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Year Three

[Graffiti from Tahrir Square in 2011: [Graffiti from Tahrir Square in 2011: "Take to the streets." Image by Denis Bocquet via Flickr]

Two years after Muhammad Bouazzizi’s self-immolation sparked a wave of uprisings in the Arab world, the region remains in turmoil. In what has become a lengthy process of fundamental transformation, there is little indication of when, how or on what basis stability will again be achieved.

Given the transitional nature of developments to date, the temptation to proclaim winners and losers needs to be resisted. If 2012 put paid to the initial notion that youth movements were displacing sclerotic elites and would soon reign supreme, 2013 may well see the subsequent orthodoxy that the Muslim Brotherhood will rule the roost from Morocco to Yemen challenged by reality. 

While sound analyses about the causes of Arab uprisings can already be crafted, forecasts about the consequences and outcome of what remains a work in progress are largely an exercise in informed speculation. With this caveat in mind, the following themes appear to be the more salient to attempts to understand recent and future regional developments:

First, elections have not promoted pluralism and democracy, but rather served to undermine them. By rushing to the ballot box as the panacea for societies emerging from autocracy and dictatorship, ambitions for new hegemonies have been empowered rather than tempered. Such polls – particularly free and fair ones – do not provide an opportunity for the people to “speak”, or for voters to make informed choices about the future. Rather, they give disproportionate voice to those organizations with the best machines and most resources. The exercise effectively allows the latter to take control of the future well before contending forces of change, including those who played an equal or greater part in the initial uprising, have the opportunity to coalesce and develop into serious contenders.

Elections that determine the framework of new constitutions are even more dangerous. As we see in Egypt, they can be instrumentalized by a single faction to take possession of the constitutional process and marginalize the judiciary that serves as the constitution’s guardian. In practice, such votes serve as little more than fig leaves to legitimize forms of leadership that are the very antithesis of a definitive break with the past.

Elections have also served to set such polities on a path of gradual and limited reform rather than structural, revolutionary change. Ancien régimes have never been voted out of power. Like bad teeth, they need to be surgically extracted and removed. In Tunisia and Egypt, the “deep state” – whose fate was postponed until after the transition is completed -- has in fact successfully used and manipulated the electoral process to retain relevance and at times serve as an arbiter of transition.

Where an autocrat is cast out by a coalition of forces rather than a revolutionary movement or self-selected vanguard, a successful transition requires consensus among such forces on how to neutralize and defeat the pre-existing power structure. Agreement needs to be reached on the principles of regime change and how this will be implemented, and their collective participation in this endeavor is perhaps the best guarantee of pluralism and against new forms of dictatorship. Only after this objective has been achieved do discussions about the voting system and political competition in the form of elections begin to make sense. Voting does not in and of itself promote an infrastructure of democracy. That infrastructure must first be allowed to emerge and develop lest the ballot box serve as midwife for a new hegemony.

Second, Egypt is once again the region’s fulcrum and weathervane. If Tunisia was the spark, it was the Egyptian uprising that provided the explosion. The fate of its revolution, its Muslim Brotherhood, its military and much else will have a profound impact on counterparts across the region. The Muslim Brotherhood is perhaps the best example in this regard; just as its victories in Egypt empower other national chapters of the Islamist movement, so its defeats in Cairo embolden rivals and enemies from Marrakesh to Muscat. The same can hardly be said for its counterparts elsewhere.

Similarly, Egyptian policies towards external actors like the IMF, Israel and the United States will also have a regional impact. This was particularly evident during Israel’s November 2012 onslaught on the Gaza Strip. Cairo’s markedly different stance towards Israel and the Palestinians when compared to Mubarak’s active complicity in 2008-2009 was reflected in the changed stances of the Arab League and other Arab governments – including some of those who only a few years ago were virtually bragging about their purported neutrality in matters Israeli-Palestinian.

Sometimes described as the Arab world’s only genuine nation state, and with Cairo more often than not considered the region’s capital, Egypt has the capacity to set the tone even without trying to do so. Syria’s conflict may radiate to neighboring states, but no one even pretends to take their cue from Damascus. Tunisia is in this respect much less relevant.

Third, while the Muslim Brotherhood may yet emerge victorious in Egypt, the increasingly widespread opposition to it signals not so much disillusionment with Islamism as it does revulsion for any attempt to establish and practice unfettered power. These uprisings are first and foremost about establishing the rights and rites of citizenship as inalienable and indeed inviolable. Any attempt to once again make citizens servants rather than masters of the state will require massive force and subterfuge to succeed. This holds true even with respect to a movement that is perceived as having played an important part in the initial uprising’s success. It does not mean such efforts are doomed to fail, but rather that it will prove so divisive and costly that the legitimacy and longevity of such power are likely to be among its prominent victims.

Fourth, there appears to be a reason why some Arab states have largely peaceful transitions while others are mired in violence. The ferocity of dictatorship is here not the main factor, at least not directly so. Rather, it seems that those societies with a tradition of civil society – by which is meant political, labor and other associations independent of the state rather than foreign-funded NGOs – are in a better position to sustain mass protest. They tend to produce movements that grow rather than fragment, and strategies that adapt rather than transform. Part of the reason may be that their leaders have more experience in building organizations, forming coalitions and deploying them to contest state power. The experience of activists in more repressive societies is by contrast largely garnered in clandestine cells, prisons and exile. While these undoubtedly have benefits of their own, they also produce a very different political culture.

Thus the opposition in Yemen was able to weather the challenge of state violence much more effectively than in Syria or Libya. If the above explanation is correct, it is good news for countries like Morocco and Jordan, less so for others like Saudi Arabia.

Fifth, foreign intervention is an unmitigated disaster. Syrians who in their desperation to terminate a regime increasingly sustained by murder and mayhem as opposed to power and patronage perhaps understandably seek salvation from foreign powers. But they would do well to take a second, third and fourth look at Libya and Iraq. With the centenary of World War I approaching, it seems an appropriate time to counsel caution against states preaching the twenty-first equivalents of independence and self-determination—particularly when advocacy of human rights and democracy is effectively a capital offense within their own dominions, or they have lovingly mothered a litter of such client regimes.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire seems to be the closest to rescue foreign military intervention can offer. Negative and destructive influences are furthermore not the sole preserve of imperial powers from distant continents. Arguably, neighbors closer to home are even more invested in shaping the new political system and social relations in their own image.

Sixth, the drama of political struggles across the region masks the reality that the most important challenges facing any new leadership are socio-economic. It is quite conceivable that Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi will get his constitution and further consolidate power, but subsequently be undone by a failure to effectively tackle the basic needs of Egyptian society. It’s not just freedom, but bread and land too. True, revolution and economic crisis are natural bedfellows. But change also produces heightened expectations. If new regimes do not begin formulating and implementing credible plans to reduce poverty, create jobs, and provide essential services, a population that has paid an enormous price to oust one set of rulers may well take to the streets for an encore.

Furthermore, the resources for such programs are not going to be delivered by the World Bank, Washington or the EU. Or even Qatar. In this respect, governments that focus on restoring trust in the stock market and creating a conducive climate for foreign investment may succeed in creating a bubble here and a constituency there, but will sooner or later face a rude awakening if more essential challenges are left unaddressed. Egypt is a prime (though not the only) example that suggests these two agendas are as a rule contradictory rather than complementary. It is not worse off today than during the 1970s despite decades of generous American and European aid and favorable treatment by international institutions. Rather, Egypt today is worse off because of these relationships. In its quest to maintain external support (and by extension the backing of new elites such support produced), it implemented policies that transformed it into a banana republic with an impoverished populace. In a nutshell, Egypt’s rulers so alienated their own people that they were eventually overthrown.

Finally, the transition from dictatorship to pluralism is in the Arab world largely dependent on replacement of the national security state with civilian rule. The security establishment and its myriad agencies are not mere tools in the hands of autocrats that collapse upon their ouster, but formidable centers of power in their own right. These not only constrain the policy options of weak or sclerotic rulers, but outlast them, seeking to replicate their role and institutionalize their rule as an integral part of any transition. More importantly, they cannot be reformed away; they need to be confronted and defeated, and made subservient to the state and accountable to its institutions rather than being the ultimate arbiters of political life. The challenges in this respect are particularly acute where regime change is a largely peaceful process and the security establishment takes a position of neutrality rather than being implicated head-to-toe in the misdeeds of the ancien régime’s final days.

As the Arab uprisings enter their third year, the region will continue to witness profound change, and some of it may well be catastrophic. Such processes of change are never exclusively for the good, and struggles for power can be particularly nasty when regional rivalries, sectarian agitation, class antagonisms and a determination to hang onto power irrespective of the cost are thrown into the mix. Yet in the larger scheme of things, this process of change will go down in history as the best thing to have happened to the peoples of the Arab world since decolonization.

[An earlier version of this article originally appeared in
The National (UAE).]

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