The quest for freedom and prosperity in the Middle East and North Africa

Despite their different trajectories, every country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has faced successive cycles of instability and upheaval throughout their post-independence years. Hardly a year has passed since the 1950s without major crises or episodes of sub-regional turbulence. Throughout these years, the longing for freedom and the quest for economic well-being have been the twin drivers of protest movements. 

The most recent wave of unrest, which occurred after 2010, was not properly addressed nor well understood by the region’s ruling regimes. Home-grown uprisings shook these authoritarian systems to the core and ultimately ushered in processes which were supposed to lead to the overhaul of the old order in the Arab world. In other countries, no uprisings took place and the status quo was maintained against all odds. All in all, aspirations for change evolved differently from one country to another, depending on local conditions and their level of progress—in terms of institution building and social advancement—since independence. 

More than sixty years after gaining their independence, most Arab countries found themselves lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of political openness, public freedoms, good governance practices, and the rule of law. 

Divergent visions of the Arab Spring 

For years, two divergent visions as to the best way to improve the lives of the majority competed for the hearts and minds of the region’s elites: authoritarianism and liberal democracy. 

Autocrats in power since the 1960s, some of whom are still at the helm of Arab governments, have repeatedly faced off with various contending groups, including liberal activists, who had long struggled in opposition or at the political periphery, with very few assuming any real power. 

Authoritarians have always favored strong government as the best way to project “national sovereignty,” impose their self-serving notion of security, and promote an economic growth model that often involved nepotism and clientelist networks. Their narrative was that centralized authority did not hamper liberty and that once the countries reached a sufficient level of development, including a “middle-class threshold” and an adequate ratio of literacy, a smooth transition to democracy could begin. But there was no illusion about their countries ever reaching this elusive level of development or about the authoritarians’ intent to allow any other scenario but their indefinite stay in power. Liberals, on the other hand, argued that economic openness combined with effective rule of law and political participation are fundamental prerequisites for a vibrant economy and shared prosperity. They maintained that democracy could better ensure checks and balances, free media, and rule of law. Experience, they pointed out, has proven that there is no durable prosperity without accountability, unfettered initiative, and willingness to dismantle inhibitive restrictions. 

When Tunisian protesters took to the streets in 2010–11, clamoring for change, their slogan “jobs, freedom, and dignity” enunciated the hopes of many people across the region.1It is worth noting that the unemployment rate in Tunisia reached 13.05 percent in 2010, rising to 18.33 percent in 2011; “Unemployment, Total (% of Total Labor Force) (Modeled ILO Estimate) – Tunisia,” World Bank, accessed February 8, 2023, Regarding freedom of the press, Tunisia ranked 164 out of 178 countries in 2010; “World Press Freedom Index 2010,” RSF, Reporters Without Borders, accessed February 8, 2023, However, strong aspirations for a better life and rule of law ended up, in most cases, in chaotic transitions that ensured neither. 

Countries such as Libya and Yemen, which suffered from the absence of solid institutional legacies, were not able to sustain political and economic transitions. The sudden fall of old regimes left both countries with a complete institutional vacuum that led to chaotic situations. Alongside Syria, they fell into endless spirals of civil strife—and civil war—while their populations struggled for mere survival. Gripped by these violent cycles, Libya and Yemen sought the support of the international community to help them craft a new system that would enable them to settle their disputes and achieve stability. International goodwill notwithstanding, forms of foreign interference, added to the lack of peaceful dispute settlement tradition, made the objective of peace and rebuilding impossible to achieve. 

Regime change in Tunisia and Egypt 

In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, though both quite different from a historical perspective, the early phase of transitions after 2011 proceeded in a more orderly fashion. Both countries opted for regime change based on transitional processes aimed at installing new representative governments and anchoring democratic institutions. Both countries adopted new constitutional frameworks, elected new governments immediately after the demise of old regimes, and set in motion new reform processes. 

Tunisia, which had enjoyed a period of relative economic growth until 2010 and which boasted a solid civil-service tradition since independence, was in a better position to address most of the challenges it faced after the fall of the Ben Ali regime. It elected a constitutive assembly and adopted a new, broadly based constitution in 2014, which despite some loopholes and politically self-interested interpretations, set up functioning institutions premised on the principle of checks-and-balances. 

The new legal frameworks, coupled with internal dialogue between actors, created the conditions for three general elections and a peaceful transfer of power. The Quartet of groups that supervised the national dialogue through this period even won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.2A group of four civil society NGOs known as the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet: the Tunisian General Labor Union; the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League. However, the lack of a deeply entrenched democratic culture, and the neglect by the new political system of the urgently needed social and economic reforms, planted the seeds of economic and political crises, and frustrated the people’s aspirations for sustainable prosperity and better living conditions. The resulting deterioration of the socioeconomic situation ultimately jeopardized the gains in terms of freedom and democracy building. 

Lack of economic reforms stunted growth and led to increased poverty and unemployment. Tunisia’s GDP per capita decreased from US$4,355.62 in 2010 to US$3,688 in 2017.3“GDP Per Capita (current US$) Tunisia: World Bank National Accounts Data, and OECD National Accounts Data Files,” World Bank, accessed February 8, 2023, Socioeconomic decline eventually planted the seeds for neo-authoritarian and populist trends, which played on fears of the lower classes that plain liberalism and disengagement of the state from economic production could lead to further deterioration of their living conditions. In this context, populist narratives, which included disdain for political parties and “the elite,” gained favor with the population. Liberal economic reform became synonymous with painful and unacceptable pressures on the poor and with subservience to foreign diktats. 

The experience of Tunisia shows that democratic transitions that do not meet the social and economic needs of the population, and where politicians are disconnected from the country’s realities, can lead the public to lose confidence in the democratic process altogether—even if the people remain strongly attached to their freedoms. A curious contradiction can even emerge between attachment to freedom and scorn for democratic processes. Labeling Tunisia a “free country” (scoring 78 out of 100 in the 2017 Freedom House report) did not, in fact, translate into better standards of living or more prosperity for the Tunisian population.4“Freedom in the World 2017: Tunisia,” Freedom House, accessed February 8, 2023,

Unsurprisingly, growing distrust and disillusionment lent growing support to populist movements and neo-authoritarian trends while liberal elites were sidelined and electoral choices blurred, with the whole process jeopardizing the future of democracy. 

As far as Egypt is concerned, the election of a new ideologically driven Islamist government, that aimed to reshape Egypt’s society and politics based on its partisan agenda, sparked fears within the population and much of the elite. This accelerated the collapse of the nascent democratic process and stirred up a strong reaction from the army, which found the moment propitious to seize power. In a net reversal of the political process, authoritarianism was restored, with the army controlling and distorting much of the economic production process. Once again, state interventionists used the social argument to guarantee a continued role of the state in the economy, enacting or keeping in place restrictions that inhibited free enterprise. It came as no surprise when the new leadership introduced measures that fettered freedom of thought and expression. 

Avoiding reforms 

In the face of the popular push for freedom and political participation across the region, monarchies and oil-rich countries were able to resist the wave of change and preserve the old autocratic system, with minor adjustments. While some had to introduce dozens of political and economic reforms to appease their young populations, others such as Qatar, with majorities of expatriate populations (primarily migrant workers) and ample financial resources, had an easier task preserving the status quo. 

For many countries in the region, oil and gas revenues have been useful for replenishing state coffers. But in most cases this fossil-fuel income has not been used to institute new systems that ensure equitable distribution of wealth and consolidation of freedom and good governance practices. 

Wealthy stakeholders acted preemptively outside their borders to shore up neo-authoritarian power structures and prevent the emergence of a new mode of government that could have better met the hopes of the populations for more freedom and economic opportunity. In certain cases, as in Tunisia and Egypt, they were helped by domestic actors—mainly politicians and media representatives—who opportunistically sought dividends from outside interference at the expense of their own democratic processes and sound governance. 

Nowadays, the Middle East and North Africa seems perhaps even more alarmingly fractious and divided than in 2011. Most countries went through major structural and political transformations but regrettably none can claim today to have built a new representative system driven by good government practices and free market principles. 

Following the 2011 uprisings, politicians were tempted by two models: One sought a radical break from the status quo ante by dismantling old institutions and political systems, and launching a process aimed at establishing a different mode of government based on transparency, the rule of law, and judicial independence. The second model was more gradualist in nature, opting for a pragmatic approach to accommodate people’s aspirations for greater political participation while upholding the basic structures of old regimes. 

Twelve years after the Arab Spring, neither model has helped any country in the region to achieve political, economic, and legal freedom levels described by the Atlantic Council Freedom and Prosperity Indexes.5Dan Negrea and Matthew Kroenig, “Do Countries Need Freedom to Achieve Prosperity? Introducing the Atlantic Council Freedom and Prosperity Indexes,” Atlantic Council, accessed February 9, 2023, Lack of realism or inexperience—if not both—combined with score-settling and zero-sum-game mindsets, undermined the processes. 

The quest for freedom doesn’t have to be radical 

Radical movements from the left and the right of the political spectrum pulled together their forces in order to transform what was a legitimate peaceful longing for freedom and dignity into counterproductive and sometimes violent processes of change with vindictive agendas against old regimes. They insisted on scrapping constitutions and electoral laws, embarking on rapid and comprehensive structural overhauls, and revamping entire governmental and institutional frameworks. 

In most cases, the countries that chose to totally and suddenly break with the old systems failed. Abrupt change led either to the collapse of state institutions and descent into civil war, as was the case in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, or to a situation where the whole transitional process stalled, such as in Tunisia. In the case of Egypt, the brief democratic experience collapsed after a showdown between dogmatic Islamism and military authoritarianism, pushing the country to a status quo ante situation. 

In Tunisia, hard-earned political freedoms (including freedom of expression and freedom of conscience) were enshrined in the constitution. But liberalization did not extend to investment and free enterprise laws and practices, which could have helped ensure the creation of wealth and improve the standard of living of the population. Unsurprisingly, political reforms were not matched by economic achievements during the past decade; and most people felt disconnected from the whole democratic process. 

In Tunisia, successive governments were handicapped, to varying degrees, by political instability as well as by their own lack of vision as they averted structural reforms. The economy remained mired in a permanent slowdown while endless strikes and social unrest caused a drastic drop in economic productivity, not to mention the inhibitive impact that the turmoil had on political leaders. 

In Libya and Yemen, the uprisings accelerated total collapse of the already shaky and weak institutions. Led for years by autocratic leaders, both countries’ regimes—long built around tribal structures—were not able to withstand the fallouts of the uprisings and adequately channel the yearning for freedom and change among the population toward constructive projects. Interference by regional and international powers further complicated matters. 

In Libya, the dictatorship of Muammar al-Qaddafi was forcefully removed by outside military intervention with no exit strategy, leaving the country prey to unrest, social strife, and growing chaos. Governmental instability and political division within Libyan society, combined with the proliferation of armed militias, did not promote political progress or economic revival. 

Despite government efforts to continue the regular payment of salaries to civil servants, overall living conditions in Libya deteriorated and the country faced sporadic shortages of consumer goods and failure of public services, as well as cyclical collapse of the security situation. The country’s already fragile state institutions became weaker still and oil revenues, instead of being put to use in rebuilding the state, became part of a spoils-driven struggle for power. 

Developments in Libya in fact showed how instability and violent strife can endanger freedoms and human rights, while making economic stagnation worse. They also showed how oil production, when hostage to internal feuds, could become a source of corruption and further violence, and encourage retreat from the rule of law and freedom. 

Yemen, on its part, has been through successive cycles of civil war through the past decade. The country, which was already in complete shambles before 2011, is today simply a failed state. UN and international mediation efforts did not succeed in bridging the wide schism between Yemeni factions and could not help forge a permanent ceasefire that could pave the way for calm and stability in the country. No effort to improve good governance, expand freedom or revitalize the economy is possible in a fragmented society and a divided state subjected to endless foreign interference and regional meddling. 

In the case of Syria, where a civil war has been raging for more than a decade, state institutions continued to operate within the confines of the old political and economic system, despite the ongoing hostilities and the devastating effects of extremist attacks. Isolated and no longer in control of large parts of its national territory, the Syrian regime was able to survive with aid from Russia and Iran. All traditional prosperity parameters are in decline and political freedom is obviously in regression. Any hope for the restoration of stability, democratization of the system, and resumption of economic growth will require a new political process that does away with the old anti-democratic practices, and allows for the disengagement of foreign troops, the reunification of the country, and the normalization of relations with its neighbors. 

Egypt is a case study in its own right. The country, which followed the path of Tunisia in 2011, opted for radical change: removal of the old regime, adoption of a new legal and constitutional framework, and the appointment of a new government. The election of an Islamist president—Mohamed Morsi—and the appointment of a conservative government accelerated the collapse of this burgeoning, if flawed, democracy and ignited widespread popular protests in 2013. After a brief, tumultuous transition, a military coup that same year reversed Egypt’s course, effectively reverting the country to the pre-revolution system. 

Efforts to streamline Egypt’s economy through the adoption of a new investment law in 2017—offering new incentives, guarantees to foreign investors, and implementation of major infrastructure projects—did draw important inflows of hard currency. Investment came mainly from the Gulf countries, keen to back a like-minded authoritarian regime, but this did not translate into a substantial increase of per capita income or the betterment of the daily lives of Egyptians. Prosperity remained elusive and according to the World Bank’s annual Doing Business report, Egypt ranked 114 out of 190 in “ease of doing business.”6Doing Business 2020: Comparing Business Regulation in 190 Economies (Washington, DC: World Bank Group, 2020), accessed February 9, 2023,, p. 4. 

According to Freedom House’s annual study of political rights and civil liberties worldwide, Egypt is considered “not free.”7“Freedom in the World 2022: Egypt,” Freedom House, accessed February 9, 2023, Political parties are legal, but in practice they do not constitute a meaningful opposition to existing power structures. On the legal front, the president, as head of state, has exclusive powers in hiring and firing most of the senior civil service hierarchy, as well as government, military, and judicial personnel. 

Gradual reform as the best route to freedom and prosperity 

A number of countries opted for a more pragmatic and gradualist approach to address people’s grievances and respond to the wave of protests that followed the Arab Spring uprisings. Such an approach yielded better results when applied preemptively, that is, before local protests could swell to full-scale revolution. 

Countries like Morocco and Jordan were swift to act, before and immediately after the uprisings started in Tunisia and Egypt. Spurred by domestic protest, and spiraling events abroad, they moved to accommodate people’s demands for political and economic reforms. Salaries were also raised, food and consumer goods prices lowered, and new laws were adopted to improve governance, restrain monarchical powers, and introduce transparency in managing public funds. 

However, no major institutional shake-up occurred in either country. The two monarchies broadly maintained the status quo, while introducing a set of reforms to liberalize the political system and enlarge participation in public life. 

Oil-rich Gulf countries also made preemptive concessions. They improved the standards of living of their populations, developed first-rate infrastructure, and further opened up their economies to foreign investment. The result was relative stability and economic growth in these states (to varying degrees), as well as enhanced influence at regional and international levels. However, the overall impact was limited as these measures did not lead to systemic changes in governance, nor to increased accountability, nor to greater participation of the local population in political life. 

The ongoing war in Ukraine is also having its own effect on the region, giving more clout to energy-producing countries and adversely affecting the standards of living of the populations in non-oil-rich nations. In these countries, soaring prices, lack of opportunities, and increasing poverty are boosting populist movements and curtailing liberties. 

In Morocco, political and economic reforms have proceeded relatively smoothly. Following a televised speech by King Mohammed VI in June 2011, a referendum was organized to amend the constitution. The new text included a chapter on “Fundamental Rights and Freedoms,” which considered the opposition an “essential component” of the parliament and specified that “the King appoints the Head of Government from within the political party arriving ahead in the elections.”8“Morocco’s Constitution of 2011,” Articles 60 and 47, accessed February 9, 2023,

But the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) considered that the structures and mechanisms established by the 2011 constitution would increase the control of the executive branch over judicial matters, erode public confidence in the system, and compromise the effective administration of justice. 

On the economic level, Morocco introduced a number of reforms which improved the attractiveness of the country to foreign investment. Foreign direct investment into Morocco reached a record level in 2018 (US$3.6 billion) and although it had fallen back to US$1.7 billion in 2020, it remained high compared to that of neighboring countries.9World Investment Report 2021: Investing in Sustainable Recovery, (New York, NY: UNCTAD, United Nations Publications, 2021), accessed February 9, 2023,, Annex table 1. FDI flows, by region and economy, 2015–2020. 

Located in a very volatile region, Jordan remained dependent for its stability on relations with its neighbors, namely Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestinian territory, and Israel. Like Morocco, Jordan refrained from a radical overhaul of the old system, but it did set up an independent electoral commission to supervise the parliamentary electoral process and to administer and supervise all other elections. But reforms intended to bolster the independence of the judiciary fell short of international standards: there were no explicit provisions guaranteeing total independence of the High Judicial Council from the executive branch or granting this body control over the administrative and financial management of the judiciary. 

Jordan’s economic growth has been adversely affected by exogenous factors, namely the dwindling of foreign aid, especially from the Gulf region, the temporary closure of the country’s borders with Iraq and Syria, the end of Iraqi oil supplies at preferential prices, and the interruption of energy imports from Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the economic burden of accommodating large numbers of Syrian and Palestinian refugees continued to exert heavy pressure on the economy. 

Despite some encouraging experiences in the co-management of water resources, closer relations with Israel did not impact positively on people’s daily lives in Jordan. Nor did they generate the expected prosperity heralded by the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, signed in October 1994. The current hard-right shift in Israeli politics could jeopardize existing agreements. 

Jordan’s economic concerns were also compounded by domestic factors. High energy prices triggered strikes and protests in southern cities at the end of 2022. Tribal discontent and feuds within the royal family added to the instability, as did rumors of widespread corruption, which reverberated throughout the kingdom. 

Foreign influence impacts the quest for freedom and prosperity 

Transitional processes in the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring have been shaped equally by domestic and foreign factors. 

Regional and international powers remained attentive to the course of events in the countries affected by the uprisings. Some, genuinely encouraged by the magnitude of change, wanted to support popular aspirations and contribute to the emergence of democratic systems in North Africa and the Middle East. They provided financial and technical support to help government authorities draft new constitutions, enact new laws, and proceed with major political and economic reforms to address people’s demands for better participative political life and improved standards of living. Others, animated by ideological or geopolitical goals, tried to shape the outcome of the transitions in a way that met their own national interests. 

In some cases, foreign interference exacerbated domestic schisms among feuding factions and made it even more difficult to reach peaceful solutions to violent conflicts. In Libya, while the UN was trying, through its representatives, to help find a political settlement to the complex conflict, foreign powers—especially those from the MENA region—were engaged in fierce competition for influence in order to maintain their foothold in the country or secure their share of reconstruction projects. In some instances this competition evolved into proxy showdowns, using local warring factions to expand their economic and geopolitical influence and consolidate their presence in the country. 

Syria and Yemen are two other cases where foreign regional interventions complicated the crises and exacerbated the suffering of local populations. 

In the case of Tunisia, foreign partners pledged financial support and provided technical and logistical assistance to meet immediate economic needs and improve security readiness in the fight against terrorism. US assistance was substantial and decisive in enhancing the operational capabilities of the security forces. The EU, Tunisia’s primary trading partner, expressed from the outset its strong support for the democratic transition; but practical assistance did not go beyond the existing provisions of the European Neighbourhood Policy. The assistance equated Tunisia’s needs with those of other southern Mediterranean partners, without giving specific consideration to the potential impact that a successful Tunisian democracy, and a thriving economy, could have on the whole region. Indeed, Tunisia already possessed many of the ingredients to succeed in building a democratic system as well as anchoring a vibrant and open economy: a large middle class, established rights for women, a relatively high level of education, and abundant human resources. 

Although it provided relatively important financial support, the EU never acquiesced to Tunisian demands for trade advantages and access to European structural funds similar to those granted to Eastern and Central European countries before their accession to EU membership. The EU had acted then as a driving force for its European neighbors when they emerged from the Soviet era, a kind of a regional locomotive that pulled these countries out from old autocratic regimes, economic despair, and institutional weaknesses. The European Commission secured financial support and helped these nations implement political and economic reforms, while NATO membership provided a security umbrella for the concerned countries. None of this occurred with Tunisia, which found itself going through democratic apprenticeship, fighting terrorism, and facing the social and political aftermath of its revolution almost alone. The impasse was just waiting to happen. 

Khémaies Jhinaoui is a diplomat and former minister of foreign affairs of Tunisia. He is president of the Tunisian Council for International Relations. 

Image: Anissa Gargouri, owner of a shop, holds a hanger made of cardboard from 'Lims' (The Less is More Studio) at her store in Tunis, Tunisia March 1, 2023. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui