Is the Arab Spring Over?
It’s a tale of three transitions – none yet to democracy – and it’s hardly begun
The ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected government by a military coup – for that is what it was, even if the US government hesitates to say so officially – and the subsequent crackdown on Islamist political movements raises the spectre that the so-called Arab Spring has ended. On this logic, we will look back on the last two years as having been a brief interlude during which the prospect of democratic governance made a tentative appearance before the region reverted decisively to its old ways of repression and cronyism.
This logic may well prove true. Still, in the long view of things, it is simply too soon to declare one trend or another as being the way forward. Certainly, for instance, events in Egypt make clear that the path to a transformation of the region will not be a steady or smooth one. Of course, no one who follows the region seriously ever really expected it to be so. Indeed, no profound transformation of any region’s political order was ever accomplished clinically or cleanly, and there is no reason to have expected that the Arab Spring would be exceptional in this regard. For what is happening across the Arab world are three separate, but closely interrelated, transformations. Each transformation would, taken on its own, be a significant challenge to the Arab world’s stability. Taken together, these three transformations are shaking the Arab world to its core – with potential consequences for global stability.
The End of the Post-WW1 Regional Order
For almost a full century, the nation-state system of the Middle East was primarily a creation of the European powers acting in the wake of WW1. These powers, particularly France and the UK, made many different promises to many different people during WW1. However, the only promises that they substantially kept were the ones that they made to themselves and each other in the form of the Sykes-Picot agreement. That agreement essentially divided up much of the Middle East into spheres of influence for Paris and London – an arrangement that was eventually formalized in the form of mandates under the League of Nations. When the dust had settled at Versailles, Britain held the mandate over what would become Israel, Jordan and Iraq, and France over today’s Lebanon and Syria.
Within their respective areas of the Middle East, France and the UK quickly established various nations-in-being in order to further their own interests. To run these nations, Paris and London rewarded local families and groups who had supported them during the war. These nations have largely endured to this day, though some of the families who ruled them initially have not. Nevertheless, these nations were not founded on any deep understanding of the region’s tribal or ethnic realities. This was often the case in many other regions, where colonialism redrew maps in its own interests. Perhaps there was a degree of understanding of regional realities among certain experts of the Middle East, but no one in power in either London or Paris at the time really cared. Certainly, it is clear that some realized that any map of the region that made sense in terms of its ethnic and tribal realities would have to be quite different. The famous T.E. Lawrence, for example, drew a map that he believed would more accurately reflect reality on the ground.
But it was not to be. Out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, nations like Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and others were eventually to be seeded according to European needs and preferences, as well as those of their local allies. Many of these new nations came to be ruled by families or groups that saw repression of the others within their borders as the only way to keep their state together and, more importantly, to retain their own supremacy within that state. Some made Faustian pacts with various religious groups in order to substantiate and justify their rule. All of this militated against the creation of any kind of comprehensive state nationalism beyond tribe, sect and family – even though many of the states sought to portray and legitimize themselves internationally as broadly representing a wider set of ‘peoples.’
The Arab Spring has unleashed forces that now threaten to tear many of these nations apart. Certainly, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in the former mandate area are in this category; also Yemen and Libya (countries subject to similar historical pressures and processes); and possibly others besides. How could it be otherwise? If the various groups within these states that have been suppressed are to be given a free voice in determining their futures, it is reasonable to assume that many of them will use that voice to leave the states of which they never wanted to be a part – states that have repressed them for many years. And if these states try to stop them from doing so, there is a good chance that there will be bloodshed. That is what is happening in Syria now, and has been happening in Iraq.
Of course, not all of the nations that are in danger of coming apart will ultimately do so. Central authority may prove far more resilient than expected; the so-called ‘deep state,’ comprised of interwoven security service and economic elites, may in the end prevail. But we are in for a bloody period as some nations are tested. Other ruling elites in the region, who fear the possibility that a contagion of disintegration may take hold and eventually threaten their own states, have joined the fight, trying to prop up states in danger of collapse. And forces that thrive in situations of chaos, such as radical Islam, will prosper in the unsettled conditions that will mark the era.
It is all a highly combustible mix. One thing is likely: the map of the Middle East that we have known for the past 80 years is going to change. Old nations will disintegrate, and new ones will be born. None of it will be easy, or pretty.
The End of the Arab Political Order
Intimately tied to the chaos that will attend Transformation One, the Arab political order is also likely to undergo significant change. Based as it has been on strong families or groups, ruling weak states through intimidation, corruption and fear, and demanding fealty from their populations rather than winning their loyalty, the Arab political order has been weak – in both structural and legitimacy terms – for many years. Demands from ‘the people’ for a greater say in political life cannot but challenge the very existence of this order.
If one had to try to sum up the aspirations that most Arabs have invested in the Arab Spring in a single word, it would be ‘dignity.’ For too long, ordinary Arabs have believed that they have been oppressed by corrupt autocrats propped up by outside powers – autocrats who have sought to so control their lives that they could not live in said dignity; could not provide properly for themselves or their families; and could not make the kinds of ordinary choices about their future that most adults in the developed world take for granted. Not for nothing was all of this begun by a Tunisian street vendor who set himself alight in protest after being humiliated once too often by a corrupt petty official. If the Arab people are to achieve real dignity, then the governments that have stood in their way will have to change very substantially, or go.
But what is to replace them? That is not yet clear. The case of Egypt has shown that democracy requires democratic institutions – notably political parties that can channel large and somewhat diverse groups into organized constituencies that can compete for, and exercise, power. In the aftermath of the Mubarak government, the Muslim Brotherhood was the only organized group in the game. If other forces in Egyptian society are to compete for power – assuming democracy is given another chance – they must similarly organize themselves into broad political movements that are capable of campaigning for, and holding, power on a national scale. There seems little evidence of this yet. Egypt, the bellwether of the region, is pockmarked by many small groups competing with each other for the same ideological-organizational space, rather than cooperating to form coalitions that can compete for power and hold it.
In most Arab countries, these same intellectual divisions also exist, but are exacerbated by deep religious, tribal and ethnic divides, which have in turn been manipulated and magnified for many years by ruling elites to justify their authoritarian grip on power. Divide and rule has been the norm of government in this part of the world for decades. It is far more likely, at least in the near term, that these religious and ethnic forces will pull countries apart than that credible national political movements – that is, movements capable of integrating different groups into a composite national political order – will emerge. Once again, then, forces are conspiring to challenge the stability of many of the existing states of the region.
The Transformation of the Outside Role in the Region
Finally, what seems to be underway as part of the package of changes that we call the Arab Spring concerns the role of outside powers in the area. This role is far less certain today than it has been at any time in the previous century. Beginning with the British, then the US and, to a lesser extent, the USSR during the Cold War, outside powers have played a key role in the Middle East. Though they have not been able to shape the region entirely to their liking, these powers have propped up certain regimes, and have been the lodestars around which others have organized their resistance to the prevailing order.
That may now be changing. Many in the region perceive the power of the US to affect the region’s future as being on the wane. The willingness and/or the ability of the US to intervene decisively in the Middle East on behalf of friends or against foes is seen as being on the decline across the region. This is because of a combination of military/economic exhaustion, a growing interest in pivoting to the Asia-Pacific region and, increasingly, changing perspectives in the US itself brought about by new extraction technologies that promise to make the US self-sufficient in energy. The decline may or may not be true in any objective sense; what matters is that it is increasingly widely perceived to be true. Europe is seen as a paper tiger in all but economic terms – and even then scarcely capable of unified action. Others, such as China, may be on the rise, but it will be a long time, if ever, before China can decisively intervene in the region. (As Beijing’s involvement in Africa has shown, China is as fundamentally self-interested in its interventions as any other power has been throughout history).
As a result, for the first time in over a century, the region may be in a position where it will have to look primarily to itself to shape its future. Coming at a time when the integrity of some countries is in doubt, this adds up to a disquieting period in store. For many decades, the peoples of the region have avoided hard decisions and blamed outsiders for their lot, in a resigned way, as a means of avoiding responsibility for their futures. This may now be over.
Enemies of the current order are excited, though they do not appear to have anything with which to replace it in a way that will match the aspirations of the people: the Muslim Brothers, for example, are fundamentally about replacing one kind of autocracy with another. Those who have profited from the existing order are deeply worried that they are about to be abandoned. For example, the Saudi royal family interpreted the Obama administration’s decision to ‘abandon’ the Mubarak government in Egypt as a sign that America will no longer stand by its regional allies.
The Way Ahead
Of course, we must not succumb to a sense that the collapse of the entire region is inevitable or even likely. Even though it seems possible that some countries in the region (such as Syria, Iraq and Libya) will break apart – and that this will be messy and difficult – many other countries will muddle along. More democratic (or at least representative) systems may well emerge in some Arab countries (Tunisia, Jordan, and perhaps eventually Egypt), and could show the way to others. And there are some powerful institutions that have been built up in at least some Arab countries – not least the military – which will try to keep things together and reasonably coherent.
But a prolonged and messy period awaits the entire region. In such situations, those who thrive on chaos have an opportunity, and they will try to seize it. Those in Iran, for instance, who seek to destabilize the region for their own purposes, will likely be unable to resist the temptation. But, even here, the picture is not a clear one. One trend that is likely is an intensification of the sectarian and ethnic splits that characterize the region. While some Iranian leaders and factions have ambitions to influence and even dominate the region, and may have some allies throughout the region who share that goal, the events of the Arab Spring have tended to accentuate the divides that separate Shiites and Sunnis. This is resulting in further isolation for Tehran – something that may or may not be mitigated or reversed under new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The fighting in Syria, which has seen Iran come to the aid of a non-Sunni regime that is slaughtering the majority Sunni population, has caused many throughout the Arab world to dismiss Iran’s propaganda to the effect that the events of the past few years are part of an ‘Islamic Awakening’ – led by Tehran.
What we have learned from recent events in Egypt is that we should resist the impulse to imagine that an apparent transition to democracy has taken place in any country when one or two elections have been held. It will take much more than that. As has been the case in other regions of the world, certain fundamentals must exist for true democracy to flourish. These include such vital, but unsexy things as the rule of law, a relatively uncorrupt judiciary, property rights, minority rights, freedom of the press and so on. Such things must exist on more than paper, and must begin to endure. This is the real challenge faced by the Arab world – a region in which these things have only a slight purchase, if any purchase at all.
Outside powers can help in these transitions. Indigenous groups seeking to make them can be gently helped (though not too overtly, lest they be imprisoned for being ‘agents’ of foreign powers). But let us not overplay the role of such outside assistance. The region is going to have to go through most of this by itself, and suffer the dislocations and hardships of any great period of historical transition. Gradually, those few countries that do get it right will prosper, and the many that do not will fall further and further behind (or collapse altogether). That in itself may serve as the lesson that impels change more broadly.
The Arab Spring is hardly over. In fact, it has scarcely begun.
Peter Jones is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is also Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.