How the West Failed the Arab Uprisings


The Arab uprisings have emerged as an expression of people’s aspirations in overcoming political, social, and economic exclusion towards just and fair institutions. Since they arose in late 2010, these uprisings upheld the values of freedom and justice to confront their ruling authoritarian regimes. However, the brutal retaliation by these regimes in dealing with peaceful movements, coupled with the weakness and unpopularity of the opposition, and the large external intervention have all contributed to the militarization of the uprisings in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. In fact, these factors have replicated authoritarianism in countries such as Egypt[i]. Today, as the world is faced with the catastrophic economic, social, and political consequences of the Arab uprisings, we raise an important question about the role and contribution of the West in creating this chaotic situation and the reasons behind them.

Failure to anticipate

The West has shown no clear strategy in dealing with the Arab uprisings, which reflects the fact that political change was not anticipated to take place in the Middle Eastern region. This failure by Western countries in predicting rebellion is due to two reasons. The first one lied in underestimating the lawful needs of Arab civilians for democracy and the need to be ruled through inclusive regimes where their rights and aspirations are well valued. For decades, Arabs have suffered from dictatorship and oppressive institutions that not only imposed upon them political exclusion but also economic and social exclusion[ii]. For a long time, it was only crony-capitalists and social leaders that supported the ruling regimes who were able to dominate economically and acquire power. Thus, the failure to monitor these factors as indicators of a possible insurrection was in a way a contribution to the deteriorating situation in the region.

The second reason is that Western institutions had confidence in the ability of these authoritarian regimes in controlling their own people. Hence, Western countries believed that only dictatorships can guarantee stability in the Arab region; whereas, and from their point of view, democracy could lead to catastrophic consequences considering the lack of democratic culture in such countries.

The failure to anticipate the Arab uprisings reflects the fact that the West had given their complete support to authoritarian powers in the Arab region with complete disregard to the tendency of ongoing tyranny and oppression in causing grassroots social movements.

Failure to cooperate with the right side

Prior to the Arab uprisings, the West had been providing generous economic and political support to the same countries that witnessed social movements. International organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank had predicted that Tunisia, Egypt, and to a lesser extent Syria were doing very well in terms of economic reform based their economic growth indicators[iii]. The deterioration of basic human rights and lack of inclusive institutions in these countries were not among the West’s priorities that had blindly focused on stabilization and financial benefits with rare critiques of authoritarianism and human rights violations.

Upon the emergence of the uprisings, the West was initially in a state of shock. They have later bounced back and started claiming to support the people’s right to freedom of speech and peaceful demonstration against dictatorships in the region. Yet on the ground, some European and North Western countries were working using three different approaches of cooperation with local actors. The first one was through collaborating with traditional political entities that could replace the current regimes in these countries. But, due to lack of political and civil freedom before the uprisings, naturally, only Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood were able to continue their activities secretly in mosques and via religious leaders[iv]. Thus, they were able to present themselves as a major institutionalized political power to encourage external actors to cooperate with them. Yet, such theocratic powers proved to be exclusive as they imposed their ideology using violence and oppression.

The second approach that was used to cooperate with actors on the ground was to support the opposition military groups by considering it the only way to counter the brutality of the powerful Arab regimes. This has led, whether intentionally or not, to the empowerment of extremist groups and as a result the revolts were gradually militarised[v]. This has caused the whole region to drown in catastrophic proxy wars, through which the West is aiming to dominate these countries rather than supporting democratic change.

The third approach of which to give support was through distributing humanitarian aid to these countries. Yet, these aids were provided without effective monitoring and evaluation criteria, which has significantly increased corruption among local actors that are distributing valuable merchandise in a time of war.

The West failed to cooperate with civil society organisations and initiatives that better reflected people’s needs, aspirations, and priorities. Despite having made several attempts to provide civil society actors with a platform to express their ideas, the Western powers endorsing these platforms were solely managing these platforms to the extent of sometimes imposing and dictating future projections and priorities of these countries. Indeed, some of these Western countries should have developed a partnership with the Arabic civil society actors instead of ‘sponsoring’ them.

Failure to consistently support democracy

The West has always professed to support democratic changes in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. Over the past two decades, it has extensively used the claim of protecting democracy as a pretext to conduct military interventions against certain countries. In fact, western countries have supported some Arab uprisings through
military intervention under the pretence of rescuing peoples and nations from carnage in countries such as Libya and Syria.

Yet what seems contradictory is the fact that these western countries used to have very amicable relations with these bloodthirsty regimes before the Arab uprising[vi]. In fact, some Western countries were very pragmatic in dealing with the outcomes of some uprisings by accepting some newly emerged authoritarian regimes, like in Egypt for instance. This indicates that some countries chose to disregard important factors that have previously lead to mass unrest and chaos.

As a result, the Arab civil society has lost all faith in any genuine support they might get from the West. They have figured out that the values such as freedom become less important when it comes to countries like Saudi Arabia for example, with which the West has huge financial interests, including major weapons transactions[vii]. Hence, even if the sales of weapons is causing the death of thousands of innocent people and the systematic destruction of a
whole nation, there will be no serious attempts to halt these arms trades. Moreover, the unlimited US support to Israel has increased in the last few years despite its mass violation of Palestinian human rights.

The above reveals some of the Western double standards in dealing with dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in other parts of the globe. Certain vocabulary such as ‘freedom’ is being used to politically exert pressure on some of the West’s rivals, while emptying the word of its real meaning and of the value that it represents for all nations to aim at and achieve. Consequently, western countries are more and more being perceived by many – especially Arabs – as hypocrites that praise democracy for some and deny it for others.

The West’s priorities

The Arab uprisings exposed the West to have had three inter-correlated priorities in the region. The first one was to maintain stability with or without democracy believing that this will minimise risks such as waves of refugees and migration, in addition to countering the spread of extremism. The second priority was to maximise its economic and financial benefits from Arab countries through investment and trade. The third one was to counter the strategy of countries like Russia and China that aim to increase their influence in the Middle Eastern region. The chaos in the “Arab Spring” countries revealed that democracy was not on the list of Western priorities in the region that is despite the fact of it being the core reason for the uprisings. Hence, Western priorities in the region can only seem fruitful in the short run, yet only inclusive and fair regimes in the region would be able to practically sustain and protect long term mutual interests with the West.

[i] Human Rights Watch. (2019). Egypt: Move to Enhance Authoritarian Rule. [Online]. Available at:
[ii] Hartmann, H. (2012). Americas Quarterly [Online]. Available at:
[iii] World Bank. (2010). New Tunisia Report: Development Policy Review Toward Innovation-Led Growth. [Online]. Available at:
[iv] CNN. (2011). Gerges: The Muslim Brotherhood’s delicate balancing act. [Online]. Available at:
[v] Chatham House. (n.d.). The Militarization of Syrian Politics. [Online]. Available at:
[vi] Council on Foreign Relations. (2019). U.S.-Saudi Arabia Relations. [Online]. Available at:
[vii] CNBC. (2018). Saudi Arabia is top US weapons buyer – but it doesn’t spend as much as Trump boasts. [Online]. Available at:

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