It is unfortunate that Mohammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation in December 2010 set off the chain of events that we call the Arab Spring, died in his iconic protest. Had he survived, it would have been interesting to gauge his opinion on the events that have gripped the region since.
Would he have carried a picture of Egypt's emerging dictator Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and taped a military boot on his forehead to pay homage to the army? Or would he have grown a beard and flown to Syria or Iraq to join his Islamist brothers in their medieval-style war against secular autocrats?
None of these scenarios, however, would involve Bouazizi enjoying the fair protection of the rule of law against arbitrary and corrupt law enforcement officials, joining political parties that advocate issues important to him, applying for microcredit to grow his flimsy business, or enrolling in night school to improve his chances in the workforce.
Had Bouazizi survived, there would have been no social mobility ladder for him to climb, only a game of power intrigues in which the best hope for people like him would be to trade his loyalty for whatever trickles down from regime apparatchiks.
Since the Iraq war and the subsequent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, change in most Arab countries has proved elusive. The majority often agreed on toppling the dictator, but on little else.
To lend a helping hand to Arab countries in transition, Western and regional experts recommended ideas that had worked – though not perfectly – in former Communist countries: establish the rule of law, elect a parliament and government, and unleash free market forces to jumpstart the economy.
But in former Communist countries, democratization has produced mixed results. Former regimes reconstituted themselves. Party apparatchiks reestablished their influence through businesses that transformed them into ultra-wealthy oligarchs and guardians of the new-old regime. Still, capitalism improved the lot for many people while freedom made shy inroads.
Democratization in these countries remains a work in progress, with some faring better than others. Though bumpy and still potentially reversible, the transformation from autocracy to democracy in the former Communist bloc has been generally bloodless and has posed no threat to world peace.
But the Arabs have it different. There seems to be no set of rules that can govern their transformation. A combination of cultural relativism – the exercise in which Westerners "put things in context" and show respect toward "cultural nuances" – and Western post-colonial guilt has forced many Westerners to stay away. Meanwhile, the Arab elite is weak, outnumbered, and out-funded.
Where Westerners intervened, they did so clumsily. In Iraq, America's idea of change proved anachronistic: in a nation accustomed to rentier networks, whether governmental or tribal, the American viceroys of Iraq thought minimizing the government's footprint would be best, thus leaving hundreds of thousands of Iraqis unplugged to any safety networks, whether social, financial, or physical.
In the months that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, Iraqis raced to join whatever networks were on offer: Al-Qaeda, Iranian militias, and governmental agencies that evolved into turfs of various politicians. Once the networks solidified, they launched a wider fight that aimed at eliminating each other and the Americans as well.
Eventually, through alliances here, battles there, and assorted assassinations and arrests, Nouri al-Maliki emerged on top, a position that he has employed state resources to maintain. Yet Maliki has not been able to wipe out all opponents. He only emerged as the first among equals, which means the battle – and the bloodletting – goes on.
And so, after its failure in Iraq, America got out and restricted its role to tempering the game from extremely bloody to acceptably bloody.
In Egypt, once the liberals succeeded in toppling the most dominant pack, the armed forces, the second most powerful network, the Muslim Brotherhood, emerged the victor. But not for long, and only until the Mubarak-army faction could restore its domestic and international balance and strike back.
Within three years of the "Arab Spring," the rule in Egypt traded the hands of four successive autocrats: Mubarak, Tantawi, Morsi, and now Sisi. The behavior of each was strikingly similar to that of his predecessor: imprison opponents, mute journalists, consolidate power, and dispense money and influence to loyalists, then spice it up with some anti-Americanism while secretly begging Washington to safeguard its interests.
If Bouazizi had gotten a call from Ben Ali's authorities granting him a vendor's permit, recruiting him to become a government informant for extra cash, would he have set himself aflame? Or would he have joined the next rally celebrating the greatness of Ben Ali, distributing the dictator’s pictures and urging those around him to join and cheer?
Arab countries may not be able to sustain old autocrats forever, but their appetite for creating new ones remains. However, change in the Arab world will not come through replacing old dictators with new ones, but rather through changing the rules of the game. This requires major shifts in social and economic trends, and this is where powers like America should invest their attention and resources. Perhaps then, democratization might become a sustainable process.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain