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By Khalil al-Anani

Revolutions do not necessarily lead to successful democratic transitions. This is not an opinion - but a reality that manifests itself in history and in contemporary examples; particularly in Egypt.


Political scientists have provided a wealth of explanations for the failure of democratic transitions, which has become a regular occurrence around the world over the past three decades as countries fall into authoritarianism.

Political scientists consider there to be five main factors that lead to the failure of a democratic transition.

The first factor is the lack of a clear transitional agenda and goals among those who initiate popular revolts, especially in the period after the fall of totalitarian regimes.

There is a structural difference between toppling an old political system and establishing an alternative system, which was very clear in many cases after the "Arab Spring" that did not result in the establishment of a democratic system, with the exception of Tunisia.

The second factor is the role of rebel movements that cop-opt the transition process by using arbitrary violence – or violence as an end rather than a mean, which pushes many people to abandon the democratic transition in favour of previous regimes, such as the case in Libya, Syria, Yemen, as well as a number of African countries during the 1980s and 1990s.

The third factor is foreign interventions that lead to the destruction of the democratic transition and sometimes the toppling of popularly-elected governments that adopt policies that clashes with foreign interests.

Foreign intervention does not necessarily take the form of direct or military intervention, but could also take place through controlling civil and military elites and transforming them into proxy actors.

This has taken place in Chile, Nicaragua and Iran where, for instance, a CIA-orchestrated plot overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh’s democratically-elected government.

The fourth factor is the role of the state army in the political process. The military establishment can turn into a competing political and economic power that seeks to protect its interests under the guise of various nationalistic slogans - as was the case in a number of Latin American countries, Turkey, Thailand and Egypt.

The fifth factor is the failure of the new political body to manage the democratic transition, either by not conducting radical reforms in the previous regime’s institutions or by adopting authoritarian policies to monopolise power, such as the case in Cuba and Iran.

The case of the Arab World

In the Arab world, there are many examples of the failure of democratic transitions where all the factors mentioned above are combined. Egypt, for example, has been subject to military rule since 1952, and its consecutive presidents have committed the worst forms of totalitarian practices and human rights abuses, from the late Gamal Abdel Nasser to today’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The same took place in Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, in Yemen under Ali Abdullah Saleh and in Syria under Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar.

The Arab region remains the most notorious case of the failure of democratic transitions, not only because it combines all the aforementioned reasons, but also because it went from democratic failure to self-destructive chaos.

The current conflicts in the region are not between totalitarian regimes and established political opposition actors, or between regime loyalists and revolutionaries.

We are now facing a brutal conflict between oppressive and fascist military regimes and medieval and nihilistic forces that are not fighting for democracy either, but fighting to establish an absolutist theocratic regime.


Meanwhile, this is being funded by immense natural resource wealth that is being employed to feed the civil strife between the authoritarian and the fundamentalist sectarian forces in Arab countries.

Therefore, any struggle, even if marginal and non-violent, towards democracy will be crushed by these two powers that dominate the political landscape of our region. We still have a very long way ahead of us.           


Khalil al-Anani is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff. 

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.