The aftershocks of the Arab Spring
Almost a decade after the 2011-12 Arab uprisings, protest movements across the region are demanding an end to existing power structures, a goal they cannot achieve without directly engaging in politics. And throughout the Arab world a new regional line-up is replacing old sectarian rivalries.
by: Hicham Alaoui
scientists know that aftershocks are often more damaging than the quakes they follow. The 2011-12 Arab Spring was a political earthquake that ripped deep fissures in the fabric of authoritarianism across the Arab world; it signified the power of popular movements when unshackled by fear. In 2019 we witnessed its greatest aftershock, as a second wave of unrest shook governments and unsettled the region.
The protests unleashed by recent events in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Sudan are the logical amplification of the Arab Spring. They serve as the latest evidence that the region’s societies refuse to capitulate in the face of economic and political injustice. Of course their opponents, the authoritarian regimes, are equally committed to maintaining power, adapting to each struggle in order to survive.
The Arab world’s structural factors have remained constant since 2011-12, and feed into today’s aftershocks. The first is the youth of the region’s population: a third of the Arab world is under 15, and another third between 15 and 29. For the past decade the Arab world has seen its largest and most educated youth generation come of age, one that is typified by its deep immersion in social media and command of online technologies.
The second constant is economic: development is lagging. Outside the wealthiest Gulf states, most Arab countries have seen their overall unemployment and poverty rates worsen since the Arab Spring. The current Arab youth unemployment rate, according to the World Bank, is 27% — the highest regional figure in the world [World Bank]. The desire to emigrate from Arab countries, mostly for economic reasons, has reached historically high levels. In the latest 2018 survey by the Arab Barometer (1), a third or more of respondents in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia reported wishing to leave their country, especially the young: a staggering 70% of Moroccans aged 18-29 want to leave. Governments do little to halt this outflow, using it to get rid of young people likely to protest over their situation.
The third structural cause of resentment is the lack of progress in governance. The paucity of democratic politics, outside of Tunisia, has translated into a deepening marginalisation of the masses. Many people perceive corruption to be endemic, and believe getting a job or access to decent services requires signing up to cronyism rather than personal merit.
A landscape of protests
On the activist side, several new trends have emerged over the past year. First, popular movements now understand that just toppling a leader does not guarantee regime change, particularly if military and security institutions still command their domains of power and the underlying rules of the political game remain untouched. They are not asking for hastily convened elections: Algerian and Sudanese activists, for instance, are keen to avoid the mistakes of the 2011 Egyptian revolution (2); they want the entire underlying systems of authoritarian rule to be dismantled.
The protesters also have a more critical awareness of the power, and the limitations, of information technology. Once, social networks permitted them to escape censorship and state repression. Now, they also allow them to express engagement and carry on virtual, yet permanent, struggles against the state, deploying fierce criticism, artistry and humour to delegitimise politicians and government institutions. These online campaigns are most apparent in Algeria and Lebanon — though protesters there have also taken to the streets — but they have also erupted in countries perceived by the West as calmer, like Morocco and Jordan. Social media, then, has evolved from a form of escapism into a permanent battleground between the state and part of society. One major inconvenience for the protesters is that the authorities also use the Internet and social networks to disseminate propaganda and to identify, and repress, their most active opponents.
Finally, activists have moved further away from grand ideologies. The Arab Spring was marked by disenchantment with the great ‘ism’s’ — pan-Arabism, Islamism, socialism and nationalism. Mass movements have become inured to promises of utopia, preferring quotidian struggles to improve their governments. The aftershocks of 2011-12 have encouraged this evolution by ending the philosophical romance with democracy. Now, opposition forces demand first of all a dismantling of the entire structure of the old political economy, which engenders inequality and injustice. Women also play a more central role in new popular movements today.
Across the barricades
Authoritarian regimes have learned lessons from the last decade, too. The fates of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Ahmed Ali Saleh of Yemen sent the message that engaging in democratic manoeuvres was dangerous. When popular movements attack the system, the winning strategy for governments is no longer to tolerate dissent in the hope that showing goodwill can buy time. Rather, the rational response is continued repression.
The fate of exiled Saudi dissenters shows how far governments will now go to suppress all threats. This new repressive trend is fuelled by a perverse realisation among regimes: they can get away with it. The ‘international community’ may castigate human rights violations, but foreign powers have become complacent over how Arab states treat democratic opposition. The Sissi regime in Egypt remains a valued western ally; it has not been held to account over the overthrow of an elected government, the killing of a thousand protesters at demonstrations in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in 2013 (3), or the death of the former president, Mohamed Morsi, under suspicious circumstances during his trial in June 2019.
The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018 left Saudi relations with the rest of the world unperturbed. Assad remains in power in Syria despite the carnage of the civil war. In 2011 French foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie’s offer of aid to the Tunisian government created a scandal in January 2011. Now, France’s support for UN mediation in Libya and its simultaneous arming of General Khalifa Haftar’s army go virtually unnoticed.
Sudan is the exception. Its response to the Arab Spring has been unique, and peaceful negotiation may open a path to democracy: the scale of the protests has allowed opposition leaders to rally popular opinion, and the government has no international backing. What distinguishes Sudan is the strength of its civil society and trade unions and the willingness of activists to engage the military leadership in formal political negotiations. NGOs as well as unions have been happy to get involved in politics for decades.
In contrast, a key feature of the recent aftershocks in Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon is ‘get out-ism’ (dégagisme) a desire to remove all political elites. Yet this radical demand has not been accompanied by the building of political structures that would enable negotiation with the regime: activists remain aloof from the political arena, fearful of being discredited by any contact with ruling elites. They are also committed to horizontal organisation, which prevents leaders and spokespeople from emerging. The lack of leadership began as an asset — if only because it limits the efficacy of repression — but now undermines the possibility of ending the crisis. Dégagisme can lead to a stalemate, until one side blinks.
Moreover, popular movements do not always have economic leverage to exert pressure on those in power: the Algerian and Iraqi governments are dependent on exports of hydrocarbons, produced by industries that are at a sociological and geographical distance from society. The Hirak (popular movement) in each of these countries cannot touch the economic heart of the regime.
Sunni-Shia narrative loses appeal
Beyond the Arab Spring’s lessons to governments and oppositions, the sectarian landscape and geopolitical situation have evolved. The struggles between state and society today are no longer taking place so much in a context of rivalry between counter-revolutionary Sunnism, embodied in some Gulf states, and Iran and its allies.
The counter-revolutionary bloc under Saudi-Emirati leadership, mobilising swiftly to stop the Arab Spring, magnified sectarian conflicts in order to fragment societies and conflate democratic opposition with Iran, which it portrayed as the archenemy, and its subordinates. The Iran-led axis — linking Tehran with Hizbullah, the Assad regime, the Houthis in Yemen and Iraqi militias — fed into this dynamic. Sunni chauvinism, embodied in the Saudi-Emirati nexus, acted as a convenient foil in different national conflicts, and justified supporting Shia-aligned actors.
Now, however, this regional strategy has fractured. The sectarian narrative has lost its appeal among youth activists: in Iraq and Lebanon, dégagisme is targeting ruling elites of all confessions. In Iraq, Shia protesters have even attacked Iran’s diplomatic missions (4). The game has changed for the Iranian regime, which is now facing challenges both at home — with regular demonstrations against the regime — and within its sphere of influence abroad.
The Saudi-Emirati bloc’s counter-revolutionary campaign has hit a wall. Providing financial support to favoured political factions and rulers has not guaranteed client states remain stable, as Egypt has proven. Gulf aid did not enable Sissi to impose a new model of governance combining authoritarianism, rapid economic development and political stability. Instead, Egypt, where the army has become a major player in every sector of the economy, has become an anti-model that no other Arab country wishes to emulate.
The failures of the Sunni coalition expose the Saudi regime’s overreach. The latest example is the hostility in many Arab capitals towards Donald Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ (see ‘A hate plan, not a peace plan’, in this issue). The heavy investments made by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) have failed to sweeten the pill of a planthat answers the Israeli right’s dreams. Another Saudi failure, the Yemen war, has turned into a quagmire with tragic humanitarian consequences, and has not netted any strategic victory. Rather, it has revealed the kingdom’s own military weaknesses and failures in projecting hard power abroad.
Domestically, Saudi Arabia’s goal of diversifying its economy away from hydrocarbons is far from being achieved. International investors did not greet Aramco’s public offering at the end of 2019 with the expected enthusiasm; it seems rather to have been an extension of the political pressure displayed in November 2017, when many Saudi VIPs were detained in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel and released only after making substantial contributions to the Saudi treasury coffers (5). In December 2019, after repeated prevarications over the Aramco offer price, many Saudi investors were pressured to buy shares, putting up their own assets as collateral. The result is not privatisation and diversification, but a deepening of the state presence within the economy.
The Sunni counter-revolutionary bloc must also contend with fundamental changes in US geopolitical strategy. The Arab world no longer figures as prominently in Washington’s grand strategy as a superpower as it once did. Thanks to alternative suppliers, the US economy and even global markets can weather any interruption of Middle East oil production. Further, armed threats from the region, such as ISIS and Iran, are not considered existential threats, as Al-Qaida was once construed. The American public has no more appetite for Middle East interventions, except in the case of Iran attacking Israel.
Sunset of American hegemony
For this reason, the Trump administration has all but abandoned its role as the Gulf’s protector against Iran. The US assassination of the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in January was driven more by a desire to appear strong, faced with Iraqi unrest threatening the US embassyin Baghdad. Until then, the US had refused to engage in military operations against Iran, despite repeated provocations, including the Revolutionary Guards’ seizure of oil tankers in the Gulf, the downing of a US drone and an attack on Saudi oil refineries. The US has also been passive in the face of Turkish aggression in northeast Syria, abandoning its Kurdish allies.
The US has entered a Jacksonian phase of its foreign policy, willing to intervene overseas only to defend its homeland security, without desiring any long-term entanglements. This sunset of American hegemony has forced Saudi Arabia and Iran to draw similar conclusions. Saudi Arabia now recognises American support is no longer unconditional; and Iran grasps the limits of its own influence and capacity for regional disruption, since attacking the Saudi oil refineries has barely affected global energy prices. An accidental chain reaction of conflict is still possible around the issue of Israel’s security. It is also possible that limited conflicts will continue between the US and Iran. These will contribute to regional disruption, without becoming a major conflict with open fighting between US and Iranian forces.
The regional order that defined the Middle East in the 2010s is reconfiguring according to a new logic. Saudi Arabia is now discreetly backpedalling on the embargo it imposed on Qatar in 2017, which was its biggest foreign policy blunder in a generation; and the UAE has begun withdrawing its military commitments in Yemen. Both are also more open to engaging with Iran directly in hopes of defusing regional tensions. That does not mean they will abandon their rapprochement with Israel, sought primarily for security reasons. Israeli defence and surveillance technology, including software surveillance, is especially coveted within this marriage of convenience. So too is the ability of Israel’s military to strike at the interests of Iran and its allies, no matter where.
The decline of American hegemony can also be seen in Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ in January. The US has always supported Israel; now it has clearly abandoned all pretence of mediating between the parties, in order to allw the Israeli right to end the matter.
Saudi Arabia, its regional partners and Iran have become aware of the unsustainability of brinkmanship and the irrationality of the latent conflict in the Arabian Gulf. Their geopolitical confrontation has shifted, with their rivalries now playing out in the eastern Mediterranean rim. Two new alliances are forming. On one side stand Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece, which are bound by common interests in exploiting offshore natural gas reserves. Their maritime presence and military collaborations are growing denser.
Libya a zone of lawlessness
Opposing this bloc are Qatar, Turkey and the Libyan government in Tripoli. In this nascent great game, Libya represents the last arena where violence can play out by proxy. It has become a zone of lawlessness, with drones and mercenaries occupying the battlefront and foreign forces openly supporting one camp or another. In many ways, Libya may be the main victim of the reconfiguration of geopolitical rivalries in North Africa and the Middle East. Those rivalries have effectively removed Libya from the Maghreb and made it part of the Levantine question.
In this reconfiguration, the Russian factor is unique. Russia, which is present in Syria and active in Libya, pursues a counter-revolutionary impulse, but this is does not come from a global strategy. Moscow sees some authoritarian regimes as partners that serve its interests in specific situations. Its toolkit includes low-cost yet highly effective military interventions that utilise small bases and often private contractors. Indeed, its own Wagner Group is succeeding where the American firm Blackwater failed, with operations extending from Syria to the Central African Republic. Moscow does not have a long-term vision for the regional order, intervening within existing conflicts in order to extract geostrategic benefits at very low cost. The Russian vision for the Middle East is therefore tactical rather than strategic.
Except for Sudan, all these arenas of contestation are at a stalemate. This raises the familiar question of whether the monarchies offer the best recipe for political stability, a point originally made during the Arab Spring, after the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and his counterpart Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The argument was that monarchies had deep cultural and social roots in their national societies, and therefore commanded greater legitimacy. As political institutions, they were also supple and flexible. Standing above the fray of formal politics, they could mediate conflicts and provide leadership during crises.
Jordan and Morocco are unlike the princely Gulf states, where political activity is limited — except Kuwait, which has an elected parliament. Both have parliamentary elections, and long fuelled the argument in favour of monarchies in the Arab world. They combined active royal power with a plurality of political parties, some of which claimed to be opposition parties, though without going so far as to challenge the monarchy. But over the last few years, their mode of governance has remained unchanged. And neither the Jordanian nor the Moroccan monarchy has exhibited the reactivity and flexibility that once helped them defuse crises, notably by coopting part of the political opposition. In Jordan, the ongoing presence of nearly a million Syrian refugees and existential fears surrounding the Palestinian impasse have limited the opposition’s ability to act. Morocco faces no such external threats.
Activists in Morocco have learned there is a glass ceiling to dissent — they must not openly call into question the monarchy itself. So long as the ceiling is respected, the monarchy can adapt to any given crisis and continue in its old conservative ways. To use an economic metaphor, a product that enjoys a monopoly can afford never to change. Once a competing product enters the market, then it must change to survive. Now, new protest movements in Morocco are going beyond their self-imposed limits by desacralising the monarchy. Anti-monarchical sentiments are already being expressed. Once the status quo becomes untenable, the question for the monarchy will be how to utilise what remains of its legitimacy and political resources to contain republican currents.
Hicham Alaoui is an associate researcher at the Weatherhead Center, Harvard University, and the author of Journal d’un prince banni: Demain, le Maroc, Grasset, Paris, 2014. All notes are by the editorial team.
(1) ‘Arabs are losing faith in religious parties and leaders’, Arab Barometer, 5 December 2019.
(2) See Alain Gresh, ‘Shadow of the army over Egypt’s revolution’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, August 2013.
(3) ‘Egypt: Security forces used excessive lethal force’, Human Rights Watch, New York, 19 August 2013.
(4) See Feurat Alani, ‘Mobilising for a new political system in Iraq’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, January 2020.
(5) See Ibrahim Warde, ‘Saudi Arabia’s future for sale’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, December 2017.
Translated by Wendy Kristianasen