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24 February 2021

The lights that failed

Why the cause of liberal democracy collapsed in the Middle East.

By John Jenkins

In mid-April 2011, out of the blue, I took a telephone call at the British Embassy in Baghdad from the Foreign Office: could I transfer at short notice from Iraq, where I was serving as ambassador, to Libya? Iraq was heading for renewed sectarian conflict, driven by the actions of the then prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki – a Shia Islamist – was accused of having conspired to steal the 2010 elections from his rival, Iyad Allawi. Allawi was also Shia but secular and nationalist, with wide support across religious and ethnic divides. He represented a republican alternative for Iraq based on citizenship and equality, not the obscurantist and fearful communitarianism peddled by the religious parties, both Shia and Sunni.

Allawi had won more seats across the country. But Maliki was supported both by Iran and by the United States. He had intimidated much of the Iraqi political class and cracked down on demonstrators – either arresting critics or chasing them out of town. He reportedly had a private prison and a private army. He was making political deals with murderous thugs, such as the former Sadrist turned independent death squad leader, Qais al-Khazali. But the British government wasn’t interested: the military disasters in the south, where we had failed to provide ordinary people with the security we had promised them in 2003, cast too long a political shadow and ministers just wanted to forget about Iraq. The French were chasing the fool’s gold of business contracts through Maliki’s allies. In Washington, policymakers believed Maliki was “their guy”. I thought this was folly and pushed back. It wasn’t working. So I said yes to Libya. Three weeks later I flew into Benghazi.

[See also: How the dream of the Arab Spring died]

Libya was energy- and asset-rich, with a population of around six million, great economic potential, a relatively benign climate, an impressive Mediterranean coastline and some of the best ancient sites in the world. The rebels fighting Gaddafi were organised in small, local militias. It was not the sectarian morass of Iraq. I thought the uprising, which had started two months earlier in February, might succeed in building a durable political order that matched the popular aspirations evident across the region, for dignity, good government, a share in prosperity, a political voice.

I was wrong – but not because I mistook the causes. The absence of legitimacy and good governance has been at the heart of state failure in the Middle East and North Africa for a century. If we examine the evidence of elections, social media, social surveys and other opinion polling across the region since 2011, it is clear that many if not most of those who live there want to achieve a better life, a more modern state and a fairer system. Why can’t they?

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Revolutions are thrilling. But they destroy. Some hope that when a bad regime is overthrown, the subsequent trajectory must be progressive. Experience suggests the reverse. Authoritarianism is not weakened in such circumstances: it recurs. There are, of course, all sorts of revolutions: from above, from below, praetorian, sans-culotte, glorious, inglorious. In the Arab world they have historically fractured along nationalist, ethnic and religious fault lines. But one thing is certain: they never end the way you hope.


Karl Marx wrestled with the problem after the failure of the 1848 European revolutions, dismayed that the French bourgeoisie had acquiesced in the destruction of the Second Republic by the 1851 coup d’état of Louis Napoleon. A hundred years later, in the mid-1960s, another great German thinker, Hannah Arendt, remarked: “No revolution, no matter how wide it opened its gates to the masses and the downtrodden… was ever started by them.”

This points to another truth Arendt expressed: “Liberties in the sense of civil rights are the results of liberation, but they are by no means the actual content of freedom, whose essence is admission to the public realm and participation in public affairs.”

This is not to deny that good can ever come from revolution. But it only seems to happen if there is already a strong civic and political culture, as in the case of England after 1688 or the United States after 1783; an institutional pathway to sustainable change, as in the Philippines after 1986; or, in the case of a coup, a specific reason for a military to prefer democracy to its alternatives, as in Portugal in 1974. And it still takes time.

In Egypt in 2011 the initial uprising may have been led by ordinary Egyptians who had been misled by successive regimes that said economic growth would trickle down while it refused to do so. But it wasn’t finished by them any more than the Iranian Revolution was finished by the coalition of students, workers, bazaaris, leftists, liberals and clergy that drove its initial stages in 1979. And since 2011, in neither Egypt nor Iran – nor Libya, Sudan, Algeria, Syria, Lebanon or Iraq – have the masses been admitted to the public realm, which is the fundamental condition of a state of law and justice.

[See also: Ten years on from Hosni Mubarak, what remains of the Egyptian Revolution?]

We shouldn’t need Marx, Arendt, or the liberal philosophers John Rawls or Jürgen Habermas to explain this. After all, the English revolution of the 1640s produced military tyranny and the monarchist counter-revolution of 1660. The French Revolution spawned civil war, the Terror, Napoleon and a trail of blood across Europe. It, too, was followed by counter-revolution and nearly a century of domestic political instability and conflict. The Russian Revolution of 1917 produced Stalin, a disastrous famine, millions of unnecessary deaths and the Gulag. The long Chinese Revolution, which began in 1911, produced Mao, the Great Leap Forward, millions of deaths and the Cultural Revolution. The German uprisings of 1918-19 led to the Weimar Republic – but also to the Third Reich.

In the modern Middle East, the wave of coups and revolutions that started with General Bakr Sidqi in Iraq in 1936, intensified after the Second World War, and ended asymmetrically with tiny Qatar and vast Sudan in the 1990s, created turmoil without progress. These insurrections produced the Assads, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Bashir, a grim cabal of generals in Algeria, pogroms, impoverishment, sustained unrest and vicious repression. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 produced the Ayatollah Khomeini and a murderous theocracy that has sponsored militia-backed subversion across the region for 40 years.

None of these coups and revolutions widened public participation or advanced civic rights. So why should the uprisings of 2011 end differently? Many rulers in the region warned Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy and others that they wouldn’t. We tended to dismiss them as self-interested autocrats. There is some truth in that description. But the ancient historian Thucydides, the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the German sociologist Max Weber, all of whom lived through the convulsive overthrow of old orders, knew how bad revolutions could get. Why had we forgotten?


A sense of exceptionalism and sheer ignorance is one answer. The same fever dream had led the West into Iraq in 2003: the mirage of a new, inclusive politics and a phoenix-like democracy arising from the ashes of tyranny.

But in the Middle East politics is designed to exclude. Independent institutions and civil society have been suppressed for 70 years. Elections are not meant to reflect the will of the people. They are opportunities for predatory elites to seize power and plunder. And when you have a revolution, the only thing that really changes – as the great Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun, reported nearly 700 years ago – is the identity of the elite.

If you look at elections in Iraq since 2003, or in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Lebanon since 2011, you see a graphic illustration of Antonio Gramsci’s well-worn observation that the new cannot be born, the old is dying, and the result is political morbidity. You also see the continued grip that taxonomies of tribe, clan, ethnic, religious, sectarian and other group affiliations have on the region. Recent elections have not produced a permeable and removable class of politicians who represent the interests of the people or the nation. Instead they confirm in office a set of elites whose power derives not from the ballot box but from the accumulation of social capital, patronage and the purposeful construction of ethnic, communal or sectarian boundaries.

We have seen this most clearly in Lebanon, which since 1943 has had the longest experience of consociationalism – a system that seeks to promote the representation or well-being not of individuals but of self-identifying groups and their self-ascribed leaders – in the entire Arab world. This is not unique to Lebanon. It was disastrously imported into Iraq in 2003. In both places it has encouraged self-replicating groups of professionally communal politicians who make decisions not on the basis of voter intentions as revealed through elections but in clandestine negotiations with other elite groups. The primary aim of these groups is to preserve their power and access to state resources – which in turn generates the patronage on which such a system depends.

A cruder version of this system was in place in both Libya and Syria before 2011, with the Assad and Gaddafi families effectively in power for life, and free to use the state as a private fiefdom. In Libya, elections from 2012 onwards showed that most people wanted security, stability, economic growth, education and a re-engagement with the world. When more than 60 per cent of registered Libyans voted in 2012 they did not expect rule by militias. But that’s what they got. Only 45 per cent on a smaller electoral roll voted in the second elections in 2014 – again not for militias, but the results were overturned. And now we have the fourth in a series of desperate attempts by the UN to patch together various “unity” or “interim” governments, all designed to reconcile a mix of probably irreconcilable domestic and external sponsors of discord.

In Egypt, rigged elections, designed to entrench the power of the army, the security forces and their political and economic cronies, have persisted for 70 years. In 2011 in Tahrir Square it was liberals, ordinary working people, students and football supporters who thought they were delivering Egypt from authoritarianism. The Muslim Brotherhood – allowed by successive governments to recruit and organise in return for keeping liberals, secularists and leftists down and not threatening the core interests of the deep state – had been largely absent from the original protests. But by the time free elections were held in 2011-12, it had entered into a tacit alliance with the army designed to squeeze non-Islamists out of whatever middle ground existed. Brotherhood-affiliated Democratic Alliance for Egypt candidates only won around 20 per cent of the total votes available in the parliamentary elections (and 37 per cent of the votes actually cast), but the movement understood this and Mohammed Morsi’s subsequent narrow victory in the presidential elections as a mandate to amend the constitution and shape the state in its own image. When opinion polls showed that ordinary Egyptians had turned against the group, and with the army clearly restive, it remained convinced that divine providence would rescue it. It didn’t.

In all elections since 2011 we see the ebbing of popular confidence in the ballot box. In Iraq, turnout in the parliamentary elections of 2018 was the lowest it has been since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Of the 45 per cent who voted, a plurality voted for a cleric – Muqtada al-Sadr – who has vowed to end corruption and produce a government that will address the failings of its predecessors. But Sadr increasingly looks like the charismatic but blustering Mussolini who marched on Rome in 1922, posed as Italy’s saviour – and wrecked it. And Iran will seek as always to preserve the hegemony of its allies inside the system.

[See also: Assad on trial]

In the 2018 Lebanese election the turnout was similarly low, and the government it produced is essentially the same as its predecessor, which in turn was like its predecessor, and so on. The only change is that Hezbollah – the Iranian-backed militia – accumulates more power. And no one is ever held accountable, even as the banks run out of money and much of west Beirut is shattered by a failure to manage 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. Even in Tunisia – the shining light of the Arab Spring – turnout for the 2019 parliamentary elections was 41 per cent. A disproportionate number of young Tunisians went to join Islamic State. And the economic divide between the Francophone coast and the Arabic-speaking interior remains huge, as the post-revolutionary political elite squabbles  over privilege.

No wonder people are disenchanted. They thought the Arab Spring would produce freedom. Instead it brought insecurity, conflict and corrupt new elites no different to the old ones, even if, as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, they claimed to be the authentic voice of a unified insurgency.


The capture of a revolution by a vanguardist movement was the model applied by Lenin in 1917, and adapted by Nasser in 1952, Gaddafi in 1969, Hafez al-Assad in 1970 and Khomeini and his successors after 1979. The outcome in each case was a state-wide praetorianism, by which populations were captive and procedural democracy – backed by force – was used to deflect grievances  and promote an image of legitimacy. It also worked.

In contrast, electoral democracy is a process not an outcome. It is the product not the cause of a political ideology. Europe’s political liberalism is an exception to be explained rather than a rule to be exported. The electoral practices we champion are contingent. They are conditioned by a particular historical experience and underpinned by a discursive ideology of individual rights and freedoms. Their origins can be traced back to Roman and Germanic law, inflected by a political theology derived from the anti-imperial or anti-papal republicanism of the early Italian city states.

And in Europe modernity was a cultural project before it was a political one, built on associationism, economic expansion, the growth of civic space and the spread of philosophy, science and art that became the Enlightenment. Successful electoral democracy requires the development of sustained habits of mind and social practices and a shared sense of the past and the future. It needs an acceptance that power can be transferred, a living memory of non-predatory state behaviour and an unintimidated civil society. It needs a common understanding of justice and the rule of law. And it needs strong, independent and impartial institutions to arbitrate.

If we think competent, just and legitimate government is desirable (and I do), how do we think it can arise and be sustained in the Middle East and North Africa, where few of these preconditions exist? That question is uncomfortable. If you look at the states in the region that a plurality of young Arabs admire most and wish to emulate, it is monarchical or sheikhly systems that many still characterise as despotic.

Underlying all this is the flight towards security we saw first perhaps in Egypt after 2011 – where the army remained overwhelmingly the most trusted institution – and which then accelerated elsewhere, if opinion polling is to be believed, in response to the chaos the Arab Spring unleashed. Security is a precondition for any sort of progress. And the largely wealthy states of the Gulf in particular, where the Arab Spring failed to ignite (except for a time in Bahrain and more briefly in Oman) have been successful precisely because they provide security and economic opportunity in return for political quiescence.

This doesn’t make that bargain – between security and political apathy – the inevitable end of Arab political development. Not everyone can live and find work in Dubai or Neom, or wants to do so. And when protesters in Iran show contempt for the tired slogans of the Islamic Republic; when their counterparts in the streets of Basra, Nasiriyah or Baghdad chant, “We just want a country”; when others in Beirut, Tripoli or Sidon chant, “All of you means all of you”; when they announce their support for each other across ethnic or confessional divides; when they risk their lives to show their anger at the corrupt elites who have stolen their futures, we are probably seeing the emergence of something new: an overwhelmingly young and decentralised movement that attaches importance to Gesellschaft (society and the state) not Gemeinschaft (community and the tribe), and wants something a lot better than their parents ever had. All the polling suggests they are less tempted by the cheap seductions of Islamist hucksters or nationalist demagogues. Satellite television, the internet and social media have shown them the world. And they want a piece of it.

But you still need a plan. You need leaders. And you need to persuade others. That hasn’t happened yet. That’s partly because when articulate and persuasive figures emerge in places like Lebanon or Iraq, some shadowy figure on a motorbike at night shoots them dead. In Syria they disappear. In Iran they are threatened, arrested, tortured, imprisoned and executed. But you can’t kill, detain or intimidate everyone forever. If something doesn’t change soon, the Arab Spring of 2011 won’t be the last.

And when the next wave breaks, we shouldn’t try to build a state. We should minimise the rewards for destroying one. Corruption is not a bug in the system: it is the system. And when corrupt elites stash their loot, they turn to London, Zurich, Paris, New York, Frankfurt, Caracas, Ankara, Nicosia. That’s where the fuel lines of destruction run. Cut them. 

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This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks