Rethinking the promotion of democracy after the Syrian uprising

Despite some claims that Arab activists owe their stunning successes to U.S. pro-democracy workshops, all evidence suggests that the Arab uprisings occurred despite nearly two decades of Western promotion of democracy and support to civil society groups, not because of it. The Syrian uprising, particularly its onset, shows in instructive, stark contours that most Western promoters of democracy have been barking up the wrong tree: in Syria, popular mobilisation and calls for “human dignity” and political change did not come from Western-supported organisations in the Arab world – civil liberty NGOs, human rights associations and civil society organisations – but from an amorphous and mostly leaderless assortment of individuals defying conventional attempts at social classification. Promoters of democracy are advised to identify, acknowledge and understand these improbable agents of change if their future efforts are to stand a chance of success.