Freedom vs. Dignity: A Sustainable History Thesis for the Arab Spring

A protester in Egypt, 2011. Image: Kodak Agfa. The Arab Spring is perhaps the most important transformative movement since the revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe in 1989. For many countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the rapid collapse of regimes in 2011 produced radical changes in domestic, regional, and international politics, marking a definite departure from their ancien régime.

In light of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, Francis Fukuyama presented “The End of History” theory, interpreting the 1989 revolutions as the triumph of liberal democratic ideals, or at least the emergence of a general consensus about their legitimacy. His thesis proclaimed the end of “fundamental contradictions in human life,” signifying that there no longer existed any problem in society that could not be resolved by modern liberalism. Thus, for Fukuyama, the 1989 revolutionary transitions to a liberal democracy represented the “End of History”—the end point of social transformation.

The Arab Spring uprisings were, to many observers, an express call for freedom and democracy, similar to that of the 1989 revolutions. Before these uprisings, Arab countries could be perceived as the exception to the prophecy of a coming liberal order. Many believed the status quo in Arab societies was immutable, and a general pessimism about the prospects for reform reigned.  The radical transformations of the Arab Spring  were considered a confirmation of an ineluctable momentum towards a Western-type liberal democracy—the End of History.

Barriers to implementing democratic systems throughout MENA spur on debate about legitimacy and appropriate forms of governance. Western countries, motivated by geopolitical interests, had been allies or tacit supporters of many of the rulers overthrown by the Arab Spring. Having backed leaders that were growingly unpopular in their countries, the West now faces a deficit of legitimacy in these countries.

Accordingly, Arab societies in transition need to find their own way in order for durable forms of good governance to evolve. This implies reaching domestic consensus over the preferred type of government and international assistance that is limited and tailored to requests from within. Furthermore, there need to be regional variations even within the MENA region reflecting the fragmented and varied power mechanisms, traditions, and socio-economic realities of each country. Therefore, what may apply in some North African countries may not necessarily be the best option in the Gulf and vice versa. Efforts to impose institutions from the outside will only be perceived as geo-political machinations aimed at political control and inauthentic to the people of the region. Rather than thinking in terms of the end of history, we ought to be thinking about how to ensure a "sustainable history—sustainable in the sense of ensuring endogenous good governance paradigms in culturally-appropriate, acceptable, and affordable ways.

Western-style liberal democracy, in its current form, may answer the need for political equality, but it also has the potential of producing socio-economic and cultural inequalities, as has happened, for example, in the case of disenfranchised Muslim communities in France or other communities in various mature democracies. Forms of marginalization are not incompatible with liberal democracy and indeed, extensive examples around the world show that poverty and exclusion persist in both new and mature democracies. Moreover, the support for democracy came in many countries from elites who did not espouse ideals of poverty alleviation or equity. In this respect, liberal democracy is not the “least bad alternative,” contrary to Fukuyama’s suggestion.

A historical perspective focused on sustainability offers more adaptability than the End of History alternative. Underlying this sustainable history model is the belief that what drives history is not primarily the search for freedom, but rather the profound human quest for dignity. Dignity, more than the absence of humiliation, is a holistic set of criteria indispensable for good governance: reason, security, human rights, accountability, transparency, justice, opportunity, innovation, and inclusiveness. Indeed, the call for dignity has been the theme of the Arab Spring. The revolutions were prompted by leaders’ failure to respect and ensure the dignity of their citizens. The protesters were driven by underlying discontent and frustration with arbitrary and disrespectful security forces, lack of economic opportunities, malfunctioning public services, and the arrogance as well as corruption of an affluent ruling class. The numerous failings in governance of incumbent regimes thus culminated in collective dignity deficits that made a critical turning point for the region inevitable. The question was not if, but when. Therefore, both the Arab Spring and its aftermath need to be dissociated from the overly-repeated dictum of liberal democracy, as it was not rooted in freedom but rather in a search for dignity.

Good and accountable governance, regardless of the cultural or sociological make-up of societies, requires institutions ensuring that fundamental human dignity needs are met. Dignity-based good governance will guard against social, economic, political, and cultural disenfranchisement. Moreover, it allows for culturally appropriate forms of good governance that are acceptable, affordable, and appropriate to the people themselves in each country to take root.  As a result, instead of reinforcing the discourse of liberal democracy, the sustainable history model proposes a governance paradigm adapted to local conditions and meeting minimum global norms of human rights. Hopefully, this is not the end, but the beginning of a sustainable future.