India’s Arab Spring Opportunity
Image Credit: Zeinab Mohamed

India’s Arab Spring Opportunity


The fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi stands as the latest, most dramatic episode in the explosive changes roiling today’s Middle East. As Libyans—and their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere—start down the difficult path of political change, India possesses a historic opportunity. In recognition of its growing global role and its status as the world’s largest democracy, India can play a unique role in supporting the democratic forces that have produced the Arab Spring.   

Identifying ways to do so would recognize a central geopolitical fact of our time: New Delhi is increasingly drawn into decision-making in the world’s most critical regions. Earlier this year, India voted with the other great powers on the UN Security Council to sanction Libya following Colonel Gaddafi’s brutal crackdown. Millions of Indians in the Middle East today are literal witnesses to history as Arab publics agitate for the same freedoms Indians themselves enjoy. And New Delhi’s posture toward developments in countries like Syria and Iran are of increasing consequence for decision-makers and publics alike.

These developments position New Delhi to help shape the Middle East – home to five million Indian citizens and most of India’s energy supplies. India is in fact better placed to work with the people of the region than nearly any other power. As the Times of India has noted, recent events ‘present an opportunity to project New Delhi’s soft power, which is considerable in the region. (India) presents a working democratic model in a sociocultural environment far closer to the Gulf’s than Western democracies are—and with none of the political baggage of the latter.’

Officials have been understandably modest about India’s possible contribution to the Arab awakening. ‘(D)epending on how the situation develops, India will certainly try to position itself to be of advantage to forces of democracy so dear to India’s heart,’ says External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna. But he remains cautious: ‘India does not believe in interfering in the affairs of another country. We will take the cue at an appropriate time depending on how they want India to help. India will be willing to be of some assistance to them. But let the situation arise.’

It would appear that the situation has indeed arisen. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has raised the possibility of Indian support for upcoming elections in Egypt. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, has approached India for help with conducting nationwide elections. Given India’s remarkable success in regularly organizing elections for hundreds of millions of its citizens, it’s uniquely positioned to provide this expertise.

But might this be only the beginning, rather than the sum total, of India’s efforts on behalf of Middle East democracy? After all, the non-interventionist tradition is a relic of the time when India was weak and poor. It seems ill-fitted to the foreign policy of a country increasingly strong and prosperous.

As demands for democratic change swell from Benghazi to Beijing, India’s liberal system gives it a unique strategic advantage that New Delhi should seize.

India today brands itself on the world stage as ‘the fastest growing free market democracy’—drawing a none-too-subtle distinction with its Chinese rival. Acting on this belief, India already has worked to strengthen democratic institutions in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and, most prominently, Afghanistan.

India was one of ten founding members of the Community of Democracies and a leading co-founder of the UN Democracy Fund, dedicated to promoting good governance and human rights around the world. India has participated in the multilateral activities of the Center for Democratic Transitions, the Partnership for Democratic Governance, and the Asia-Pacific Democracy Partnership.

New Delhi hasn’t just a moral stake, but also a national interest in building on this record in the new Middle East. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and the Gulf states will need to establish the institutions of good governance, from strong political parties to independent judiciaries. New Delhi’s advice and assistance would make these countries better homes for Indian workers, better allies in stabilizing a region of great strategic importance to India’s development, more reliable energy suppliers, and more prosperous trade and investment partners.

The crisis of governance in the Arab world also presents an opportunity to strengthen US-India ties. Whether working together with India or independently toward similar ends, the world’s largest democracies bring complementary strengths to the hard task of building a culture of democracy across the Arab world. 

Arab publics are clamouring for reform. Supporting them isn’t a policy of regime change or the imposition of outside values. It is nothing more than pursuing at once our interests and our values.


Richard Fontaine is Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Daniel Twining is Senior Fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Each previously handled South Asia policy at the US State Department and served as Sen. John McCain’s foreign policy adviser in the US Senate.

October 14, 2012 at 03:07

@Varun Thanks for dealing with what turned out as a mere and uninformed provocation of Frank and his obvious racist mindset. It's not worth the time to argue with him further but it's worth to read your replies to him because they cover several important points and facts. I would like to add the notion that an "Indian Spring" is old by now and came in the form of struggle for independence from an authoritarian non-representative colonial regime. Ever since Independence Indian democracy has proved to be functioning albeit in the hard days of emergency rule 75-77 and its complex situation. As far as I can see a vibrant Indian democratic culture is even much older than Independence itself, even older than popular democratic cultures in Europe i.e Germany.
A democratic culture and practices like right to organization and protests, free/independent press, is not established in most middle eastern countries (except surely in Turkey. Here the struggle is for independence from the cult of secularism). This seems to change and peoples nowadays struggle for independence from authoritarian rule in several middle eastern countries forming a stronger civil society. What the outcome will be is unsure as political cultures are as different as peoples.
Thanks again Varun for your antiseptic argumentation. If Frank had a bit of brain he would notice that your argumentation is the very product of a mature democratic culture.

September 19, 2011 at 22:54

i dont care who are what….only thing i know that small creatures(chinese) shld live on floor and let the tall creatures(indian) enjoy the sky.
Dragon already extinct.
Tigers still existing

September 3, 2011 at 11:28

“For best or for worst”,its India’s own business and should not be of any concerns to others especially China. India’s fate rests entirely in the hands of its peoples-particularly the poors and the not-so-poor within India’s multi-ehtnic,linguistics,religeous,social divides,and most importantly,the degree of realistically understanding India’s present and future course or direction of developnments. After more than a decade of trying to understand India’s strange attitudes and perceptions toward China,the people of China gradually realizing the detachment or remoteness of the problem fews at the upper social ladder with the “down to Earth” India China respected and learned from in the past. The India China see today is being ruled by a distint social culture(fortnunatly only a tiny number)more akin to their former Western colonial administrators than to the rich ancient Indian ways of thinking(no-boastings,not status hungry,condemn jealousy,seeking and upholding only truths,respects all under the sun,and most importantly for today’s India-an ability or capacity to treat everyone with the same respect). China does care about India’s political idealogy and thus India should consider doing the same since democracy is merely a term used by the West to dis-credit others different forms of political structures they find NOT likely to be controlled by them. “the ski is very high and the Earth is extremely thick” meaning things are not as they appear to be and lots remained to be learned even when one believes he knows everything under the sun. Bad habits or counter-productive behaviors(of India’s problem few) are hard to cracked,but will be drowned out by China’s overwhelming sincerities and practical demonstrations of mutual respects,mutual trusts,and China’s classic no nonsense approaches in tackling difficulties or challenges.

dana soren
September 2, 2011 at 14:40

Scale of internet paid spinners by CCP:
50 centers = proficient in English and idioms.
40 centers = students of economics, who can twist facts.
30 centers = students of history, who want to write fiction.
20 centers = high school students, who want to become 50 centers.
10 centers = rabble rousers, who have poor command in English, and like being on the internet.
00 centers = interns, who are considering 50 centing as a career option / for beefing up a lightweight resume.

September 2, 2011 at 12:25

@Legrosbisson. Hi..Something like that, I guess..haha.

@Nan Yang. I urge you to be respectful with our Indian friends. I am Chinese too, but I have many Indians who are my personal friends, including my personal doctor.

If you’re not careful, they can mess you up real bad.

Mohsin Akhtar
September 1, 2011 at 03:41

Dear Nan Yang:
We in India, wish China ‘continued success’ on its chosen path.
May you meet the same fate at the hands of the progressivist-utilitarians,
that the vermins met at the hands of one Pied Piper of Hamelin.
China, may yet, in some distant future, produce a Gandhi/Aurobindo/Hazare.
But for now, it has its hand full with an Ai WeiWei.
Even the Nazis could beat ‘ein Volke’ into a straight line …
But we Indians, are an unruly bunch. We criticise our country, and love it still.
We get frustrated, but don’t lose hope.
You will call it ‘inefficiency’. We will just call it ‘democracy’.
A democracy that has a million mutinies and still holds.
I believe, that is not what you could speak for the 150,000+ protests,
that happen annually in your country?
By the way, my dear Shifu / Lao, best of luck with Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Your world, is about to get very … very … crowded.

August 30, 2011 at 17:49

Dear Nan Yang
India is 10 largest economy by nominal GDP
India ranked second in Delhi Commonwealth Games
India will be sending Men in space. Rakesh Sharma from India flew to space for eight days in 1984
That Italian women you are talking about may be waitress but she was daughter of a noted businessmen of Italy
With right perspective everything looks optimistic

August 30, 2011 at 17:20

Ozivan is that Sun Tzu you are quoting to a Chinese? What a great world this is.

August 30, 2011 at 08:34

India’s median age is 25.9
Libya and Egypt’s around 24

China has 35 &
USA 36

World’s 28

“the Whole world having a Youth bulge” ??? !!!

August 29, 2011 at 20:57

Without being provoked by another, do not taunt at them. It would be like poking at a tiger.

Nan Yang
August 29, 2011 at 06:35

India is not even the 10th largest economy

India is no where is any world sport event heck cannot even hold a commonwealth games

India has not sent a man into space

India democracy voted an Italian waitress to be its leader

India is hardly a model for any country.

August 28, 2011 at 16:13

LOL alright Mr Frank,
Since logic and basic math doesn’t make sense to you, I should take leave of this mundane argument.

August 28, 2011 at 12:33

India’s median age is 25.9
Libya and Egypt’s around 24

World’s 28

“the Whole world having a Youth bulge” ??? !!!


Only India and Arab countries.

August 28, 2011 at 01:57

@Yang Zi. To date, I have at least 100 Indian friends who are either my personal friends, classmates, or business associates,and even my personal doctor, whom I find each and everyone of them intelligent, clever and capable.

When you suggested their IQ is low, I am dumbfounded indeed.

yang zi
August 27, 2011 at 22:13

thank you Varun for your response. I never buy the theory of biased test. I think it is just sour grapes. However, I do think education is the key and IQ score can be improved. As India expand its education coverage, the country’s IQ score should improve.

August 27, 2011 at 18:42

@ Frank
“Indians have blindly believes”

Really?? That’s you retort?

India’s median age is 25.9
Libya and Egypt’s around 24

China has 35 &
USA 36

World’s 28

World has far many young people than any other age group.
Its statistically in a youth bulge.

Besides there is no consensus on Youth bulge leading to revolutions.
Every country has them one time or another
Not everyone goes through change as YOU predict.
And many more countries TODAY have them and are not having Midlle-East-esque protests/changes.

By your logic China will never have an uprising.

Where as in-fact China is hundreds times more likely to end up having volatile upheaval than India in the foreseeable future,
Unless of-course if your mentioned “sooner or Later” means 1000 years.
Then I can’t really argue with you, ‘coz i won’t be alive then, you might be as you seen so sure of it even when not being an Indian.

August 27, 2011 at 18:31

Can you seriously believe that a country with 1.2 billion population WHICH is NOT homogeneous (hence no statistical data can be extrapolated) could be tested to come at an IQ score of the country.

It would require a sample size in millions.

On top of this India does not have a very high Literate population by percentage as modernization has only just begun.

IQ test also discriminate on cultural/social lines.

IQ tests are not that great at judging a society’s intelligence.

Do don’t pay much attention to those tests, they are not credible to be consider scientific truths.

August 27, 2011 at 02:53

“the Whole world having a Youth bulge” ??? !!!

Indians have blindly believes.

Another similarity.

yang zi
August 26, 2011 at 18:49

yes, i am who i am. my questions are serious and sincere. I often meet brilliant Indians, but the IQ score is puzzling to me. I think it may due to the caste system. it keeps the gene pool pure.

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