When Hebrew University political scientist Reuven Hazan spoke to a Center for Israel Education gathering June 29, he discussed the “Israeli Summer” — a July 2011 echo in Tel Aviv of that year’s Arab Spring.
Aside from being amazed that tens of thousands of Israelis would crowd into a public square for hours in the heat of July but wouldn’t bother to vote, as he found in polling the protesters, Hazan was left uncertain whether the social and economic issues that drove the demonstrations would rise to the top of Israeli politics.
If we’re still uncertain about the effects of protests in a representative democracy five years later, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that we don’t know what the Arab Spring accomplished.
Dictators fell in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but as CIE President Ken Stein told the more than 80 teachers from day and congregational schools attending the 15th annual CIE summer enrichment workshop June 30, “Dethroning autocrats does not mean dethroning autocracies. Transitions are messy, and they take time.”
The time can be decades. The American Revolution, Stein said, didn’t end until the close of the Civil War nearly 90 years later. The Russian Revolution stretched into the 1930s. Iran’s 1979 revolution still awaits its final act. “How long,” Stein said, “until the population gets fed up?”
The Arab Spring happened in 2011 because of three major factors, Stein said: cronyism, or the popular belief that a small number of powerful people were treating the public treasury as private capital; a dramatic increase in Arab literacy, producing, for example, more than 800,000 college graduates a year in Egypt, most of whom can’t find the jobs they think they deserve; and a demographic wave that has resulted in most of the population in Arab countries being younger than 30.
All those young, educated, unemployed or underemployed people facing a corrupt system produced the uprisings five years ago, but the conditions haven’t improved for most of them.
Stein offered signs of Arab Spring success to look for, such as the evolution of a civil society that improves people’s lives and the development of an independent judiciary that the military won’t defy. Perhaps most important, watch for a peaceful transition from one civilian government to another after elections.
“It’s not the first election that matters,” he said. “It’s the second.”
Meanwhile, there’s not much more Western nations can do but wait and watch. History shows, Stein said, that outsiders who think they can change Arab behavior are naïve.