The Arab Awakening: when the dream met reality

The Middle East and North Africa's transition from authoritarianism to democracy has been slow and painful, with both hopeful gains as well as worrisome setbacks.

Demonstrators on the streets of Cairo, Egypt. Credit: Jake Lyell / Alamy Stock Photo.
Demonstrators on the streets of Cairo, Egypt. Credit: Jake Lyell / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared in ‘Religion : in the past, the present day and the future- Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar 2014′ published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020.

When looking at the future of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in general and at the region’s potential for democratic consolidation specifically, the question of how to accommodate and integrate both religious identities as well as religious parties becomes a very timely and crucial one. This essay examines the relationship between democratic consolidation, pluralism and religion by focusing on two specific topics: understanding the current and potential role of Islamist parties in the changing social and political Middle East and North Africa (MENA) contexts and assessing the impact of the rise of sectarianism across the region. In deconstructing the complex and dynamic relationship between religion and democracy in the Middle East, the essay emphasises the interactions between religious and political identities, as well as between cultural and institutional factors. In its conclusion, the essay stresses how the biggest obstacles to democratisation in the region may have more to do with a deficit in good governance and in effective political and economic institutions than with pre-ascribed cultural-religious factors.


When massive social and political mobilisations began to shake the status quo all across the Arab Middle East and North Africa, external observers reacted by displaying a mix of incredulity and excitement. Put simply, the so-called ‘Arab Awakening’ challenged the well-established under-standing of the Middle East as the undisputed domain of authoritarian governments and co-opted societies by showing involved and active citizens fighting for their freedom and dignity.

It appears evident that the Arab Awakening represented a critical juncture, ‘a period of significant change, which typically occurs in distinct ways in different countries […] and which is hypothesised to produce different legacies’. The cycle of protests that began in Tunisia in December 2010, led to a period of mass-scale social and political mobilisations that caused a regional crisis of the political and social status quo. In this sense, the Arab Awakening represented a true regional watershed.

First, virtually every country in the region has been to some degree influenced by the ‘awakening’. In some countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, massive social and political protests led to fully-fledged revolutions and to regime change. In other parts of the MENA region, such as Libya and Syria, protests soon escalated into armed revolutionary warfare, also shattering the status quo. Elsewhere, from Morocco to Jordan to Palestine, the awakening, while not resulting in a revolution, has still generated intense internal debates, social protests and wide calls for reforms.

Secondly, even though the demands of the protesters differed in each country, it is still possible to highlight a number of overarching themes, with the unrest fuelled by material grievances and rooted in the growing social inequality spreading across the region. Also, across the Middle East, demonstrations went beyond the material dimension and uniformly sought greater social and political rights, focusing on demands for increased accountability, fairness, transparency and representativeness from their governments. In addition, the revolutionary wave has both been facilitated by and fostered a common regional political identity.

The preliminary legacies of the regional revolutions include both shattering the walls of fear that had defined the public sphere, while increasing citizens’ participation in public life, as well as promoting the rise of a new centre of political power: the ‘street’. Far from being a homogenous actor, the ‘Arab street’ has seen an increased role for all those stakeholders who had previously been marginalised and excluded from political life: the list includes not just the region’s youth, but also civil society groups and Islamist movements. More generally, public opinion has begun to play a greater role and to have a stronger impact in domestic and foreign policy.

At the same time, the post-revolutionary period has been especially complex, seeing a general rise in both state weakness and regional instability. In turn, this growing volatility, combined with the fact that the initial hopes for a quick and smooth transition from autocracy to democracy were not met, led numerous external observers to adopt a sceptical tone with respect to the region’s democratic potential, replacing the ‘Arab Spring’ label with a more cynical ‘Arab Winter’.

Yet this assessment is both hasty and premature. Indeed both political transitions as well as post-revolutionary institutionalisation periods tend to be lengthy and rather messy affairs: as such it is simply too early to know where the political earthquake caused by the regional revolutions will lead.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the monumental challenges lying ahead for the region, starting with their deeply volatile and vulnerable economies, with ‘the roots of the region’s long-term economic failure’ to be found ‘in a statist model of development that is financed through external windfalls and rests in inefficient forms of intervention and redistribution’. In addition, the Middle East also needs to cope with dire economic challenges, including soaring inflation, high deficits, rampant unemployment and rising inequality. Other significant challenges to democratisation include endemic corruption and clientelism, an extensive deficit in good governance, as well as ineffective political institutions.

Accordingly, the democratisation process has also been slow and tortuous, with post-revolutionary societies struggling to rebuild their political systems and to tackle key issues such as electoral, constitutional and judicial reforms, transitional justice, or security sector reform.

In this context, one of the acid tests of the democratisation process has been how to reform the polity and specifically how to move from a conception of democracy as majority-rule to an understanding of democracy as pluralism, as well as how to redefine the rules of the public sphere in away that fosters inclusiveness and tolerance. In both cases, it will be crucial effectively to accommodate and respect the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups. In turn, tackling the challenge of pluralism requires addressing the role of religion in society and critically examining and assessing what part Islamist parties should play in the new Middle East.


With roots in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Islamic revivalism as well as reformism, Sunni Islamist movements in the Middle East became increasingly active in the region – especially at the grassroots level – from the late 1970s, despite the overall antagonistic relationship these groups had with the authoritarian regimes that ruled the region in the post-colonial period.

Defining Islamism is a particularly daunting and complex task. Even though all groups share a common denominator – the desire to see their societies adhere to the core ‘fundamentals’ of Islam and the conviction that the political system should be shaped by Islamic precepts – different Islamist groups in the region display distinct priorities and implement different strategies and tactics to achieve their goals. As such, it would be highly simplistic to believe there is either a monolithic regional Islamist movement or a highly coordinated and centralised ‘Middle-Eastern Muslim Brotherhood’. Instead, it is important to recognise the complexity and diversity of political Islam in the Middle East, as well as the differences between different Islamist parties – defined as political organisations willing to compete in elections and assume office, if elected.

Due to these local differences, Islamist movements also played different roles in the Arab Awakening. For example, in the case of Tunisia, the main Islamist movement – Ennahda – had little power and organisational capacity until after the removal of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime. The group’s leaders were mostly in exile, with local supporters either in jail or underground, due to the harsh persecution they had faced under Ben Ali. As such, the movement did not play a prominent role in organising the anti-regime protests. In the case of Egypt, while the Muslim Brotherhood was not among the initial organisers of the January 25 ‘Day of Rage’ mobilisations that effectively started the revolution, still the group did join the protests within a few days, significantly contributing to overthrowing the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Across the rest of the region, Islamist movements – from Jordan to Syria to Libya –did play a role in anti-governmental protests, but they were by no means the only actors involved in such events, with their role and status varying by country.

Despite the fact that Islamist movements did not lead the revolutions, either in Tunisia or in Egypt, still it would be accurate to assert they initially benefited from the collapse of the anciens régimes, with Ennahda winning the constituent assembly’s elections in October 2011, and initially becoming the main political party in Tunisia; and with the Muslim Brotherhood gaining a majority in the 2012 Egyptian legislative elections and subsequently winning the summer 2012 presidential elections.

There are several important reasons behind these initial political gains, well beyond the notion that ideology was the main, let alone only, factor behind these groups’ initial rise to power. Islamist parties – especially in the case of Egypt – were better organised than their secular counterparts. They had already been active at the community level through social and charity work. As such, movements like the Brotherhood in Egypt had both better presence on the ground and a more sophisticated organisational strategy at the grassroots and community level. What’s more, the previous involvement in provision of social services and community empowerment programmes also contributed to ensuring grass-roots support.

In this sense, the rise of the Islamists can also be seen as a by-product of the lack of unity and organisation of their secular counterparts, in turn a legacy of the previous authoritarian regimes, which had de-facto prevented the development of a politically active civil society, or the formation of a truly independent political opposition.

Furthermore, Islamist parties could often count on a reputation for honesty and integrity, campaigning against corruption while being perceived as the political actors that had compromised the least with the previous authoritarian regimes. In this sense, these groups were able to present themselves as offering a truly clean break from the previous authoritarian regimes.

Finally, after years of authoritarian regimes that tried to impose a largely unrepresentative and foreign ‘secular’ culture – here, Tunisia can be a case in point – the fall of the dictators allowed the population to bring Islam back into politics, aligning the political arena with the widespread belief that there should be a role for religion in the public political arena (which is, of course, not the same as advocating for making religion the sole or dominant input).

As such, the immediate post-revolutionary period saw an important trend of power consolidation for Islamist movements in both post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt. Yet, just as the initial victory was by no mean only related to these groups’ ideologies and religious identities, similarly, the popularity of these parties in the post-election phase became contingent upon their ability to deliver on their initial electoral promises and to work out some of the pressing social, political and economic issues faced by their societies. In other words, once in power, these parties’ performance has been judged according to their capacity to govern and com-promise, rather than on the basis of their religious values.

A close look at both Ennahda’s as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s record in government can help clarify the potential role of Islamist parties in post-revolutionary societies, as well as their relationship with democracy and pluralism. Here, it is necessary to reiterate the importance of deconstructing the myth of ‘political Islam’ as monolithic and, instead, to focus on the different experiences and paths of both Ennahda in Tunisia as well as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in turn suggesting caution against one-size-fits-all assessments of the Islamist parties.

The example of Ennahda’s governance in Tunisia can help dismiss the deterministic notion that Islamist parties need to be seen as entirely in-capable of supporting democratic reforms or political compromise and that their participation in elections is only a temporary ploy to gain power (the ‘one vote, one man, one time’ paradigm).

In contrast, an analysis of Ennahda’s record in power suggests a legacy that, while far from perfect, still questions this inflexible assessment, showing a party that has been willing to compromise and reach across the political divide, while agreeing to step down from power in response to public pressure. An example of this trend has certainly been the way the Islamist party dealt with the challenge of rewriting the Tunisian constitution. The lengthy process culminated in January 2014 with the adoption of one of the Middle East’s most progressive constitutions. While the content of the new Tunisian constitution is in itself remarkable, it is the process that led to the adoption of this document that represents an important indicator of the country’s democratic potential. The constitution-writing process took almost two years and required both extensive compromise and dialogue between all the main Tunisian political actors, with Ennahda’s main accomplishment being its ability to concede on key issues, such as the role of religion in society in exchange for reaching a wide national consensus.

On the other hand, an analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood’s record in government could also assist in discrediting another over-simplification of reality: the notion that mere inclusion in the political system and integration will lead all Islamist parties to assume a conciliatory and compromise-prone posture (the ‘participation = moderation’ paradigm). Here, the experience of the Brotherhood can help questioning this notion. Unlike Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood’s record showed from the beginning less political flexibility, while displaying worrisome centralising tendencies, which many observers within Egypt labelled a ‘power-grab’. Here, the example of how the Muslim Brotherhood tackled the challenge of constitution-writing can be especially fitting to draw differences between Egypt and Tunisia. Unlike Ennahda, the Brotherhood sought to use its impressive gains in the political system to bypass the opposition and avoid having to reach national consensus over the constitution. Even though the 2012 Egyptian constitution was approved in a popular referendum, the lack of national dialogue and consensus behind it led to both deep social and political polarisation and rising popular discontent against Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi and his government, eventually contributing to Morsi’s fall in the summer of 2013.

In sum, keeping in mind that each Islamist political group is interested in power, popularity and legitimacy, it is especially important to understand how each party strikes the balance between ideology and pragmatism – taking the local characteristics of each Islamist movement and the domestic constraints under which it operates into consideration. Needless to say, different parties have struck different balances between religion and politics and between compromise and ideological purity.

Accordingly, it is important to avoid thinking about the coexistence of religion and democracy in deterministic and zero-sum terms, but rather to view it on a spectrum, recognising the monumental challenges of building pluralistic societies.


In addition to the complex challenge of accommodating Islamist parties, another significant issue attached to the relation between democracy and religion is how to tackle the on-going rise of sectarianism in the post-Arab Awakening Middle East.

The rise of pre-ascribed identities and pre-existing cleavages often occurs in fragile transitional societies, especially as the state becomes weaker and less able to satisfy the basic social contract it holds with its citizens. In this sense, the rise of particularism and polarisation in post-revolutionary societies across the MENA region are not entirely surprising trends. Yet, if unaddressed, heightened social cleavages and internal polarisation can undermine social cohesion and internal stability and, ultimately, these can be incredibly serious obstacles in moving from authoritarianism to democracy and pluralism.

A particularly worrisome trend in the past few years has been the rise of sectarianism and sectarian cleavages, with an overall worsening of Sunni-Shi‘ite relations across the Middle East. In analysing this seemingly religious trend, however, it is important to look deeper and understand not only the existence of pre-ascribed cleavages and contrasting religious identities, but also the political and geopolitical processes of activation of such identities and the long-term implications of this dynamic. In other words, it is important to question the ‘cultural’ roots of the recent trend and to look at the political dynamics behind it.

Sectarian identities and cleavages have been around in the region for centuries, but their recent political activation has to be seen as connected to political dynamics and to the profound and pervasive impact of the Syrian civil war.

At the same time, the Syrian conflict also serves as an especially crucial example with which to analyse the complex interaction between religion and politics. Indeed, the bloody civil war in Syria is commonly depicted by the international media as a conflict between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority within Syria. Yet, the roots of the hostilities are complex and multi-layered and cannot be understood by looking solely at pre-existing sectarian identities and at the Sunni-Shi‘ite/Alawite cleavage.

Indeed, the initial political protests against Bashar al-Assad and his regime were not based on sectarian demands, but rather on calls for economic and political reforms. As such, they were meant to be a response to an authoritarian regime ruled through emergency laws, clientelism and endemic corruption, as well as to the growing social inequalities within Syria.

The Syrian revolution began in March 2011, as a non-violent, non-sectarian political movement and the transition to a militarised, sectarian conflict was fuelled not so much by pre-existing cross-sectarian hatred or predetermined cultural attitudes, but rather by a deliberate political strategy employed by the Syrian regime. Assad responded to the initial protests by displaying massive brute force, suppressing any type of political opposition and targeting its leaders, while branding all political opponents as ‘terrorists’. Assad summarised his view of the opposition by stating: ‘We are fighting terrorists[…] 80–90 per cent [of whom] belong to al-Qaeda. They are not interested in reform or in politics. The only way to deal with them is to annihilate them.’ While referring to all opposition as ‘terrorist’, the regime also depicted the anti-Assad forces in sectarian terms, in an attempt to rally the country’s main minorities against the ‘Sunni threat’.

In turn, this contributed to the polarisation of the conflict, creating a vicious circle of violence and sectarianism, one where both the Syrian regime as well as the more radical factions within the opposition have played the sectarian card to rally their constituencies. Unfortunately, by reinforcing this dynamic, Syria slowly drifted towards a fully-fledged sectarian conflict, one where each community came to perceive the conflict in zero-sum terms and to see itself fighting for its own survival, making the conflict all the more intractable and bloody. In this context, the role of major regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran in supporting, respectively, the anti-Assad forces and the Syrian regime has only added fuel to the sectarian fire.

Needless to say, the rise of sectarianism has not been confined to Syria, with countries like Lebanon seeing an exacerbation of internal sectarian cleavages and with Iraq suffering deeply from the staggering territorial gains of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the creation of the ‘Islamic State’, in turn aggravating Iraq’s dangerous sectarian divisions. What is more, at the MENA level, the rise of sectarianism in Syria has been deeply felt throughout the region, becoming a contributing factor to growing radicalisation.

This brief excursus into the rise of sectarianism in turn underlines the magnitude of the challenge ahead, while clarifying that, at its core, this trend is deeply connected to a deliberate process of political manipulation of pre-existing identities, rather than to pre-ascribed religious or cultural preferences per se.


Following the initial hope and enthusiasm which ensued from the social and political mobilisations of the Arab Awakening, the post-revolutionary period has been extremely complex and replete with economic, political and social challenges. The transition from authoritarianism to democracy has been slow and painful, with both hopeful gains as well as worrisome setbacks. Overall, while it still is too early to make any conclusive assessments of the Middle East’s long-term political future, it is clear that – at least in the short term – instability and uncertainty reign.

In revolutionary societies like Tunisia or Egypt, political stakeholders have been struggling to rebuild their political system and to tackle key issues such as electoral, constitutional and judicial reforms, transitional justice, or security sector reform. In this context, the issue of accommodating religion and democratic values has been at centre-stage of the political debate, mindful that successfully meeting the challenge is key to redefining the rule of the public space and the political arena in a way that fosters pluralism and tolerance. Both in terms of the role and democratic potential of Islamist parties and the worrisome rise of sectarianism, it is crucial to deconstruct simplistic notions and one-size-fit-all assessments and instead look at the shifting political reality on a case-by-case basis. Similarly, it is important to go beyond cultural factors and to look at the long-term institutional and political factors behind seemingly religious trends.

In sum, the problem of accommodating religion and democratic values should be seen as part of the complex challenge of post-conflict transition, institution-building, political reform and building a society which embraces pluralism.


Benedetta Berti