10/10/2013 05:46 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Don't Call the Arab Spring a Failure

Many are wondering if the "Arab Spring" has been a failure.

The tragic situation in Syria today where more than 100,000 people died, hundreds of thousands more injured and 7 million displaced has become a "poster child" used by dictatorial regimes in the region to warn their populations against considering their own uprising.

In addition to what's happening in Syria, dictators and their apologists also point to the current messes in Egypt, Libya and Iraq as other examples to scare monger people that freedom and democracy are mirage that sacrifice stability and security.

It is hard to blame those who are disappointed with what the Arab Spring has produced so far.

There was much hope and anticipation when millions of traditionally compliant populations confronted the threat of death and torture and started chanting "The people demand the fall of the regime."

In countries where people only lined-up for prayers or for bread, it was unheard of to see thousands publicly protesting against their government. Fear barriers that were erected over several decades by oppressive regimes were suddenly breached. Citizens started demanding freedom and dignity.

The Arab populations were isolated from the rest of the world through severe censorship. Generations were denied access to untainted information and objective education. Local media was owned by the government perpetually reminding their citizens how powerful and great their leaders were.

Unauthorized books were banned. For example, between 1980 and 1985, only 4.4 translated books per million people were published in the Arab world (for comparison's sake the corresponding rate in Hungary was 519 books per one million people and in Spain 920 books).

Bureaucracy was controlled by unelected military leaders. Any form of intellectual and political free thinking was punished. Judiciary institutions shamelessly served as tools for their masters. Independent civil society did not exist.

A culture of a righteous and omnipresent leader dominated social, economic and political discourse. Critics were labelled enemies of the state and collaborators with evil outsiders.

The Arab world has been, by design, frozen in time. Its economy, culture and politics were as if they were in the 1950s.

Decades of darkness and excessive control obliterated any ingredients necessary to develop a mature society. Civic leadership and institutional watchdogs were alien concepts.

For generations, there was only one game in town, the incumbent regime. People knew that if you opposed or criticized you could be killed, imprisoned or exiled.

Instead of serving the public interest, governments were seen as instruments to oppress and line up the pockets of its rulers.

Religious and tribal institutions became the only bodies that seemed to care. They offered divine salvation when everything else offered humiliation. People flocked to them for comfort.

In the early 2000s, hundreds of independent TV channels sprung up and opened a window to the rest of the world. Arabs were getting exposed to other societies where citizens were afforded dignity and held their governments accountable.

Populations who were told that sacrificing progress was necessary to repel evil doers started to discover that such progress is in fact a necessity if a society is to become strong. People started dreaming. Expectations went up.

The inevitable started to happen. Citizens rose up and said enough is enough. Brutal dictators reacted foolishly thinking they could suppress these uprisings.

Dictators failed to recognize that one can only deny people their rights for so long. Eventually, human desire for fairness and respect will triumph.

Unfortunately, as regimes started to collapse, they left behind a glaring vacuum. Lack of alternative leadership and weak political culture became strikingly evident. With such tremendous vacuum, chaos and paralysis typically ensues.

Religious and tribal structures become substitutes for civil institutions and settling scores is done through violence rather than through political or legal means.

That is why outside observers are puzzled when basic elements of a healthy society don't even appear on the radar screen in the Arab world today.

Political dialogue? It is considered synonymous with working with enemies which is flatly rejected. When a former leader of the Syrian opposition indicated a willingness to negotiate with the Assad regime, the criticism he received from among his ranks was fierce.

Minority rights? People are so caught up in survival mode that they can't see the urgency in it.

Separating government from religion? It is a foreign concept to most after years of being comforted by their religious institutions where religion has become a big part of their lives.

Rising extremism? Despondent populations become fertile grounds for recruiting militants who lost faith in conventional means.

Some analysts are blaming foreign hands for the current chaos, while others are reminiscing the "stable" days under previous dictatorships.

Simplistic explanations may offer consoling answers, but they are wrong.

While foreign interests have always played a role, this theory ignores the fact that citizens of the region like other human beings were bound to demand basic rights from their governments.

And while countries in the region may have appeared "stable" under a central and dominating dictator, it offered fake stability that stifled citizenry and innovation. In fact, such restrictive culture is what led the region to such a mess.

Wishing that "stable" dictatorships remained in power until "conditions are right" will only exacerbate underlying societal problems.

Without an environment that nurtures respect, non-violent political competition and independent judiciary, no society will ever reach its potential.

Instead of choosing dictatorship over uncertainty, there needs to be an intensified focus placed on two fronts that the international community and diaspora expats can play a role in.

First, violence needs to be mitigated as much as possible. Discourage efforts aimed at settling scores. All parties need to be persuaded that the only real option is through negotiation.

Opposition members who want to rid their country of a brutal regime need to employ a responsible tone that doesn't call for revenge and instead promotes reconciliation.

Second, everyone needs to focus on capacity building efforts.

Capacity building must include tools to help develop inclusive constitutions through consensus (plurality isn't enough), to build independent judiciary, to advance smart economic and social reforms and to enshrine the protections of individual freedoms, including minority rights.

Insisting on getting things "right" the first time is unrealistic.

The world shouldn't expect the region to transform overnight. As long as freedoms and honest judiciary are guaranteed, they will act as self-correcting mechanisms that would offer future opportunities to fix previous mistakes.

The Arab Spring should not be confused as discrete events ready to be judged but as an ongoing process that is far from over. If not nurtured, the Arab world could remain stuck in the dark days of oppression and extremism.

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