top of page

Europe Beyond the Arab Spring

Updated: Jun 9

Democracy, the Labor Movement, and the Left

An Elusive Democracy

Although democracy is a promising tool for the resumption of development in the Arab world, it has always been elusive. For decades, it seemed as if the region was on a similar path to the rest of the developing world. In the ashes of colonialism and imperialism, it was typical for states from the Americas to East Asia to experience periods of turbulence and authoritarianism. But compared to the mid-twentieth century, many of those regions have seen a common, if inconsistent, growth in democratic governance. The Middle East and North Africa seem to be an exception.

Both material and ideological explanations have been offered for the seeming exception of the Arab world. Some scholars cite the presence of abundant, and easily accessible, natural resources in oil and gas as somehow blocking a sustained democratic transition. Other energy-producing states might be indicated as exceptions to this rule. 

Others still cite the supposedly unique nature of Islamic culture and beliefs as being inherently anti-democratic. Yet, predominantly Muslim democracies exist in Southeast Asia, with seemingly no incompatibility between the religion and a democratic system. Perhaps a better explanation might be found in the social peculiarities of the Arab world, quirks which have created serious ambiguities in the region’s political culture. 

Historically, Arab democracy was an ephemeral, circumscribed phenomenon. In their retreat, former colonial powers like Britain and France left weak democratic institutions in their place. Often under the tutelage of unpopular monarchies, these institutions were limited to the tiny, indigenous bourgeoisie and local nobility, led by an educated class divorced from the social realities of the rural peasantry and urban lumpenproletariat

What they lacked in popular support, they compensated for with a vast repressive apparatus. The colonial powers which governed the Arab world had largely neglected education. After all, they ran extractive economies which would benefit little from the expanded social capital of the locals. However, in order to guarantee their control, they invested in armies and police forces. For many upwardly mobile members of the petit bourgeoisie and prosperous peasantry, a military career was the only ticket to a promising future.

Thus, the first challenge to these oligarchic democracies would come from their armed forces. Disillusioned by the instability and poverty of the Arab world, young, educated officers would prove fertile ground for nationalist activism. 

Egypt, indisputably the most developed of the postcolonial states, gave the first glimpse of things to come in 1952. Under the leadership of the Free Officers Movement, revolutionary nationalists in the Egyptian monarchy’s military overthrew King Farouk I and installed a republican regime in his place. 

One officer would soon outmaneuver his rivals to dominate the country’s politics: Gamal Abdel Nasser. His vision would profoundly change the course of Arab history. Seeking to assert the country’s sovereignty and proclaim a symbolic break with colonialism, he nationalized the Suez Canal, successfully fending off both assassination and Anglo-French intervention. 

Hoping to change the social coalition around the Egyptian state, he launched a radical land reform program in 1953 and improved the conditions of the Egyptian working class. The middle classes, meanwhile, would be co-opted through the technical requirements of an ambitious, state-led industrialization. Ideologically, Nasser did this all under the banner of an indigenous socialism, pan-Arabism, and secularism which he viewed as fundamental for the creation of a society badly in need of modernization and development. 

Yet his socialism, albeit recognizable to the varieties in vogue in the postcolonial world, was distinct in its application. Far less totalizing than Marxism-Leninism, it nonetheless had little in common with social democracy. Despite his embrace of the working class and commitment to its welfare, it was hostile to class conflict and labor activism: his first action upon taking power was executing striking workers. Eventually, with its concrete elaboration, he would allow for the creation of mass organizations and state-led trade unions. 

However, these were always subservient to the power of the armed forces and the state. Democracy, as conventionally understood, was foreign to his military mind. Only the strictest discipline and unbreakable unity, not idle discussion and decadent pluralism, would save the Arab masses. This vision would soon bear his name: Nasserism, his brand of Arab socialism.

The 1952 Egyptian Revolution would set the pace for decades of regional change. In 1958, the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown by a similar coalition: the Nationalist Officers' Organization of Abd al-Karim Qasim. By 1962, the National Liberation Front had succeeded in ousting the French from Algeria, embracing an Arab socialism with clear affinities for Nasser’s project under Ahmed Ben Bella. In 1969, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi led a coup d’etat against the Libyan monarchy which openly echoed Nasser’s exploits. With his own Free Officers Movement, he even copied the Egyptian name. Similar developments would overtake Syria, North Yemen, and other Arab states. 

With modernizing politics led by the armed forces, the space for civil society in the Arab world seemed slim. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party was perhaps Nasserism’s most influential competitor across the Arab world. Founded in 1947 by radical Syrian intellectuals, it predated Nasserism, despite sharing virtually indistinguishable commitments. Yet despite its initial estrangement from military matters, it quickly preferred to deal with officers in its rise to power, rather than undergo the difficult and invariably dangerous work of building up a popular, democratic base. When Ba’athists ruled in Syria and Iraq, they built rigid military dictatorships.

Many of the goals proclaimed by the many varieties of Arab socialism would never be reached. Despite repeated attempts at ousting Israel, long viewed as a colonial power in Palestine, both 1967’s Six-Day War and 1973’s Yom Kippur War would prove embarrassing failures for the military regimes which led them. Pan-Arabism, the dream of one Arab homeland, was attempted variously as a strictly unitary project and a loose federation, with Egypt retaining the name of Nasser’s United Arab Republic long after its 1958 union with Syria failed in 1961. The previously hostility to the ambitions of the United States and its European allies evaporated.

Domestically, statist projects produced extensive social development and created a robust middle class, but failed to resolve fundamental social contradictions or guarantee shared prosperity. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, previously popular governments increasingly relied on violent repression to keep their peoples in line. Under the pressure of economic reform, governments were forced to abandon Arab socialism as a serious policy, gradually liberalizing and threatening the delicate social contract which guaranteed their power. The unions and mass organizations previously formed to organize the popularity the progressive military had amongst its base now became hollow tools of discipline and control. 

By the 1980s, Arab socialism and the once-hailed ambitions of Nasser had definitively lost their shine. Their modernizing vision had lost credibility with both the Muslim masses and the military elites themselves, who soon became rapidly apolitical and openly kleptocratic. Following Nasser’s death in 1970, Anwar Sadat’s idealistic reformism was succeeded by the cronyism of Hosni Mubarak, who dropped any pretense of socialism. His contemporaries in Syria’s Assad family, Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and North Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh all adopted a mix of economic liberalization, institutionalized corruption, and naked repression to hold onto power.

The people soon turned to the radical promises of political Islam for representation. By 1979, the prestige of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution inspired the region’s Shia Muslims, while its Sunnis increasingly turned to the historic Muslim Brotherhood for leadership. 

Unlike Nasser’s program, political Islam rejected the idea that modernization was needed in the Arab world. A return to piety, paired vague overtures to populist ideas of social justice, was to be the healing balm for a region which had embraced Western custom for too long. For them, the Arab world was a distinctly different civilization, incompatible with the secular, European models which Nasser had openly emulated. 

Rooted in the mosques and radical student groups, the Islamists had a decisive organizational advantage which allowed them to weather the pressure and violence of the state. When rebellion came knocking, they were the most prepared. Following decades of harsh repression, it was to be the destiny of many Islamists loyal to this vision to govern the democratic revolutions which shook the region in the early 2010s.

The Winds of Spring

With the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in the quiet town of Sidi Bouzid in December of 2010, a storm broke out which would shake the stagnant repression the Arab world spent decades confined in. Long harassed by local authorities, Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the unceasing, wanton confiscation of his goods: a wheelbarrow of produce. Due to Tunisia’s poverty and unemployment, he could not survive any other way.

Never before had the many grievances of the citizenry been distilled in such a clear, unambiguous moment. For many Tunisians and still more Arabs, Bouazizi’s case reflected a context in which millions could see themselves. Repressive, kleptocratic governments had broken a social contract they promised to fulfill in power. The wealth of Arab oligarchs, intertwined with political and military power, coexisted with stagnant development, minimal economic opportunities, and poverty for the broad majority. With the slightest protest, any citizen could suffer like Bouazizi. 

This message resonated with tens of millions. Within a month, Tunisia’s Ben Ali fell. After him came Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Saleh. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad clung on, skillfully maneuvering while striking hard at protesters and Damascus’ opposition. Similar repression was meted out in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia intervened to prop up its Gulf client state. Major reforms and political changes followed across the rest of the Middle East. This epoch of revolution, reform, and civil war that began with Bouazizi’s death and ended by 2012 would soon be given a name: the Arab Spring.

Where political change had been successful, free elections swept the Islamists from repression to power. Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party took office in 2012, Tunisia’s 2011 Constituent Assembly elections gave an overwhelming plurality to the Ennahda Movement, while Morocco’s 2011 legislative election saw the Justice and Development Party more than doubling its seats. With vast challenges of economic reform and political reconstruction, all in the context of a volatile, unpredictable political environment, they certainly had a difficult task. Confronted by its pressure, they failed.

Today, the Freedom and Justice Party is banned while its leader, Mohamed Morsi, died in prison after a military coup in 2013. Ennahda has virtually disappeared amidst Tunisia’s democratic backsliding. Meanwhile, the Justice and Development Party has been reduced to a mere fraction of its former power. All three examples of democratic Islamism had not only failed to govern and address their countries’ challenges, they often provoked a kind of backlash that destroyed their fragile democracies themselves.

It was less the individual characteristics of their politicians that caused this debacle, debatable though they were, than the very premise of Islamist politics in the Arab world. As Islamists, these forces were trapped by the cleavage intrinsic to their ideology: that of the religious masses confronting the secular middle classes. With such profound social divisions, and generally narrow electoral margins, the unity and consensus needed for any democratic transition instantly floundered. 

Stable conditions for difficult economic reforms require a delicate bargaining process and broad political support. Oftentimes, this can be done through a simultaneous reduction of unproductive or burdensome government expenditure and increases in universal welfare programs. The case of the Spanish economy in democratic transition and the difficult Reconversión industrial is particularly illustrative: state holdings were restructured or privatized, while public healthcare and education were drastically expanded to cushion the blow.

Islamist parties did not feel immediate pressure to take this approach. The mosques and charitable organizations which organized their social base were already able to compensate for the consequences of poor economic performance. The Muslim Brotherhood, closely linked to the aforementioned Islamist parties, was always innovative in welfare provision, with autonomous social services playing a substantial role in recruitment and electoral mobilization. 

Choosing to create universal programs through the state was not only unnecessary, but harmful for Islamist politics. After all, the greater role the state played in redistribution, the weaker the mosques and charitable organizations would be. The vast apparatus created for the cultivation of support amongst the Arab poor would suffer an existential threat.

For the secular middle class, the reliance on conservative, even reactionary charitable organizations and mosques threatened their cultural sensibilities and material interests. Studies of Ennahda’s political structure showed an interesting dichotomy between a moderate political leadership and an often radicalized social base, not unlike some European far-right parties. This was a constant in the region’s Islamists.

If recession and austerity forced them to choose between reliance on autonomous, Islamist welfare provision or mass protest, they would choose the latter in a heartbeat. Soon, the harsh conditions for economic aid imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the embattled democracies would force them to choose precisely that. 

Conversely, if the middle class could make common cause with the overthrown military order in defense of secularism to protect from economic change, the Muslim masses were driven further into radicalization, with Salafi groups sprouting out on the fringes of a liberated civil society. 

Coupled with the questionable Qatari and Turkish patronage of the Islamist mainstream, the risks of militancy and even a resurgence in terrorism played a major role in fueling the European and American skepticism of democracy in the region.

But political Islam did not have an exclusive monopoly of popular mobilization during the height of the Arab Spring. The twentieth century saw the construction of the Arab middle class under the auspices of statist developmentalism. The economic liberalization nursed by the dictatorships in the ruins of Arab socialism then brought another social actor to the fore: the labor movement. 

At first glance, the Middle East does not lack in trade union activity. The Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions, founded by Nasser in 1957, has millions of members. Syria’s General Federation of Trade Unions, rigorously Ba’athist, is smaller, albeit nonetheless substantial. But, these are state-controlled trade unions. They have little in common with free trade unions as conventionally understood. They do not organize strikes, nor even protest government decisions. Far from organs of representation and protest, they are tools of repression and patronage.

Nonetheless, the Arab Spring shed light on the power of organized labor. The most prominent case is that of Tunisia, one of the very few countries in the region which has always had independent trade unions. The Tunisian General Labor Union, known by its French acronym of UGTT (for Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail), was under relatively little state control even at the height of Ben Ali’s rule. Founded in 1946, it could count on broad membership and immense prestige for its decisive role in protesting French colonial rule. 

Once the UGTT understood the significance of Bouazizi’s death and the protests which swept the country, it began to play a leading role in pushing for regime change. Its vast membership and organizational muscle played a key role in rallying broad swathes of the population around a coherent transition. 

By organizing diverse categories of workers which transcended the conventional working and middle-class divide, it was able to guarantee the social unity of devout Muslims and convinced secularists. The fact that its cleavage was a social one, and not a religious one, helped diffuse the sectarian tensions inherent in the rapid social change which risked tearing the Jasmine Revolution apart.

When gridlock was noticed on the matter of a new constitution, the UGTT played a key role in organizing the National Dialogue Quartet, uniting with the country’s employers’ organization, its human rights league, and its bar association to successfully push for its ratification and overcoming political violence. By 2014, the revolution was consolidated and free, fair democratic elections were on the table.

A similar phenomenon was observed during the 2019 Sudanese Revolution. There, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) was indispensable in organizing the country’s wildly diverse middle classes with its nascent working class. Just like the UGTT, the SPA was able to overcome the cleavage of religion vs. secularism which threatened to destroy the revolution’s progress. 

Through its organization of the Forces of Freedom and Change, this trade union was able to leverage the power of organized labor to cohere a broad array of political parties around opposition to the brutal government of Omar al-Bashir. Despite the violence which has subsequently marked the country’s history, the Sudanese labor movement was able to successfully overthrow a historically repressive regime and lay the groundwork for political change.

Even Egypt, where organized labor was closely supervised by Mubarak and the Mukhabarat, saw a decisive role for the labor movement in its democratic transition. Through decades of wildcat strikes and the 2011 foundation of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), trade unions were able to spark the revolutionary fire through protests on working conditions, gradually gaining the sympathy of the students which would ultimately depose Mubarak’s rule.

Yet, the Egyptian case shows how important the specifics of trade union organization are in achieving desired results. The EFITU, unlike the SPA and UGTT, faced difficulties in making serious inroads amongst Egypt’s vast middle class. Ultimately, this might have contributed to the fraught experience of Egyptian democracy, nipped in the bud by military coup.

However, the labor movement has nonetheless been uniquely successful in organizing protests that successfully overcome failed, dangerous political cleavages which condemn any democratic governance to failure in the region, uniting the middle classes, Muslim lumpenproletariat, and embryonic working class around common material and political demands. 

The particulars of trade union organization and density have proven to be obstacles to forming a broad social coalition for democracy, as the Egyptian case shows. However, it is another problem that ultimately prevented the labor movement from saving the Arab Spring’s ephemeral democracies: the absence of a distinct ideological vision and unique political interlocutor.

In the absence of a party which can govern directly on its behalf, the labor movement faces almost insurmountable obstacles in transforming its social coalition into a political force. As Tunisia amply shows, it is thus dependent on Islamist parties which continue to dominate legislative and executive power. 

While the UGTT was able to develop consensus for a constitution and new elections, it was unable to influence economic policy decisions without undermining democratic stability. When the pressure of the IMF’s harsh reforms and Ennahda’s limitations threatened to destroy democracy after its seeming consolidation, the UGTT was powerless. 

There remains a problematic disconnect between electoral politics, decisive for governing economic and social reforms necessary to unite the social majority around the state, and the world of social mobilization where the labor movement is often hegemonic. To overcome that divide, the Arab labor movement is in urgent need of a distinct ideological culture and political arm. Arab socialism, historically, had never built such a link. As a result, trade unions were largely apolitical and non-ideological. 

With years of hindsight, the impact of these embryonic quirks in the Arab labor movement can thus be accurately assessed and solutions hopefully found. Over a decade following the Arab Spring’s birth, there is now an opportunity to seriously reflect on how to reconcile the history of Arab socialism with democracy through the force of the trade union movement. 

The result, a possible emergence of an authentic Arab social democracy, might be able to preserve the broad character of labor’s social strength and reconcile it with a clear vision of reform and a concrete ability to exercise political power. Leaving that sphere to the Islamists, whose foundational cleavage only exacerbates a transition’s instability, could be fatal for the next wave of democracy. 

But in this task, foreign actors may have to play an active role in aiding the Arab labor movement. Europe’s role, as of yet, has remained unexplored.

Europe in the Region

It is difficult to speak of Europe as a cohesive entity, rife as it is with endless nuances and a vast internal complexity. It is even more difficult to speak of European interests or policy as something cohesive or coherent. Is the policy of the European Union truly reflective of European policy as a whole, or are the two distinct? Moreover, is the policy of the Union more than the sum of its parts?

With this important disclaimer, it might be appropriate to venture an analysis as to what precisely European strategy and interests, specifically those of the Union’s southern member states, are with respect to the Arab world. Broadly speaking, Europe has two interests it defends in the Middle East and North Africa: political stability and energy security. 

Political stability is absolutely indispensable for stemming the tide of two phenomena that have grown increasingly relevant in the Union’s internal discourse the past two decades.

The first is terrorism, which European leaders feel is an inherent risk when political stability is threatened in a region as volatile as this one. The close, albeit imperfect relationship between Islamist terrorism in the region and the presence of cells or lone wolves in Europe is understandably of concern to states concerned with their internal safety. 

The political implications of a rise in terrorism for European states may entail a concomitant rise in far-right populism, something viewed with increasing worry by the continent’s elites. Although feeding on nativist, Islamophobic sentiment which has little to do with Europe itself, far-right populism is intrinsically hostile to European integration and thus an important internal threat to Brussels’ broader geopolitical aspirations. 

For that same reason, regional stability is also viewed as important in combating migration and stemming the tide of refugees that have increasingly sought safety in the European mainland. Refugees either produced by or through the region are similarly related to a rise in far-right populism. 

However, regional instability also threatens material economic interests, as the possible rise in inflation caused by Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea shows. Conflict and instability in the region can risk escalating to directly threaten European economic interests.

Energy security, on the other hand, is similarly important and closely related to political stability, as the latter guarantees the former. The security of the vast supplies of oil and natural gas the European economy needs is naturally important in itself. Stable, abundant supplies of fossil fuels guarantee economic growth and popular satisfaction, both increasingly important with the disruption of traditional energy supplies in Eastern Europe amidst the Russo-Ukrainian War.

These interests have led to pacts between European powers and regional autocrats to limit migration, as ties between Italy and Tunisia’s Kais Saied or Germany and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey amply demonstrate. Limiting migration is on the forefront of the diplomatic agenda in the region. Yet, pacts directly linked to propping up autocrats and guaranteeing stability are formed around other matters, as well. 

In the aftermath of a historic increase in Egyptian debt with the disruption of grain shipments from Eastern Europe in 2022, European powers and international institutions quickly intervened to provide economic support to an Egypt widely understood to be too big to fail. On the other hand, the Russo-Ukrainian War has led to closer ties between Europe and dictatorships on energy cooperation. Italy, in particular, was eager to substitute its previous dependence on Russian oil and gas with North African and Gulf alternatives.

The close interdependence of these two actors, European and Arab, has led to a remarkable reluctance to defend democracy amongst European institutions and member states. When geopolitical priorities are so overriding, the seemingly secondary question of democracy can be allowed to fall to the wayside. Thus, European governments rarely bother to condemn or act upon instances of democratic backsliding, as both the fall of Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and the destruction of Tunisian democracy in 2021 demonstrate.

On the thorny question of Israel and Palestine, Europe largely follows American leadership in seeing Israel as a fundamental partner in guaranteeing the Arab world’s stability and Brussels’ interests. Despite periodically strong condemnations of Israeli brutality in Gaza or the steady expansion of settlements in the West Bank, only rarely have these condemnations translated to serious policy changes. 

Even recent efforts to sanction illegal settlements in Palestine have largely ignored how crucial economic relations with the European Union are for the Jewish State, an oversight indicative of how limited Europe’s real stance on the Palestinian question truly is. Although perhaps strategically comprehensible in the short term, this acceptance of Israeli importance and reluctance to concretely reflect on relations with Tel Aviv is an obstacle to providing credible support for Arab democracy and closer ties with Arab public opinion. 

Ultimately, the concrete policies which result from these immutable regional interests are stopgap measures in the absence of a grand strategy capable of seeing beyond Brussels’ electoral cycles or temporary political pressures. Europe, thanks to a lack of strategic clarity and organizational cohesion simply coughs up a milder version of Washington’s strategy: relying on unstable regional dictatorships and Tel Aviv: a dead end to building close relations with a democratic Arab world in the future.

Close relations with such a world are objectively necessary, and not just for the limited benefits that Europe seeks to cultivate at the moment in stability and energy. After all, geography is destiny. The realities of modern technology and the exigencies of globalization have meant that the Mediterranean, Europe’s link to the Arab world, is increasingly interconnected. To pretend as if its two shores can continue to exist in cultural and political isolation is illusory, despite the seeming distance of a country like Tunisia to the European mind. 

Southern Europe is much more vulnerable to instability through the sea than the United States, safely distant in the Western Hemisphere. The White House is right to be relatively unconcerned with its regional unpopularity. On the other hand, if reliance on dictatorships with an inherently limited lifespan at the cost of building trust with the Arab masses, is to be European strategy, then it may pay dearly when those regimes expire. 

These are the implications and shortcomings of following Washington’s lead in the region. Another strategy to secure European interests, one not in contradiction with Arab public opinion, may yet be possible. Europe’s democratic values may be realized in the Arab world after decades of compromises and support for dictatorship.

Bad Münstereifel and Us

The seeds of an alternative European foreign policy can be clearly identified. To varying degrees, these policies must be premised in European unity. The Middle East and North Africa have always been the focus of intra-European great power competition, particularly between French and Italian interests. If such contradictions continue to coexist with an anemic, myopic strategy from Brussels, then the possibility of anticipating conflict and governing the future is dead on arrival. 

Three policy changes can define the thrust of a new, pan-European vision. The first is a gradual effort to build energy independence from the Arab autocracies, particularly for Southern Europe. The second shift must entail serious effort to bring about a peaceful, just solution to the plight of Palestine, closely related as it is to the area’s many tensions. The third policy must consist of serious investments, with generous financial conditions, for young democracies. 

Dependence on Arab dictatorships, as the recent pressures of the Russo-Ukrainian War show, may fatally limit European action in the Middle East. Although oil and gas-exporting autocracies, particularly in North Africa, often depend on European financial aid to ward off popular unrest, they are also immune to electoral fluctuations. They are more likely to survive short-term shocks than many of Europe’s fragile democratic governments, disciplined as they are by political freedoms. Any effort at influencing regional change may run aground on this reality. 

However, longstanding calls for an ecological transition away from fossil fuels, as well as the growing awareness of how foreign energy dependence may seriously threaten national security can be exploited. Ecological concerns may serve geopolitical ends, as increasing European investments in renewables and nuclear power will inevitably reduce the influence relations with Arab autocrats have on European policymaking. 

The Palestinian question, long viewed with concern but rarely addressed seriously, must be addressed if European ambitions are to be taken seriously by the Arab public. A democratic strategy for the region will create a new privileged interlocutor for European policymakers: the Arab people itself. Building intercultural ties and public trust are thus crucial for a new strategy in Brussels. 

As such, if Europe is to be sincere in its desire for democratic change, it must stand by the Palestinian right to political representation and prosperity in a secure and sovereign homeland. Whether this is undertaken under the privileged framework of a two-state solution, arguably outdated, or realized through a single, multinational state, is a secondary question. 

Paramount is the principle of respecting Palestinian rights, even if that means putting diplomatic, economic, and direct political pressure on Israel to change its course. Considering Tel Aviv’s domestic situation, it seems that any peace is unlikely without such pressure. 

Furthermore, if the current regimes do crack under the weight of popular pressure, then Europe can no longer afford to treat the newborn democracies as simply normal states. Providing financial support for transitional democracies increases the legitimacy of new governments and provides much-needed stability to a tumultuous evolution. 

Previous democratic transitions tripped on the harsh, unrealistic conditions imposed for financial support by the IMF. As Tunisia’s backsliding and 2021 show, such conditions undermine the stability of democratic societies in the name of fiscal rigor. Building the road to prosperity is a fundamental ambition for any regional democracy, but that cannot come at the cost of an austerity that threatens to destroy democracy. 

For any future economic development, democracy is fundamental and should be valued inherently. Patience is needed. Whereas the Arab Spring was marked by European indifference to the unsustainable pressure imposed by international financial institutions, a future democratization needs direct European economic intervention to sustain the transition.

But, as previous analysis of the Arab Spring’s faults shows, endogenous political factors play a crucial role in determining democracy’s success. The Islamist parties were structurally unable to build the kind of welfare state, or develop the necessary ideological discourse, which consolidates revolutionary gains. With the risk of civil war and terrorism escalating, it can even be understandable that European interests may be threatened by uncertain democratization. 

It is for these reasons that an alternative policy cannot limit itself to the three aforementioned proposals. It must directly engage with regional actors, particularly the trade union movement, to shore up an opposition capable of eclipsing the political prestige and power of Islamism. Considering the disillusionment with political Islam that succeeded its failure in the Arab Spring, now is the time to do so.

The European socialist movement, with its professed internationalism and indissoluble link to organized labor, has a special role to play here. Historically, it failed to honestly apply its principles to the region. After all, it was a socialist government under Guy Mollet which led the brutal repression of the FLN, in vain seeking to prevent Algerian independence. It was that same government, which like many other European socialists, accused Nasser of “fascism,” collaborating with the British in seeking his ouster in the Suez Canal Crisis. 

Similar examples of European socialists embracing the imperial mandate they inherited can be found throughout the developing world in the postcolonial era. Understandably, Arab socialism and local progressives have found their continental counterparts difficult to embrace. Such divisions cannot be allowed to fester, especially with the renewed importance of the Arab labor movement. 

Dedicated political support, training, and funding for the labor movement can be coupled with efforts to diffuse social democratic thought and emphasize the importance of a political branch for the labor movement, thus allowing it to govern directly in future. This will certainly be politically controversial and financially costly, but it could mean the difference between a tragic repeat of failed democratization, or the successful advancement of the Arab world.

In the discourse of social democracy, the town of Bad Godesberg is often mentioned as a metaphor for modernization and political change. After all, the 1959 site of the Social Democratic Party of Germany’s (SPD) convention elaborated a political program which defined the socialist movement in the postwar era. Where once social democracy thought in Orthodox Marxist categories, it was now able to adapt to the realities of a radically different society.

But perhaps European socialism should also remember a different German town: Bad Münstereifel. On April 19 of 1973, the SPD’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), a prestigious political foundation and think tank in its own right, allocated many of the town’s facilities to a conference on the future of Portuguese socialism, then repressed by Antonio Salazar’s Estado Novo. This was in the context of growing popular ferment amongst exiled Portuguese, Spanish, and Greek students and activists, all dissatisfied with their reactionary military governments. 

Then, the FES did not hesitate to allocate vast amounts of resources to support them. It formed close ties with exiled socialist groups and trade unions, providing political education and financial support out of both internationalist obligation and the growing perception that those countries, then unfree, might one day become democratic and important partners for Europe. 

Both Portuguese socialists and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) benefited from close cooperation with the FES and SPD. Even the Swedish Social Democrats, then led by Tage Erlander, did not hesitate to support exiled Greek socialist Andreas Papandreou and his Panhellenic Liberation Movement, offering them safe haven from the Colonels in Stockholm. 

By 1976, Mário Soares and his socialists had taken office in Lisbon. By 1981, Papandreou had become Greek prime minister. By 1982, the PSOE’s Felipe Gonzalez had conquered the same role in Madrid. All of these states have since rapidly progressed, navigating the difficult transition to become exemplary democracies.

In Bad Münstereifel that day, the Portuguese Socialist Party was founded. On that day, European social democracy made clear that its internationalist beliefs were more than rhetorical. They were worthy of the scarce resources of the labor movement and they would pay ample dividends in the future. Today, it must make this same commitment to the Arab world. 


Jacobin. "Arab Spring Fundamentalism, Corporatism, Class Struggle, Labor Power." November 2020. 

Jacobin. "Arab Spring Workers Struggle Democracy, Unions." May 2020. 

Brookings. "The Women of Sudan Will Not Accept Setbacks." 

Foreign Affairs. "What Algeria and Sudan Can Learn From Egypt." June 10, 2019. 

Foreign Affairs. "The End of the Tunisia Model." 

Carnegie Europe. "Has the EU Failed Democratic Tunisia?" December 16, 2021. 

The Christian Science Monitor. "How One Tunisian Party Is Separating Islam from Politics." August 30, 2016. 

The New York Review of Books. "In a Worried Corner of Tunis." October 27, 2011. 

Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. "Crown Conversations: Interview with Monica Marks." 

Middle East Institute. "Tunisia’s Evolving Islamic Charitable Sector and Its Model of Social Mobilization." 

Brookings. "The Tragedy of Egypt's Mohamed Morsi." April 17, 2015. 

Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI). "Europe's Gas Rush in Africa: Risks and Opportunities for Both." June 18, 2021. 

Al-Monitor. "North Africa Diesel Exports to Europe Surge as Russia Digs Deeper in Ukraine." March 20, 2023. 

The Heritage Foundation. "Russia's War in Ukraine Heats Up Great Power Competition in the Middle East and North Africa." March 10, 2022. 

European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). "Unsettled: The Impact of the Russia-Ukraine Crisis on the Middle East and North Africa." July 12, 2022. 

Brookings Institution. "Politics or Piety: Why the Muslim Brotherhood Engages in Social Service Provision - A Conversation." 

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Decline of Syria's Baath Party." 

Middle East Institute. "Egyptian Labor and the State." 

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Hurdles of Energy Transitions in Arab States." 

IEMed. "The Impact of Global Decarbonization Policies and Technological Improvements on Oil and Gas Producing Countries in the Middle East and North Africa." 

ISPI (Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale). "Difficult Task: Decarbonizing the MENA Region." 

World Bank. "Climate and Development in the Middle East and North Africa." 

ISPI (Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale). "North Africa's Energy Transition: Key Asset or War?" 



bottom of page