The uprisings that have swept through the Arab world this year have been called a people’s revolution. Breaking with the tradition of despotic regime change through assassination, military coup, or foreign invasion, ordinary young people have propelled the Arab Spring. Without clear leaders or organizations, they initiated aggressive challenges to the region’s rulers and in some cases set in motion events that drove long-reigning autocrats from power. In country after country, themes of justice, dignity, and a better life animated grassroots mobilizations.
It had seemed that the winds of democracy, blowing across many parts of the globe in recent decades, were barely registering in the Arab countries. Their authoritarian governments, with the exception of postinvasion Iraq, appeared stable and resistant to change. Yet the relative political calm belied enormous problems and social tensions that were swirling just below the surface. The broad-based discontent—directed not to foreign enemies but to domestic tyranny—finally erupted and in spectacular fashion.
The toppling of a political order through war or revolution is often little more than a circulation of elites. There are important reasons to see in the ongoing Arab Spring the flowering of something truly new. Among these reasons are the popular sources of unrest; significant demographic, economic, and social changes; and the rejection of old strategies of generating legitimacy for nondemocratic rule (see the interview with Bayat and the essay by Cook). Things will not be the same, even for regimes that have (so far) withstood the storm.
While structures of power may change quickly, the building of a new social order is a longer and more precarious process; it does not begin out of nothing, but must necessarily use the materials of the old order. The Arab societies are not uniform. Each state has its own ethnic, tribal, religious/sectarian, and political dynamics. However, across the region the obstacles to building strong civil and democratic societies are immense, including the pressing question of political Islam (see al-Rahim’s essay) and thorny issues of long-standing cultural patterns, tribal organization, and ethnic diversity (see Salzman’s essay). Great challenges lie ahead.