The 'Arab Spring' and democracy promotion

PRIF's annual conference on 28th September 2011

Only until a few months ago the Middle East had been said to be widely 'democracy-resistant'. Any attempts to promote a democratization of the authoritarian regimes in the region from the outside seemed futile. However, just as the well-established regimes in these countries, these assumptions were shattered during the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

On the occasion of the "Arab Spring", PRIF's 2011 Annual Conference evaluated international democracy promotion in general and asked for opportunities and limitations of external support for political change in North Africa and the Middle East. Just as in the past, the conference brought together both academics and practitioners.


At the first Roundtable Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Merkel, Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB), took stock of the current state of democracy promotion from the perspective of his institute. Dr. Ernst Kerbusch, Friedrich Ebert Foundation, addressed the criticism that such external support often imposed Western ideas on the recipients while disregarding the cultural, economic and political differences of these countries. Kerbusch also emphasized that the work of political foundations is long-term organized, because it aims for sustainable processes. Additionally, Dr. Jonas Wolff of PRIF showed that against the backdrop of the Iraqi and Afghan experiences, the debate on democracy promotion was mainly pessimistic, but that the “Arab Spring” now offered new perspectives for a liberal optimism towards democratization efforts. However, referring to a project conducted by PRIF and Goethe University Frankfurt, Wolff also pointed to the numerous contradictions, both normative and empirical, that accompany any external attempts to promote democratic self-determination.


The second roundtable had a particular focus on the upheavals in the Arab World. It started with a contribution by Prof. Dr. Oliver Schlumberger, Eberhard Karls University Tübingen, who laid out the situation of international democracy promotion in the region. After that, Muriel Asseburg, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, compared the causes, chances and risks of the “Arab Spring” with the end of the Cold War in Europe. She said that as they emerged from within the societies, the upheavals depict a caesura as important as the one in 1989, also in cases where their effects remain below the threshold of regime change. On the other hand, Asseburg dismissed any overly optimistic expectations regarding the economic and political transformation of the countries in which a revolution actually took place. The analysis was amended by view from the governmental perspective offered by Dr. Michael Reuss who works as Vice Director of the “Transformation Partnerships” Department at the German Foreign Ministry.


The conference was organized by Dr. Hans-Joachim Spanger, Head of Research Department 'Governance and Societal Peace'. The department has already conducted extensive research on democratization and democracy promotion. Among the central issues of these projects was the question as to whether Western liberal concepts, by their universalist claim to represent a legitimate peace order, could foster conflicts endanger stability and peace – a question which has become even more relevant in the light of the “Arab Spring”.