other Arab Spring countries of the risks inherent in “zero-sum” confrontations. Leaders of two member-parties of the ruling troika in Tunisia, Ennahda and Ettakatol, have now spoken in favor of “comprehensive national reconciliation”; so has the president of the leading opposition party, Nidaa Tounes. Drawing on the lessons of the showdown in Egypt, Mohamed al-Qassem, a columnist for Tunisian Islamist newspaper al-Dhamir, wrote in late August: “National reconciliation is the only way to stem the temptations of eradication, despotism, coups, and conspiracies for power.” Liberal columnist Nizar Bahloul argued that national reconciliation is what the international community expects from Tunisia. It is perhaps not a coincidence that following the events in Cairo, a draft bill for the exclusion of former Tunisian senior cadres from public office seems to have been indefinitely shelved. Several former senior officials have been also released.

National reconciliation is no panacea for Arab countries in transition. But without reconciliation, the prospects for peaceful transition are nil. “Had the miracle of negotiated settlement not occurred, we would have been overwhelmed by the bloodbath that everyone predicted as inevitable,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said about South Africa. Through its truth and reconciliation process, his country managed to break free of its ugly past and contemplate a prosperous future.

I myself am one of the so-called “remnants” of the region’s old regimes. My call for a national reconciliation process may therefore sound self-serving. But in reality all political camps stand to gain from such a process. Without it, the post–Arab Spring political protagonists will not even be able to coexist within the current borders of their countries. The process of reconciliation could bare the truth, all the truth, about the past, but more importantly it would clear the way for a forward-looking rebuilding process. Insistence on the humiliation or annihilation of political adversaries only plants the seeds for new cycles of repression and violence. National reconciliation could be the second real revolution of the Arab Spring.

Oussama Romdhani is a former member of the Tunisian government. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States from 1981 to 1995 and is currently an international media analyst.

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