From its inception, the expression "Arab Spring" always appeared to be on rhetorically weak ground. Today, pessimists' skepticism about that wave of popular protests across the Middle East and North Africa might appear to be justified. Egypt is on the path to restoring a rigid autocracy, Libya is in chaos; Yemen is a failed state torn by separatism and militancy; Syria has witnessed the failure to uphold the responsibility to protect; Bahrain has been the subject of global indifference; and Iraq is descending once again into a fratricidal war. Only in Tunisia has there been some modest progress, with a new draft constitution accepted by the main secular and Islamist parties and a national dialogue process in place to preserve the frail legitimacy of the post-revolutionary order. Yet, it would be a mistake for the United States and Europe to perceive the Arab Spring as a failure.
The Arab Spring was the result of long-term structural transformations affecting the Middle East and North Africa. The nation-state system that took root in the region in the aftermath of World War I enabled the consolidation of paternalistic centralized states, but failed to provide for societal checks and balances. By 2011, popular social, political, and economic demands by the region's citizens could no longer be contained by various autocratic governments. All that was required was the catalyst of the Tunisian uprising, which began in December 2010.
The subsequent unraveling of that brief moment of enthusiasm can also be simply stated. To ensure their own survival, the institutions created by autocratic regimes demonstrated resilience, adaptability, and ruthlessness. Meanwhile, the immature and heterogeneous character of the revolutionary movements made them susceptible to opportunistic radicalism. As a result, the permanence of the current configuration of borders and governments in the Middle East and North Africa is now in serious question: from Syria and Iraq (where the central governments are central only in theory) and Yemen (where secessionist forces have declared their intent) to Libya (where the state remains on life-support) and Egypt (where the Sinai is out of control). But, at the same time, one can be fairly certain that there will be no permanent return to the paternalistic model of governance that enabled dictators to flourish, and tempted the international community to accommodate them.
It is evident that the military is hoping to restore a paternalistic state in Egypt, with support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Egyptian General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's expected election as president may create such a temporary illusion. However, such developments are likely only to postpone the inevitable. The injection and adoption of ideas is important, but so is the untenable balance sheet of the region's governments. The tacit social contract - that of providing a growing population with the false promise of education, employment, and retirement in exchange for its acquiescence to the state's paternalism - may still be a viable option, but only for a while and only in wealthy Gulf countries. Saudi largesse, driven by shifting geo-strategic considerations, may shield Egypt for now from the drop in international aid and support that will accompany the changing global economic landscape. Not only are citizens largely on their own now, but so are governments. States in which fast-growing populations are placing greater stress on public resources have been forced to scale back their promises and increase their repression, which only perpetuates regional volatility.
Behind the empowerment of the Arab Spring and its novel focus on citizen sovereignty lies a deeper realization: the realization that the state can no longer provide. The implications of this sober fact are yet to be properly understood. In cultures geared toward a dependence on the state that borders on subservience, a transition towards a meaningful independence is not automatic. The act of raising pictures of deposed despots by farmers in rural Tunisia, tribesmen in Libya, and the rural poor in Cairo is not an expression of affection or nostalgia, but a desire to revert back to the impossible promise of the paternalistic state.
The transatlantic community realized at the outset of the Arab Spring that it had inadvertently contributed to the longevity of a bankrupt system of governance. It ought not be tempted, because of the lack of immediate alternatives, to rationalize the return to autocracy. In Tunisia, modest steps are being made toward a new social contract, with citizen sovereignty and responsibility. Helping to replicate that across the region is the necessary path forward, and one that is more compatible with Western values and interests.