Since the 9/11 attacks, the Arab world’s relative economic, social, and political underdevelopment has been a topic of near-constant international concern. In a landmark 2002 report, the UN Development Program (UNDP) concluded that Arab countries lagged behind much of the world in development indicators such as political freedom, scientific progress, and the rights of women. Under U.S. President George W. Bush, this analysis helped drive the “freedom agenda,” which aimed to democratize the Middle East—by force if necessary—in order to eradicate the underdevelopment and authoritarianism that some officials in Washington believed were the root causes of terrorism. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, criticized one of the cornerstones of the freedom agenda—the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003—but he shared Bush’s diagnosis. In his first major foreign policy speech as president, delivered in Cairo in 2009, Obama called on Middle Eastern governments to make progress in democracy, religious freedom, gender equality, and “economic development and opportunity.” Implicit in his remarks was a widely shared view among Western observers of the Middle East: that the Arab world’s dysfunction was a product of social and political arrangements that thwarted human potential, furthered inequality, and favored a small elite to the detriment of the broader population.
During the first decade of this century, progress was slow. Under the surface, however, discontent was rising. This discontent culminated in the protests of 2010–11, commonly known as the Arab Spring. In countries as diverse as Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia, ordinary citizens took to the streets to challenge their authoritarian rulers and demand dignity, equality, and social justice. For a moment, it seemed as if change had finally arrived in the Middle East.
The situation in the Middle East looks even worse than it did before the Arab Spring.
Yet in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, development stalled. Although some countries, such as Tunisia, were able to consolidate democratic systems, authoritarian leaders in much of the region successfully counterattacked. In Egypt, the military
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