Following twenty years of authoritarian rule, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is ousted from power following a revolution of the people. It’s hard to imagine that so many years have passed since the great democratic experiment was brought onto this earth by the forming of the United States. This sample history paper explores the Arab Spring, specifically focusing on the different challenges the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian regimes faced during the pivotal Middle Eastern movement.
The Arab Spring: Differences between Egypt and Saudi Arabia
Since the establishment of the 1776 United States’ Constitution and Bill of Rights, many countries have adopted in part democratic principles put forth in American republicanism. We’ve observed democratic conversions in the western world. However, now we are witnessing the expansion of democracy in countries that are historically autocratic and dominated by a conservative religion.
Eva Bellin notes: “While the number of electoral democracies has nearly doubled since 1972, the number in [in the Middle East and North Africa] has registered and absolute decline.”
Larry Diamond concurs: “The continuing absence of even a single democratic regime in the Arab world is a striking anomaly – the principal exception to the globalization of democracy.”
The examples of the Arab Spring effect in Egypt and Saudi Arabia provide insight into this stubborn resistance to democracy in the Middle East and help understand how superpowers like the United States are largely responsible for the failure or success of democratization efforts.
Egypt fell during the Arab spring because under Mubarak it had an extremely low quality of life with the bulk of Egyptians living in poverty. In contrast, Saudi Arabia was flush with wealth. Both countries are Muslim, however, the oppression in Egypt became overwhelming for the people and revolution was imminent. The rising intrigue of the Arab spring has spread to other Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Saudi Arabia is entertaining modest reforms in comparison to Egypt by expanding elections, loosening restrictions on the exchange of information. However, Saudi Arabia will not fall like Egypt did because the economy is so much stronger and the institutions of government are far more stable.
The role money played in the movement
The case of the Arab spring, chiefly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, shows the power of stable economies and ultimately wealth. While Saudi Arabia is extraordinarily wealthy through oil exports (see a macroeconomic analysis of oil), Egypt is in devout poverty living on public assistance from the United States.
“From there more than $30 billion that the Saudi State earns each year in oil revenue to the $2 billion that Egypt receives annually from the United States in foreign aid, many Middle Eastern and North African states are richly supplied with rental income.”
Continuing, Diam states that assistance to Egypt, in particular, has totaled more than $28 billion excluding military aide. This is more assistance than other Arab countries have received.
“External support for Arab regimes, historically coming in part from the Soviet Union but now mainly from Europe and the United States, confers on Arab autocracies crucial economic resources, security assistance, and political legitimacy… Since 1975, U.S. ‘development’ assistance to Egypt has totaled more than $28 billion, not including the nearly $50 billion that has flowed to that country in unconditional military aid since the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords.”
This support certainly did not enhance democracy. It continued to fund and maintain the regime of Mubarak.
Bellin supports the point that the efforts of western contributions to Egyptian democracy failed in establishing and sustaining a functioning economy outside state influence and control. It is not unusual for the diplomatic policies of the United States to include supporting authoritative regimes – like North Korea – because we would prefer to have a regime we know and can rely on to do predictable things. Mubarak was sustained for twenty years largely with support from the United States. Further, this support did not foster democracy or economic development, instead of widespread poverty and ultimately revolution. Now the United States must sit and wait while Egyptians prepare a new constitution, and it remains unclear the secular influence on the new regime.
A Different Context: Egyptian poverty
While Saudi Arabia is flush with money, Egypt was barely surviving.
“The government’s deteriorating ability to provide basic services and seeming indifference to widespread unemployment and poverty alienated tens of millions of Egyptians.”
This alienation, poverty, and perceived indifference of an aging autocrat eventually motivated Egyptians to revolution and with extraordinary determination:
“But the remarkable discipline demonstrated by Egypt’s protesters and their subsequent wide-ranging debates about how to reshape their country speak to the unusually high tolerance for free expression in Egypt (by regional standards) prior to the revolution.”
Revolution is not just about fighting in a violent way against and oppressive regime, it’s about expression as well. The undoing of many regimes is censorship and restricting speech. Critical turning points in authoritarian regimes when the masses revolt is to cut off their ability to communicate. In Egypt this only inflamed the revolutionaries more, steeling their will. The idea that oppressed speech was so motivating shows that democracy has a chance as long as the revolutionaries remember why they fought.
Restructuring the economy
There are structural requirements for democracies to be successful. We have found over the past couple of centuries that a thirst for freedom is the major driving force towards revolution. It happened in the colonies in the United States with British oppression, and it happened in Egypt. However, other basics must be included if a democracy is to take hold. Open and fair elections are critical as that is the official voice of the people. Diamond considers that there is a correlation between per capita income and the success of elections.
“Taking account of the level of per capita income, they find numerous ‘electoral over-achievers’ among the Muslim-majority states that are not predominantly Arab, and none among the Arab states” (Diamond 94).
With higher per capita income in Saudi Arabia and poverty in Egypt, it is opined that the elections are not free and open because the oppressor maintained power much longer than he should have. Diamond believes that being used to oppression and autocracy is insufficient in motivating a democratic change by citing successful transitions despite this obstacle in other countries:
“If the problem… is that Arab countries ‘had been accustomed to… autocracy and passive obedience,’ why has this remained an insurmountable obstacle in the Arab world while it has no prevented democratization in large swaths of the rest of the world that had once also known only authoritarian domination?”
Continuing, Diamond discusses comparisons from other Arab and Muslim-majority countries:
“It could also be argued—and has been regarding both Iraq and Lebanon—sectarian and ethnic divisions run too deep to permit democracy in these countries. Yet Iraq and Lebanon—for all their fractious, polarized divisions—are the two Arab countries closest to full electoral democracy today, while two of the most homogenous countries, Egypt and Tunisia, are also two of the most authoritarian.”
Ethnic diversity and strife is found by Diamond to be an insufficient rationale for the failure of democratic change in Arab countries. Bellin agrees:
“Cumulative failure to achieve the prerequisites of democracy clearly undermines the consolidation of democracy. Alone it cannot explain the failure to carry out democratic transition because many countries burdened with failure have nonetheless made that leap successfully.”
For both Diamond and Bellin, transitions can take place regardless of ethnic and religious differences. If the people are truly interested in democracy, they will find a way around their ideological differences, as long as freedom of expression and access to media is maintained.
Egypt: The democracy that never was
Under Mubarak, Egypt enjoyed steady economic strife and poverty, oppression, and while media and other forms of communication in modern society expanded the aging autocrat responded with tighter restrictions. Ultimately at the cost of his legitimacy and authority. Without both, a regime cannot sustain. Loss of confidence began to heighten in 2004 culminating full revolution in 2011:
“The political trajectory that Egypt followed in 2004 and 2005 was a perfect illustration of this dynamic. The aging autocrat, President Hosni Mubarak, was coming under growing domestic pressure from an unusually broad opposition coalition known as Kifaya (meaning ‘enough’—which succinctly summed up the country’s mood), as well as from U.S. president George W. Bush, who was also pushing for more open and competitive presidential and legislative elections.”
Bad economy, continued oppression, and sham elections, a formula for destruction. Ultimately what sent the country into chaos was the oppression of communications and digital media.
“[Egypt] has been enthusiastic about the medium’s prospects for economic development, implementing programs to encourage the rural diffusion of the Internet and bridge the digital divide.”
The effective use of social media in organizing and communicating during the Arab spring was critical to the success of toppling the oppressive regimes. The continued use of these communication modalities is critical to the continued success of building democracies.
Saudi Arabia faced smaller uprise
Saudi Arabia was spared so far from the widespread uprising of its people in the Arab spring movement. Saudi Arabia is a wealthy nation rich in oil reserves fueling western economies. Additionally, the legal structure of the Saudi government is remarkably less oppressive and considered legitimate by the majority of Muslim Saudi’s.
“In general, the Saudi political system constitutes the most complete expression of the so-called ‘Islamic exception’, the general rejection of the Western system of law and support for the view that all legitimacy should come from the Koran and the Sunna.”
Additionally, Saudi Arabia has more structures in place, than Egypt did, that allow for the Saudi people to engage in their own governance. However, there have been substantial calls for more reforms. President Bush urged expanding freedoms of speech to reduce radicalism and terrorism:
“In carefully chosen words [President George W. Bush] also encouraged political reforms in the Kingdom, saying that ‘by giving the Saudi people a greater role in their own society, the Saudi government can demonstrate true leadership in the region’, and that ‘suppressing dissent’ can only increase radicalism.”
Regardless of dissension, the government and economy of Saudi Arabia seem more stable and definitely more influential. Another stabilizing force for Saudi Arabia is its close relationship with Western countries:
“Today, however, the alliance between the regime and clergy is much contested by dissidents because the parties no longer serve as ‘checks’ on each other. Moreover, as the Kingdom provides the West with the uninterrupted deliveries of oil, Western governments, first the British and later the United States, guarantee the security of Saudi Arabia and also the position of the ruling family.”
Because Saudi wealth is derived from the sale of oil to Western nations, and little else, there is more understanding of western laws and culture. However, the suggestion that the Saudis were loathe American’s or support terrorism is not well received.
“Accusations of supporting terrorism as well as the US pressure to reform their system enraged many Saudis… Most of them did not hate America, had positive feelings toward the country and only partially rejected Washington’s policies in the Middle East.”
This position considers the Saudi government and people more diplomatic and willing to cooperate with Western democracies.
Is Saudi Arabia the world’s best “fake” democracy?
Regardless of relative comity in Saudi Arabia, Saudi’s are calling for reforms in the areas of elections, freedom of the press, open information and women’s rights. However, there was some concern over expanding elections:
“While reformers were demanding elections, many Saudi officials were afraid of such a move. They believed that this would pose too great a risk to stability of the country and strengthen the hand of radical Islamists.”
It’s interesting that the concern over freer elections would be giving more legitimacy to a radical group by giving them the power of the vote. However, that is a critical part of democracy, the legitimacy of the vote. When the right to vote was expanded there was low turnout:
“The low turnout was caused by several factors, including restrictions on campaigning, an inexperienced and poorly informed electorate, and the low stakes: voters were choosing only half the seats on city councils; bodies with limited responsibilities anyway.”
This was an experiment in elections, it started small with picking elected officials who couldn’t drastically change policy. With election experimentation, it could easily expand.
Saudi communication freedoms
Expanding open communication is a critical point for Saudi’s, with a younger generation gaining more exposure to the internet, the free exchange of information is becoming a more important activity for Saudi’s.
“Saudi Arabia has expressed more visible concern over the Internet than has the UAE, and it has taken a more cautious approach to the medium. Public Internet access was introduced only in 1999, and the medium is filtered through one of the most extensive mechanisms for content censorship in the world.”
Concluding thoughts on The Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia and Egypt
Egypt was ripe for a fall, following the liberation of Libya, and the general swing towards a revolution in the Arab nations it was only a matter of time. Its economy was not sustaining, its power structure inadequate. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, has a powerful royal family, stronger power structures, and a huge economy. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is considering some changes, modest expansions of civil rights, but is too stable for a revolution.
Anderson, Lisa. “Demystifying the Arab Spring: Parsing the Differences Between Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.” foreign affairs 90, no. 3 (2011): 2-7.
Bellin, Eva. “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective.” Comparative Politics 36, no. 2 (2004): 139-157.
Diamond, Larry. “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?.” Journal of Democracy 21, no. 1 (2010): 93-104.
Kalathil, Shanthi, and Taylor C. Boas. Open networks, closed regimes: the impact of the Internet on authoritarian rule. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003.
Kapiszewski, Andrzej. “Saudi Arabia: Steps Toward Democratization or Reconfiguration of Authoritarianism.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 41, no. 5 (2006): 459-482.
Seznec, Jean-Francois. “Democratization in the Arab World? Stirrings in Saudi Arabia.” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 4 (2002): 33-40.