Rather provocatively, the recent issue of The Economist  opens with a startling question: Has the Arab Spring failed? Amidst the rubble of bloody civil war within the Arab Spring, transitology seems to have regained its prominent position within scholarly discourses. Interwoven with orientalist overtones, this framework of analysis has slowly been moving away from its former preferred paternalistic target – post-socialist Eastern European transitions. Having been proven wrong in their predictions (that revolved around a purported incompatibility between a historically backward Eastern-Europe and Western-democracy), Western observers have gravitated towards Middle-Eastern transitions. Stressing a perceived incompatibility between Islam and democracy, scholars and media-men seem to be simply transplanting theoretical frameworks, embedding them with orientalist overtones, in order to render self-fulfilling prophecies that the Arab world will not democratize by itself.


My main argument here is that a more balanced approach, that goes beyond using Islam as a kind of rabbit hole metaphor through which Arab politics must be analyzed, can yield promising answers for post-Arab Spring countries. The issue at stake here is the inflexible, teleological approach to transition that presupposes a one-way road (to continue the tunnel metaphor in a quasi-Hirschmanian manner) towards democracy. The key issues I will focus on are modeled after a framework of quadruple-transition (Kuzio:2001), from which I will deviate on one point: instead of focusing on market-liberalization I will look at the welfare-related component of the Arab Spring. Obviously, a full-on theoretical assessment is beyond my scope here. The point of this brief overview is to raise questions (and give some hints towards answers) on the daunting challenges faced by transitologists looking at post-Arab Spring countries. An important side-note I would like to make before diving into the analysis is that while throughout this paper I am using a collective term such as “the West”, this does not mean full homogeneity within it. Acknowledging the diversity of the Western World itself, I am using this rather rigid formula (that is in itself part and parcel of the stereotypical orientalist discourse) in order to better highlight the shortcomings of the approaches put under brief scrutiny.

1. State-building – Teleology or competing projects?

The thorny issue at stake is a perceived teleology of the state. The template of a democratic welfare-state seems to have been placed as a rigid, inflexible light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel for both Eastern Europe and the Arab World. If in Eastern Europe the favorite scapegoat was a type of non-inclusive nationalism, in the case of the Middle East, Islamism with its placement of religion as the source of politics is getting the negative spotlight. Certainly, there are extremists espousing such a view, however what is noticeable in the case of the Arab Spring is that moderate wings of Islamist parties have gained strong majorities. It is of vital importance to note that these Parliamentary majorities seem willing  not to dive head-first into religious fundamentalism, but rather focus on secular concerns. The issue here is not secularization in a classical guise, but rather that non-teleological politics is gaining strong foothold. One possible way forward is a path-dependent approach, focusing on competing state-building projects rather than on the orientalist teleology. The main problem with stateness teleological discourses (to use the famous term of Linz&Stepan:1996) applied in a paternalistic manner is that they overemphasize historical contingencies or the role of agency, in order to give a final answer to issues that have more to do with path-dependency. In the case of post-Arab Spring countries, I would argue that institutional path-dependent approaches might hold the key towards disentangling competing state-building projects.

2. Welfare-ism in the Arab Spring

The second important component of the aforementioned teleological discourse is the welfare-state, taken in a very simplistic definition as a broad social safety net. If in the case of Eastern Europe welfare-benefits were sacrosanct (hence the type of divide and pacify logic to gain time for reforms, see Vanhuysse:2006), in Arab Spring countries welfare-institutions are virtually inexistent. Furthermore, wealth disparities are so high that some would argue that the uprisings had nothing to with welfare-ism but rather with the very basic need for survival.  My argument here is that the Arab Spring exhibits features of an awakening hence leaving the door open for welfare-ism: institutional guarantees that go beyond the state-funded subsidies for oil. Certainly I am not claiming that the welfare-state (if welfare-ism does exist as a strand of thought within the Arab Spring), is the core issue at stake, but rather that one must not only look at vindictive redistribution claims based on a plethora of cleavages (rural-urban, religious etc.). It is, of course, an open question whether it is legitimate to even use the label of welfare-state in this context, though the complex nature of the Arab Spring points towards more than a temporary re-distribution of wealth that would appease some impoverished classes.  I would again argue for the use of path-dependency as analytical tool: rather than trying some Scandinavian-inspired schemes, transitology might benefit from a bottom-to-top understanding of redistribution mechanism in the Arab Spring countries.

3. Democratization

 Here the most pressing questions revolve around whether secularist parties with weak traditions stand a chance against strong religious constituencies (moderate and extremist). On the other hand, countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia have proven that Islam and democracy can coexist, again pointing towards the need for an in-depth path-dependent approach to better understand the situation of the post-Arab Spring countries (of equal importance is the role of agency). Another obvious outlier is Turkey, yet to exhibit this specific type of uprising. The recent events from Egypt also point towards an important issue: two-turn-over type tests that transitologists oftentimes espouse have limited long-term validity. Of further importance is to note that while moderate-wing Islamist representatives shy away from fundamentalism, their policies do have a ricochet effect in advancing sectarianism. The logical consequence is that democratic power-sharing does not easily get institutionalized. Rather than focusing on how Islam prevents power-sharing, transition studies might benefit from focusing on consolidation rather than actual transition as time-lapse between the change of institutions.

4. Nation-building projects

 One interesting question in the context of the Arab Spring is whether the Umma is still sought, or whether competing nation-building projects have become the norm. The Western/Eastern divide of nationalisms is an obsolete tool, hence a more useful approach will have to focus on competing nation-building projects and their state-building strategies. The issue here is to not replace one teleology with another, particularly because of the deep religious cleavages. On a theoretical level the problem is extremely complex: on the one hand, a mixture of non-inclusive nation-building projects revolving around religious sectarianism and on the other the need for identity-construction that rests on a different type of imagined community. A type of state/counter-state framework (Brubaker:2004) might be more useful to try and break apart nation-building projects from the overarching Islamist Umma concept.

Obviously the complex equation of democratic politics need further in-depth detailing, yet  what seems to be clear is that a rigid application of existing transition literature is locked in a vicious teleological circle. Put briefly, the conclusion of this highly schematic overview is that with some theoretical addendums transitology might be used as a suitable framework of analysis for the Arab Spring countries, by focusing on competing state- and nation-building projects, and by implementing a path-dependent structured approach.

List of references

Rogers Brubaker: Ethnicity without Groups. In. Ethnicity without Groups. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press., 2004)

Taras Kuzio, Transition in Post-Communist States: Triple or Quadruple?, published in Politics, Vol. 21, 2001

Juan Linz, Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: South-Eastern Europe, Southern America and Post-Communist Europe, published in Journal of Democracy, 1997

 Hirschman, Albert O. And Michael Rothschild. 1973. “The Changing Tolerance for Income Inequality in the Course of Economic Development.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics Vol. 87, Issue. 4