“Democracy” is perhaps the most oft-quoted term in political science scholarship. It is not a definable category. But political pluralism, human rights, freedom, and a presence of a civil society generally constitute a modern democracy. While perhaps no country can claim to be a perfect democracy, it is only the Middle East that has stood out for being a vast area that is quite simply authoritarian even to this day. Scholars have for decades devoted volumes looking into what has been quite a perplexing phenomenon. But is the Arab Spring really a ray of hope for democratization? While the protests by themselves have brought the problems of the Middle East to the forefront and the status quo is only begun to be challenged, democratization is only likely to come about when both the internal and external factors responsible for unrelenting despotism in the Middle East are fundamentally eradicated.

Persistent autocracy in the Middle East can essentially be sourced to its internal regime structure, which is typified by neo-patrimonial leaders deploying the state’s coercive apparatus in order to brutally repress popular anti-establishment sentiments and deter political opposition from outside. The aforesaid system is held together by political and military elites who represent a flawed civil-military relationship that is not germane to democracy. Armed forces are in fact known to play the most robust role in internal political matters in the Middle East compared to the rest of the world.And the bases of such neopatrimonial regimes, according to noted scholar Peter Pawelka, are traditional loyalty (familial heritage, religion, etc) and material rewards like jobs, licenses, etc.

While the flawed internal regime structure is part of the problem, Western influence in the Middle East has only served to enhance the potency and durability of these dictatorial regimes. Safeguarding Western security, geostrategic, and geo-economic interests has always required the US and European powers to meddle in Middle Eastern affairs, not only through armed invasions but also by way of hobnobbing with dictatorial regimes all the way through. Western support has gone on to embolden the Middle Eastern autocrats. In the convincing words of Eva Bellin, “where patrimonial institutions are wedded to coercive capacity, authoritarianism is likely to endure… And where international support and financing is forthcoming to the authoritarian regime, rapid regime change is unlikely.

But it is interesting to note how the Arab Spring is seen to be heralding democracy. Shadi Hamid, part of World Bank’s MENA Advisory Panel, writes with a sense of buoyancy about Middle Eastern prospects that America’s firm support of oppressive regimes, and its “unwillingness to back pro-democracy movements”, explains why Middle Eastern  regimes had been unreceptive to democratic changes until January 2011, when a pro-democracy rebellion, later termed the Arab Spring, gripped the whole of Middle East. 

However, any overly optimistic view on the Arab Spring must be qualified.

The Arab Spring holds promise as long as the chosen path is one of self-determination. That, however, does not seem to be the case. Not only do the ‘big powers’ never get tired of “prettifying client states to keep the oil flowing,” the most cynical accounts will say that there is indeed a concerted attempt at setting up regimes that will be favorable to Western strategic needs, yet again. One is reminded of the infamous 1953 Iran coup d’état which saw the re-installation of the puppet regime of Shah Pahlavi. Similarly, a West-directed coup in Syria (then still under French control) led to the replacement of the elected leader by a junta regime led by Colonel Husni Al-Zaim, handpicked by the West. There is a very real fear that the Arab Spring might lead to nothing substantial, with Middle Eastern states ending up with the same kind of regime structures typified by patrimony and coercion mechanisms, buttressed by Western support.

As many commentators have pointed out, the emergence of Islamic parties, like say the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt reflect a danger towards theocratic government formations. But while hardliner elements can be brought under the fold of legitimate democratic politics through moderation of their views (In Tunisia, moderate Islamic parties and liberals have formed government), the bigger danger will be if the Arab states continue to go down the slippery road of outside domination and foreign influence.

At the time of writing, Yemenis are being killed in US-led drone strikes, while a humanitarian crisis in the country stares at the face of the international community. In Bahrain, on the other hand, the uprising continues unabated as citizens continue to demand political reform just as the state uses its coercive apparatus to torture, repress and incarcerate its own people. Only recently, in Syria, hundreds died of a chemical weapon attack allegedly carried out by Assad’s forces while a Western military intervention has been averted for now. The daily news emanating from the Middle East is not particularly bright and breezy, and the prospects for genuine transition for democratization seem somewhat bright in certain states while implausible in others.

There are indications Western powers including ex-colonialialists will still be immersed deeply in the emerging political course that a new Middle East of the 21st century is likely to take. And if the governments that come to power do not take charge and engage in nation-building, Gerald Butt, the former BBC Middle East correspondent, fears that “the shadow of the former colonial powers and their allies is likely to fall across the Middle East for decades to come.” 

And some scholars indicate that there is still a “very long way to go before the remnants of authoritarian rule are dealt with.” But as others have pointed out, it might well be different this time around. Tunisia is being branded as a success case where the thrust for change has been coming from within. There is indeed light at the end of the tunnel, provided repressive regimes in the remaining few countries are also successfully challenged from within. For instance, in Turkey (although peripheral to the Arab Spring) the new constitution seeks to drastically curb the powers of the Army which has intervened in politics since 1960 and has staged four coups. Similarly, an Egyptian court is known to have curtailed the military’s power to arrest civilians. Examples like these offer a glimpse of hope that the internal factors including an intrusive military and state coercion will be weeded out little by little. As earlier mentioned, this should be complemented with self-determination, i.e. keeping the West out.