A conference convened in Beirut on 21-23 January 2016 to discuss the development of the Arab uprisings, five years after the landmark eruption of the Arab Spring. The three days symposium “The Arab Revolutions Five Years On: The Arduous Road of Democratization and Future Prospects” was jointly organized by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) and the Issam Fares Institute.

In The first day, Moroccan Hafiz Harrous presented a paper on “The Identity Debate and its Effect on the Challenge of Democratic Transition: Egypt and Tunisia”. Attention was then drawn to economic policies in Linda Matar’s paper on “Syria: Economic Policies during Times of Conflict”. 

Wendy Pearlman gave a more human analysis of the Arab uprisings. In her contribution, “Revolution and Rebirth in Syria”, Pearlman stated that the traditional definitions of revolution involve people exchanging a specific political regime for another, but this perspective reduces the value of elements of psychological, cultural, and emotional hegemony. 

In a second session on “Media and Communications and the Arab Revolutions”, Omar Bizri with his paper “Whither Science, Technology and Innovation in the Arab Spring Countries?” maintained that underlying the Arab world’s weaknesses is the failure to transfer, utilize, and localize knowledge, especially scientific and technological knowledge. The second contribution, “Media Development in Syria: The Janus-Faced Nature of Foreign Aid Assistance”, was made by Billie Jeanne Brownlee, who illustrated how the Syrian media landscape was strongly supported by international development aid during the years prior the outbreak of the 2011 uprising. 

Next came the keynote lecture of Ghassan Salameh with his presentation on “Orphaned Democracy”. The title referred to the feeling that democracy in Arab countries was orphaned, without a guardian, despite years of Arabs calling for democracy and making it an integral part of their declarations – be they communists, nationalists, or Islamists. The story of democracy, reiterated Salameh, is not a matter of its formal adoption, but a matter of creating democratic institutions. It is not merely a way to gain power, but the insistence on living according to constitutional legitimacy, the rotation of power, and guaranteed liberties. As interpreted in the region, democracy is currently an end not a means, and its proponents are few and marginal.

Concluding the first day of the conference was the address of Tunisian politician, Sheikh Abdelfattah Mourou, a leading figure in the Tunisian Islamist movement, who delivered his lecture entitled “From Toppling Tyranny to Protecting the Democratic Transition: The Case of Tunisia”. Mourou felt uneasy in assessing the Tunisian experience. Five years, he stressed, is not long enough to make an assessment. He stated that the Islamists were the first to be accused of trying to shift the popular mobilization to the Arab world following the revolution in Iran, and as a result their mobilization came to an end. What happened in Algeria in the 1990s made people afraid of Islamists.

Second day

The first session on the second day of the conference, “Arab Political Movements and the Revolutions: Roles and Transformations”, chaired by Professor Jihad El Zein, opened with a contribution from Salameh Kaileh who discussed the role of the Left in the Arab Spring. Nagwan Al-Ashwal’s “Islamist Political Movements and the Democratic Process” discussed the Gamaa al-Islamiya in Egypt, exploring how its interaction with the political sphere affected its ideology and behavior. Based on interviews with members of the Gamaa, and an analysis of the movement’s literature, Al-Ashwal illustrated how, over time, the movement has evolved. 

Why has the pathway of the Ennahda movement in Tunisia differed to that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt asked Khalil Al-Anani, in a presentation comparing Islamic Movements in Egypt and Tunisia Differences between the two movements are evident in the political, cultural, and social contexts; in the trajectory of the post-revolution transition; in strategies adopted; and in the regional and international context. Where they retained similarities, he notes, was the fact they shared the same intellectual origin, a history of being oppressed and excluded from the political arena prior to the revolution, and that neither movement ignited the revolution in its country but took part once it had started.

A parallel session entitled “Political Movements and the Revolutions: Roles and Transformations”, was chaired by Rayan El-Amine. Zoltan Pall opened this session with “How do Lebanese Salafists Establish their Religious Authority in the Post-Arab Spring Period?”. Many studies, he said, attribute the success of the Salafi movement to its ability to attract young people facing an identity crisis, one generally linked to modernity. He continued, “In Lebanon, the Salafists attract Sunnis who feel a sense of deprivation and injustice in comparison with other groups in better conditions”. Northern Lebanon, he added, which is Sunni majority, has seen the growth of the influence of the Salafi movement in the period after the Arab revolutions.

Egyptian Ahmad Abdul Hamid Hussein presented a case study of the Misr al-Qawia Party in his paper “The Transition to Democracy: Between Polarization and the Absence of an Alternative”. He was followed by Mohamed-Ali Adraoui, who spoke on “The Foreign Policies of Islamist Movements”.

In the next two sessions, both under the title “The State and Revolutions: Containment and Confrontation”, the first paper by Mehdi Mabrouk discussed the deep state and the democratic transition in Tunisia. In “The Dilemma of the Arab Spring: The State in Opposition to Change”, Ouled Bahi Boun noted that the wave of change was marked by variances from state to state, and that this difference depended on the level of state power and its ability to fight back. 

The demands across all the Arab Spring states were similar but the paths were different, said Mohammed Elagati in his discussion of “The Structure of the Arab State and Democratization: Examples from Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco”. Popular movements, said Malika Zekhnini, unraveled the reality of the crisis-ridden nation states.  Focusing on the Maghreb, Zekhnini claimed that the revolutions did not lead to democratization because of imbalances in the structure of the nation state since independence, and the related tensions between the religious and the secular, the civil and the military, and the international and the regional, not to mention the colonial structure.

The parallel session on the same theme was chaired by Mona Harb with the first contribution from Michael C. Hudson on “Failing or Surviving? Unpacking the Crises of the Arab State”. Touching on a recurrent theme addressed by others in the conference, Hudson reiterated that the 2011 uprising dramatically revealed the weakness of the Arab state.  The paper of Clement Henry, “Stateness and Revolution in the Arab World” made an interesting link between the teachings of Lenin in his book State and Revolution and the Arab uprisings.

Mohammad El Shewy talked on Egypt: “Transitioning within Authoritarianism”, challenging the claim that the implementation of transitional justice would aid develop democratic institutions. He held that transitional justice failed to deal with the transformations and to anticipate the developments within the structures of the authoritarian state. The session concluded with Daniel P. Brown in “How far Above the Fray? Unpacking the Mechanisms of the Monarchical Advantage in the Arab Uprisings”. 

Sessions resumed in the afternoon. The first, “Arab Armies and the Revolutions: Redefining the Roles”, was chaired by Samer Frangie. An interesting comparison between Egypt’s situation and that of Thailand was given by Hani Awwad with the first paper of the session “The Historical Development of ‘the Apolitical’ in Egypt". Another historical approach was given by Hassan Al Hajj Ali Ahmed in the “New Military Professionalism: its Impact on the Arab Revolutions”, where he compared the old role of the armies, whose focus was on the Arab-Israeli conflict, to its new shift toward greater security, political, and economic role. 

With more on the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Army, Carla Issa, following a historical view from 1954 to present-day Egypt, noted how the deep state in Egypt, and the excessive violence practiced by the regime, have derailed the democratization process set in train by the January revolution. The final contribution to the session was “State Power, Transitions and Resilience: The Securitization of Democracy in Egypt and Tunisia” presented by Arnaud Kurze, who maintained that the growing threat of the Islamic State was being exploited to justify the securitization of society in the post Arab Spring period. 

The parallel session, “The Democratic Transition: Approaches and Questions”, was chaired by Bassel Salloukh. The first two papers addressed the Moroccan context. The first, a contribution by Mohammed Bask Mana, dealt with the constitutional and political experience in Morocco following the revolutions, and researched the constitutional and political events undergone by Morocco following the February 20 Movement protests. The second, by Sidi Moulay Ahmed Aylal, focused on the democratic process in Morocco and the challenge of its effectiveness. Aylal believes that the demand for accountability finds itself without an implementation mechanism in Morocco, and to date remains restricted to persons close to the king.

Georges Fahmi spoke on Al-Azhar and Support for Democracy in Egypt from 2011-2015, in an effort to investigate whether Islam and democracy are compatible, with focus on the oldest religious education institution in Egypt. The session concluded with Antonio-Martín Porras-Gómez in “Constitutional Law for the Arab Uprisings”. Porras-Gómez maintained that in spite of delays and setbacks, the Arab revolutions succeeded in launching a process changing and reforming the constitutions and noted that considerable similarities are found in many articles of the constitutions of Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco.

A special roundtable followed dedicated to prominent activists who had taken part in the Arab revolutions, chaired by Fawwaz Traboulsi. Abdul Rahman Mansour from Egypt claimed he felt the need to participate in the revolution following the historic opportunity that arose to come out against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. In his view, the revolution succeeded in introducing ordinary, non-activist citizens and marginalized groups into the political equation, and that, in time, that will produce a democratic movement. Tunisian Lamine Bouazizi did not agree with the claim that the revolution was a youth revolution. The town where the revolution was sparked, he added, was one inhabited by farmers. Bouazizi’s self-immolation, he continued, was not a miraculous event, but the accumulation of a political scene that had organized tens of sit-ins in the provinces. The security apparatus in Tunisia did not respond because it knew too well its time was up.

Concluding the second day of the conference was the keynote lecture of Gilbert Achcar: “Can the Arab people topple the regime with the state in place? Achcar made a distinction between the patrimonial state and the modern state, and considered that the latter makes a separation between institutions and the individuals who wield power, while the former is the personal property of the rulers. He noted that the Arab world has the greatest concentration of patrimonial states, whether monarchies or republics, which have turned into “repubdoms”.  A feature of the patrimonial state, he added, is that it builds entirely loyal institutions, which makes any attempt to overthrow the regime end in violence. The uprisings, he said, did not start in patrimonial states, but in Egypt and Tunisia, both of which were neo-patrimonial countries occupying a middle position between the two poles, being neither patrimonial states nor modern. They are also distinct from Syria and Libya, however, because the apparatus of the state has resilience and the rulers did not reassemble it from scratch as happened in Syria and Libya. That allowed for the overthrow of the regime, and for the it to be differentiated from the state, something not possible in Syria or Libya, at least not without resorting to violence.

Day three

Two keynote lectures marked the opening of the final day. The first was given by Egyptian activist Khaled Ali who spoke on the challenges facing the Arab Spring. He spoke on the frightening humanitarian crisis currently afflicting the region. “The parties to the conflict”, he said, “have created a wave of refugees, a situation for which we must find radical solutions.” Expressing his disappointment with the course of events in Egypt, Ali said he was surprised by people who, after the revolution, went against the principles of the revolution, and once they reached power, used the same practices as the Mubarak regime. He also said that the term “transition” was a misnomer. 

The second keynote lecture, “The Political Theology of ISIL,” was given by Ahmad Dallal from Lebanon. Fear, he said, has replaced hope for the Arab Spring revolutions, and ISIL has come to embody this fear as a force of the counterrevolution. He highlighted the theological lack of accuracy utilized by ISIL noting that ISIL had its own narratives of political theology that construct and shape its interventions around the world. Dallal focused on the affiliation of ISIL with Islam, stressing that the Islam preached by ISIL was embodied by very few Muslims, whose values and understanding was not shared by the majority of Muslims. 

Two parallel session were held in the morning. The first, “From Revolution to the Dilemma of the Democratic Transition,” was chaired by Saoud Almawla. Opening the session was Scottish Raymond Hinnebusch’s contribution “Conceptualizing and Explaining Post-Uprising Divergence in the Arab States: Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia.” He was followed by Ahmed Idali from Morocco on “The Democratic Transition within Yemen and Libya: Reasons Obstructing It,” who saw that the advance had failed in both countries and unsuccessful in founding a new period with a horizon of freedom. To conclude the session, Mohamed Ezzat Ruhayyim from Egypt spoke on “The Public Sphere Five Years after the Revolutions: Egypt as a Case Study.”

The parallel session, “Obstacles to the Democratic Transition in the Arab States,” was chaired by Hazem Al Amine. Leila Kabalan and Amr Kotb presented their joint paper, “The Secularist-Islamist Alliance in Post-Revolutionary Transition: Egypt and Tunisia.” Abdelwahab El-Affendi then presented “Auto-Immune Disorder: Manifestations of the Arab Disease in the Post-Arab Spring Disputes,” and Jawhar Jammoussi presented “Political Violence Channeled through Social Media: Obstacles to the Democratic Transition in the Arab Spring Countries,” which dealt with the role of social media in the revolutions.

Following the break, two further parallel sessions convened, both under the title, “The Stalled Democratic Transition: The Role of Social Institutions.” The first was chaired by Nasser Yassin, and the opening lecture came from Heba Raouf Ezzat with “From Awakening the Tribe to Looting the City: A Reading of the New Medieval Age”. 

Maziyar Ghiabi’s “A State without People: Civil War and Displacement in the Middle East” studied civil war as a model of government. Riham Khafaji in “Sub-national Identities in Arab societies: An Imagined Absence, Painful Presence” saw the problem beginning when sub-national identities were turned into an institution that people affiliate with and separate themselves from society. She thought that the Kurds and the Amazigh belonged to states that did not accept them.

The parallel session on the same topic was chaired by Charles Harb. The first contribution was Naim Chelghoum’s “The Social Context as Reflected in the Path to Democratic Transition in Present-day Arab Social Movements: A Sociological Reading of the Algerian Reality.” This was followed by Rabab El-Mahdi from Egypt who spoke on “Democratic Transition and the Idiosyncrasies of the Arab Middle Class.” 

The final session of the conference, “Regional and Global Polarization and the Impact on the Development of the Arab Revolutions,” was chaired by Rami Khouri. Yasser Djazaerly presented “The Containment of the Arab Revolutions and the Preservation of the World Order. Next, Felicia Pratto and Fouad Bou Zeineddine jointly contributed “What the Stable World Does not See that the Unstable World Does: Risks and External Threats in the Arab Uprisings.” This was followed by Muriel Asseburg with “The EU in the Middle East and North Africa: Helpless Bystander rather than Effective Promoter of Democracy or Stabilizing Force.”

The final contribution to the session, and to the conference, was Natalia Berenkova on “The Russian Approach towards Non-Governmental Actors in the Levant during the Arab Spring.” She dealt with the Russian approach towards non-state organizations, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, change in Russian Middle East policy, and Russia’s position on the Arab Spring, noting that Moscow seems a lot more comfortable when dealing with states and governments.