When a Tunisian peddler set himself on fire in December 2010, launching the Second Arab Awakening, many were taken by surprise. While I cannot claim prescience, I did have a powerful sense that we had been there before -- and that if we did not learn the lessons of the past, we would fail this time as well.
Those fears proved well founded. One transition after another has struggled or failed to produce governments that can respond to citizens' longing for freedom and opportunity. The fragility of the once-promising Arab transitions clearly shows the urgency of beginning the painstaking process of constructing an Arab world defined by pluralism and tolerance. Only then can what I call The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism be realized.
Looking back to the "first" Arab Awakening, which began in the mid-19th century, can be illuminating. That awakening took the form of an intellectual revolution in which a wide array of Arab thinkers started questioning the control of distant Ottoman despots over their nations and criticizing their own limited contact with the outside world. Their calls for intellectual, economic, and political change laid the groundwork for a new Arab world, eventually resulting in a wave of independence struggles in the 1940s and 1950s.
Ultimately, however, the first Arab Awakening fell short of the aspirations of many of those who inspired it. In the end, colonial autocracies were replaced with domestic ones -- often military-backed single-parties that took advantage of their revolutionary legitimacy to cement their grip on power. New regimes paid little attention to developing political systems whose checks and balances guaranteed access for all. They saw pluralism as a potential threat and took heavy-handed measures to prevent its realization.
That rejection of pluralism doomed the Arab region to decades of political failure. Unrealized political and economic expectations, the failure to solve the Palestinian issue, and the unwillingness to provide good governance marked the post-independence era in the Arab world. For years, the only groups that contended with the ruling elites were those whose organizing principle was religion. Political Islam emerged as the only alternative to one-party rule. Abuses by government personnel, especially the security and intelligence services, and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few kept tensions seething just beneath the surface.
While the uprisings that breathed new life into the Arab world in 2011 seemed unstoppable, achieving the protesters' goals is not. Whether they succeed in establishing pluralistic governments ultimately rests the hands of the people of the countries involved, and the new generation that demands change. Outsiders however, including powerful Western governments, can affect events. To do so in a constructive fashion requires clear thinking about events and their root causes.
But faulty Western thinking about the awakening has led to misguided, if well-intentioned, policies. In the span of three short years, the West lurched from calling this awakening an "Arab Spring" -- a name that implied expectations of an immediate transition from autocratic regimes to democratic ones -- to seeing it now as some kind of an Arab inferno, because of the rise of Islamic parties with their implicit or perceived threat to liberal democratic advances and their potential flirtation with jihadi violence.
Neither of these two scenarios need be permanent or inevitable. We should take seriously the common refrain that the profound transformations Arab countries are undergoing will take time. Although some eastern European countries can be said to have sped up the clock after the fall of the Soviet Union, revolutionary political transformation usually takes decades, not years. Western observers and policymakers need to have strategic patience as they follow unfolding events.
The rise of Islamist parties was also to be expected, and should neither surprise nor overly alarm anyone. They alone had the pre-existing organizational capabilities required to run nationwide campaigns, and that allowed them to score electoral victories far beyond their level of popular support. But it should also be no surprise that their success in first-ever elections did not necessarily translate into permanent control. Their promise of better governance, which helped attract support from many Arabs fed up with the status quo, was being put to the test. And as they entered the political fray, this time as decision-makers, their perceived "holiness" was confronted with reality, and their ability to deliver was what mattered most. Arab publics are beginning to judge Islamists and secular forces alike based on performance, not ideology.
It will take decades to build the foundations of political systems that actually defend democracy and preserve its basic tenets year after year. It is a process in which some countries will succeed, others will struggle, and yet others will fail. What will help determine any country's outcome is which elements of society will lead the transformation. The Arab world has long been dominated by two forces --an entrenched, unaccountable elite on the one hand and Islamists on the other. But neither of these groups -- which often achieved an uneasy modus vivendi -- has ever demonstrated a genuine commitment to pluralism.
The real hope rests with a new generation, the youth who started it all in the streets and are far more committed to the principles of democracy than their elders. It is this third force that might break the cycle of oppression. So far, this revolutionary young generation has done a better job of defining what it is against than what it is for, and it will take years to establish the organizational capacity and financial wherewithal to achieve a lasting break from the past. This is where Western assistance might most usefully be offered.
If it is to succeed where the first Arab awakening failed, this Second Arab Awakening needs to be an assertion of universal values: democracy, pluralism, human rights. These are not ideals that can be imposed upon a region from outside, but they can be encouraged to grow. This requires patience and an accurate understanding of both the actual conditions and the kinds of actions that are likely to be effective. Only when societies and their elected leaders truly embrace tolerance, diversity, the peaceful rotation of power, and inclusive economic growth will the promise of a new Arab world be realized.
Given the grim news coming out of the region today, some will regard my arguments as a naïve, almost romantic view of an Arab world that does not exist --a mirage in the desert, totally detached from reality. They will point out the tumultuous state of affairs -- and that regional political grievances are turning sectarian.
But do not mistake the grim early skirmishes for the outcome. The battle of ideas has finally started to unfold in the contemporary Arab world and is far from ended. The region will go through a period of turmoil in which exclusionist forces will attempt to dominate the landscape with absolute truths and new dictatorships. In the end, however, these forces will also fade, because exclusionist, authoritarian discourses cannot answer the people's need for a better quality of life --economically, politically, culturally, and otherwise.
There are no short cuts to democracy or prosperity. The Second Arab Awakening has only just begun, and the end may not be known in this generation's lifetime. After all other alternatives to diversity have been exhausted, perhaps the people of the region will finally reject the prospect of waiting so long, and devote their energies to creating a pluralistic Arab world now. Their battle for pluralism is worth waging and winning.