The Arab Spring’s uncertain legacy

Middle East faces multiple ideological battles which have lead to increasing polarization

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There is a battle of ideas going on in the Arab world and it is polarizing a region whose outlook is already uncertain.

A year ago, the trajectory for post-Arab Spring countries seemed clear. The world assumed political transition in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya would bring a more open, democratic and pluralistic society, as well as boost job creation and economic growth. The road might have looked bumpy in the short term, but the destination was in sight.

In light of events that have unfolded since, many have started to question these assumptions. Across the Middle East and North Africa, the outlook has become more complex. There is now a growing consensus that the region is facing a time of uncertainty, at the root of which is social and political polarization.

The Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 supports this viewpoint, revealing that experts all over the world consider rising social tensions in the Middle East and North Africa to be the largest challenge facing the world in 2014. But the data also allows us to focus on the region: in the past, divergence in the Arab world ran mainly along economic lines, but since the Arab Spring, additional drivers have emerged, with 45% of respondents saying the biggest challenge they face is political instability and only 27% naming unemployment as the region’s greatest challenge.

In this context, differing ideological and political viewpoints have come to the fore, presenting some very divergent paths for the future. We can see both increased tensions between communities and a relative lack of regional consensus on some of the key issues. Most visible is the split between those who think Islam should play an important role in political and public life, and those who think religion and state should be kept separate.

In a polarized society, it is assumed that only one side can prevail. People become less tolerant and more likely to demonize one another, leading to increased tensions on the street. Imagine neighbours with violently opposing views living side-by-side in Cairo, or the challenge of safely reintegrating former regime members in post-civil war Libya.

National politics that lack tolerance, trust between parties and the ability to put transition on a proper trajectory are to blame for the increasing tensions. It is important to recognize that regional players with divergent perspectives also have a role in defining national destinies.

The Arab world may be going through a period of tension, in which the future could be as much about a defeat of everything we hoped for a few years ago as the emergence of a great good. Our new destination remains unclear, but we cannot allow that to deter us.

This article was first published on the World Economic Forum’s blog on Nov. 15, 2013.

Tarik M. Yousef is chief executive officer of Silatech, Qatar, and vice-chair of the Global Agenda Council on the Arab World.

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