For over a decade, the Arab World has been in upheaval. Autocratic regimes in Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen have been overthrown. Elsewhere, governments in Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco were forced out of office by a combination of mass protests and elections. Separately, a variety of insurgent groups took control of much of Syria and Libya, and parts of Iraq and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, while the Islamic State movement established a functioning if grisly entity encompassing substantial regions of Iraq and Syria.
These developments are all the more remarkable when one considers that since the 1985 popular uprising that led to the ouster of Sudanese president Jaafar al-Nimeiry, who had himself seized power by means of a military coup in 1969, there had been no successful coups or revolutions in the Arab world. Of those deposed during the past decade, Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi had been in power since 1969; Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Saleh since 1978; Egypt’s Husni Mubarak since 1981; Tunisia’s Zain al-Abidin bin Ali since 1987, and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir since 1989. The sole exception, the 2003 ouster of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, was the product of foreign invasion rather than domestic rebellion.
When considering the past decade of Arab upheaval the first question we need to ask is therefore: how did such a seemingly stable system come undone so quickly? And related to this: is the upheaval we have witnessed indeed regional in nature, or a coincidence of otherwise unrelated national developments?
It’s in this respect useful to recall that in 2011 the Arab world was often compared to Eastern Europe during the late 1980s, when one communist regime after another collapsed or was overthrown. The comparison is certainly seductive, but also fundamentally wrong. The states of Eastern Europe had virtually identical forms of government, had adopted the same economic model, were closely integrated in COMECON and the Warsaw Pact, and were collectively led and controlled by the Soviet Union. Not for nothing were they known as the Eastern Bloc. Thus, once the USSR lost interest in sustaining them and itself began to disintegrate, their transformation was a foregone conclusion.
Unlike the states of the Eastern Bloc, those of the Arab world arguably form a cohesive cultural-linguistic region with a shared history, but that’s where the comparison ends. The economies of Egypt and Kuwait, the governments of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, the international relations of Libya and Saudi Arabia, are characterized by difference rather than similarity. Regional integration has barely extended beyond the rhetorical level, itself a reflection of existing differences.
It is nevertheless undeniable that demonstrators in Cairo felt inspired by those in Tunisia, and in turn, emboldened those from Morocco to Bahrain. From their perspective they were confronted by the same challenges, mobilized against the same adversary, and were motivated by the same aspirations.
The primary aspiration, we are often informed, has been democracy, in the form of free and fair elections and the right to replace rulers without bloodshed. Yet the focus on democracy and elections misses two more salient themes, one political and the other economic.
At the political level the struggle ran much deeper than the ballot box. It was not about the formal rites of citizenship, but more fundamentally about the substantive rights of the citizen. Whether living in monarchies or republics, under civilian or military rule, Arabs were citizens in only the formal sense of the term, and in a significant number of cases not even that. In practice, they were resident subjects, excluded from meaningful participation in public life. If they were consulted as part of the policy process it was solely for the sake of appearances, with precious little influence over who governs them or how.
Arguably more important were the economic factors. In the first decades after independence, state-led development throughout the region achieved significant progress in public health, literacy and education, land reform and employment, industrial and agricultural production, and poverty alleviation. This began to change with the introduction of economic liberalization measures during the 1970s and 1980s, and the pursuit of neo-liberal privatization and austerity policies during the 1990s and first decade of this century. Unemployment, poverty, and economic inequality increased, while social welfare decreased. This was admittedly also a period that saw unprecedented hydrocarbon revenues in those states that contained significant reserves, but consider also that Iraq squandered most of it on its war against Iran, while conservative monarchies preferred to invest their earnings outside the region rather than within its boundaries or their own borders.
In addition to domestic factors regional and foreign policies also played a role. The occupation of Palestine represents a searing indictment of the Arab regional order, and contrasts sharply with the manner in which most Arab states united first behind Iraq’s senseless war against Iran, and then behind the United States in its senseless destruction of Iraq.
There is in my view no particular reason these factors came to a head when and how they did. As so often with history, developments that with hindsight make perfect sense were not accurately predicted because they were not inevitable and could have happened earlier, later, differently, or not at all.
That said, it is particularly useful to go back to the initial period of the rebellions, as it contains important explanations as to how we arrived at the point we are at today.
A first observation is that the uprisings were for the most part genuine popular revolts but also for the most part leaderless. There was no identifiable leadership, party, or movement behind these mass protests whose imprisonment, elimination, or co-optation would have reduced the unrest to manageable levels. At one level this was essential to their success. But it also meant there was no coherent vision for regime change beyond the ouster of an autocratic ruler, no cohesive group dedicated to transforming or dismantling the institutions that for so long had sustained autocracy, and no leadership capable of monopolizing state power and implementing a program of transformational policies.
A second is that the rush to elections was a consequential error. In the absence of a revolutionary leadership that monopolizes power, stability and popular legitimacy is best acquired through power-sharing arrangements. In other words, the diverse groupings that aspire to power should first collectively plan the transition, agree on the nature of the new regime, begin the process of bringing it to fruition, achieve consensus on basic constitutional principles, and only then embark on the process of selecting new leaders.
Elections are by definition exercises to separate winners from losers, and are designed to distinguish those who hold office and power from those excluded from it. When is the last time an electoral victor in a functioning democracy invited a losing party to participate in government, unless made necessary by parliamentary mathematics? More generally, in a stable democracy elections are about choosing between competing policies and rival managers of the ship of state, not between forms of government or rival constitutional visions.
A second reason that conducting elections was premature is that they presented an open goal for the most organized opposition movements. In most cases this was the Muslim Brotherhood. The problem is not one of endorsing or rejecting the movement and its policies, but rather that conducting free and fair elections so hastily provided the illusion rather than reality of a level playing field. The absence of a decent interval in which rival ideologies and movements could coalesce into functioning parties capable of contesting national elections, and present themselves and their vision to the people in a free media in a free country, meant there was much less of a contest than meets the eye.
Tellingly, and recalling the socio-economic challenges faced by Arab societies, virtually none of the parties contesting elections put forward serious economic programs. Nor was economic recovery a core policy priority of those – Islamist or secular – who did achieve office via the ballot box. It’s one reason that the authoritative Arab Barometer, a regular survey of public opinion in 15 Arab states, in its most recent sampling found regular majorities who concluded that democratic governance produced weak economic performance. The figures for Tunisia and Iraq, which conducted the most frequent elections during the past decade, were 70 and 72 percent respectively. As noted prior to the resumption of autocracy in Tunisia by this author and Paul Aarts, the implications for a transition to democracy are clear:
[I]t appears that support for democracy is more dependent upon an improvement in socio-economic conditions than an expansion of political and civil rights. While Tunisia continues to conduct free and fair elections and has its secret police largely under control, living conditions have deteriorated sharply during the past decade. Income levels have decreased by a fifth, unemployment rates have grown exponentially, and many young Tunisians aspire to leave the country. Where economic anxiety is accompanied by personal insecurity on account of growing unrest and political instability, it is hardly surprising that people become nostalgic for the era before the country was consumed by upheaval.
A third observation pertinent to the stagnation of the Arab uprisings is the failure to establish civilian control over the security establishment. During the end of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first, a subtle but important shift took place in many Arab states: where previously the military had been the dominant institution, it was increasingly displaced by the intelligence services. Rather than being accountable to the population and leadership of their states, rulers and citizens were accountable to them.
It is in this context perhaps understandable that many demonstrators sought to make common cause with the army against autocracy, particularly in countries where conscription is still practiced. But ultimately, as the example of Egypt demonstrates most clearly, the failure to see the military and particularly its senior ranks as institutions central to the perpetuation of the ancien regime, and therefore ones that needed to be placed under popular civilian control as a matter of priority, endowed the military establishment with the ability to take custody of the political transition. In effect, the military instrumentalized popular uprisings to re-assert its supremacy and expand its role in government, politics, and the economy. The main victim of such efforts was not the intelligence services – an institution seen as a rival rather than enemy – but rather a general population that from the military’s perspective needed to be placed once again under control.
With the benefit of a decade of hindsight, it seems fair to conclude that the uprisings of 2010-2011 represent only the beginning of a lengthy process of upheaval. Their outcome thus remains uncertain. In the meantime, the snapshot assessments that have repeatedly been offered – the revolution of youth, the revolution of women, the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood, the era of the Islamic State, the restoration of autocracy, have been consistently overtaken by events, and will continue to be so. Youth and women, for example, are politically diverse demographic realities rather than political movements, and Islamist movements and autocrats are subject to the same laws of politics as any others. Politics and history develop in neither linear nor cyclical fashion, and those who believe that the Middle East exists in a state of exception to the rest of the planet say more about themselves than about the region they claim to understand.
What is clear is that the colossal economic challenges confronting the region, its rulers, and peoples will continue to dominate developments throughout it in the years to come, and play a vital role in determining its political order.
[This article was originally published in Spanish translation in Política Exterior.]