Shadi Hamid in The Cairo Review:
It always seemed as if Arab countries were ‘on the brink.’ It turns out that they were. And those who assured us that Arab autocracies would last for decades, if not longer, were wrong. In the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, academics, analysts and certainly Western policymakers must reassess their understanding of a region entering its democratic moment.
What has happened since January disproves longstanding assumptions about how democracies can—and should—emerge in the Arab world. Even the neo-conservatives, who seemed passionately attached to the notion of democratic revolution, told us this would be a generational struggle. Arabs were asked to be patient, and to wait. In order to move toward democracy, they would first have to build a secular middle class, reach a certain level of economic growth, and, somehow, foster a democratic culture. It was never quite explained how a democratic culture could emerge under dictatorship.
In the early 1990s, the United States began emphasizing civil society development in the Middle East. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration significantly increased American assistance to the region. By fiscal year 2009, the level of annual U.S. democracy aid in the Middle East was more than the total amount spent between 1991 to 2001.
But while it was categorized as democracy aid, it wasn’t necessarily meant to promote democracy. Democracy entails ‘alternation of power,’ but most NGOs that received Western assistance avoided anything that could be construed as supporting a change in regime.
The reason was simple. The U.S. and other Western powers supported ‘reform,’ but they were not interested in overturning an order which had given them pliant, if illegitimate, Arab regimes.