By Richard Falk
Attaching the label ‘Arab Spring’ to the remarkable events of 2011 already seems quaint, if not a complete misnomer.
Looking back five years later, rather than a pathway to a better future, what is unfolding is a darkening of an already quite dismal regional political canvas. Yet whether this darkening is the final outcome rather than a midway point in a process whose outcome cannot now be foreseen lies at the core of interpretative uncertainty.
This article attempts an overview of salient developments during this turbulent period, as well as an extremely selective mention of antecedent occurrences that deepen our understanding of what I continue to call the Arab Spring, partly for convenience, but also to acknowledge the excitement that was brought about by a series of dramatic popular uprisings against entrenched authoritarian regimes that occurred throughout the Middle East during the year of 2011.
One significant observation centers on the much weaker resonance of the Arab Spring experience and counterrevolutionary aftermath in relation to the various monarchies in the Arab world as compared to the states with secular governing processes. Explaining more adequately this apparent structural difference requires consideration of the situation prevailing in each monarchy, but the monarchies as a whole seemed to possess greater legitimacy than their secular neighbors. This was reinforced by some transnational connections among royal families, various ties with the Islamic religious establishment and as a result of their relative wealth that enabled the population to be pacified through state subsidies and other material benefits.
The Arab uprisings of 2011 were preceded by a variety of developments that set the stage for what happened additional to the obvious conditions pertaining throughout the region: a governing process that was corrupt and repressive producing deep discontent and sharp class divisions; massive poverty and joblessness accentuating growing gaps between the privileged wealthy elite and the rest of society. Of course, these overall regional conditions produced different political configurations depending on distinct national circumstances that prevailed in each country, including the character of political leadership and the quality of the governmental machinery.
There were four developments in the Middle East that gave religion a particular relevance to these political events.
First of all, the widespread sense that secular nationalism had not performed effectively during the period of independence, a view that was intensified by the disappointed post-colonial expectations of the population and the unfulfilled promises of the early post-independence leaders.
This disillusionment among the citizenry also extended to the failure of these recently independent states to uphold the sovereign integrity of the country in response to Western intrusive designs.
These perceptions in the Arab World were strengthened by a decade of success enjoyed by the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, which was perceived as partly a beneficial result of the Islamic orientation of the political leadership.
Secondly, the resilience of the Iranian Revolution that had assumed power in 1979, imposed theocratic rule on the Iranian people, and yet managed to withstand a variety of hostile pressures mounted from outside its borders.
Thirdly, the deployment of major resources by Saudi Arabia to spread Islamic militancy throughout the region, and beyond. Fourthly, the unlawful 2003 military intervention in Iraq and its subsequent occupation as a result of the joint efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom.
One feature of this occupation was to deepen the Sunni/Shi’a rivalry in ways that contributed to the rise of jihadism throughout the Middle East and to foster sectarian alignments that magnified the scale of violence in Syria and Yemen.
Further in the historical background, but exerting a significant influence in the shaping of events and helping to explain the varied national experiences of order and chaos that afflicted Middle East countries, were two other impositions by extra-regional forces of the West.
Above all, the diplomacy that ended World War I created conditions that generated internal conflict and regional instability in forms that persist a century later. Perhaps, the most notorious of the results of the aftermath of World War I was the implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which exhibited the colonial ambitions of the UK and France with respect to the allocation of the territorial spoils associated with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Such a development not only represented a European betrayal of promises made to Arab nationalist leaders during World War I, but it inflicted arbitrary borders and artificial political communities on the region. Under such conditions, only coercive and authoritarian rule could hope to achieve stability.
The ‘Democracy Promotion’ ideas implemented during the George W. Bush presidency as a legitimating goal of military intervention in Iraq was a spectacular and discrediting failure. Tragically, Iraq since 2003 has vacillated between severe domestic violent chaos and restored and abusive authoritarianism that reflected the Shi’a sectarian bias of the American governing process imposed upon the country to carry out its project of neoliberal state-building, a dynamic that is significantly responsible for the emergence of ISIS.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising the world Zionist movement British support for the establishment a Jewish homeland in Palestine, has also been a major contributor to the troubles of the region.
Emergence of the state of Israel reflected contradictory European motivations. It was at once a consequence of colonialist interference with the rights of self-determination enjoyed by the Palestinian people and much later a humanitarian/political response to the horrifying Jewish experience of the Holocaust.
Whatever its origins, the rise of Israel as a regional military power in defiance of Palestinian rights and the views of Arab majorities has injected a permanently destabilizing element that is both a cruel legacy of the colonial era and a periodic source of political tension and confrontation that has given rise to a series of wars in the region and a constant atmosphere of tension.
It is against this background that the Arab Spring erupted in 2011 as a shock to the widely shared perception that regardless of these deficiencies of the regional order, the established political order was ultra-stable for better or worse. It was believed that the Arab publics were disposed to be submissive and passive, making prospects of populist challenges to the political status quo out of the question.
Intelligence agencies and academic experts completely overlooked the political relevance of these antecedents to the Arab Spring, and thus failed to take note of forces at work that were below the surface, becoming dramatically active as agents of challenge, even if not in the end successful as agents of change.
The Arab Spring can be interpreted from various angles. It seems sensible to distinguish developments in Egypt and Tunisia from those in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. And further to distinguish between the secular states in the region that experienced sustained uprisings and strong countervailing forces from the monarchies that remained stable although despite signs of widespread discontent.
The Arab Uprisings: Tunisia and Egypt
As is now widely known, the series of uprisings in the Arab world started with a typical incident illustrative of the suffering of the poor, but rarely giving rise to political repercussions of national, and even regional and global proportions. The chain reaction of political escalating political developments that produced widespread turbulence in Tunisia started on 17 December 2010.
A small vegetable street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi in the interior Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzed set himself on fire after being humiliated and his plea rejected by a minor municipal official, dying a few days later amid a growing furor. Apparently, the underlying situation was so unstable that this single act of self-immolation provided the spark that produced a massive uprising challenging the dictatorial and repressive leadership of the country on the basis of a series of grievance associated with joblessness, massive poverty, corruption, food inflation, and the denial of elementary freedoms.
The protest activity continued for many days, concentrating its anger and demands on the person of Zine Abidine Ben Ali, a Tunisian strongman who had ruled the country since 1987. By 14 January Ben Ali abdicated to Saudi Arabia where he was given asylum, and a struggle for a new governing process ensued.
What was notable in Tunisia, and the pattern elsewhere, was the mismatch between wildly ambitious expectations of those on the streets for a new social, economic, and political order and the relatively limited demands for change set forth by the militants.
The only specific demand was for Ben Ali to give up his leadership role, and for a reformist constitutional process to be put in place. As elsewhere in the Middle East, the Islamic forces were best organized among the opposition groups, and quickly assumed control of the political process under the leadership of Mohamed Ghannouchi of the Ennahda Movement.
The process was not smooth, and two sets of forces created trouble for this effort to reform the Tunisian governing process. One was militant Islam that rejected the pluralist and inclusive approach favored by Ghannouchi and the other was the secularists who were opposed to the slightest taint of Islamic influence in the governing process.
There were political assassinations, turbulent elections, terrorist incidents, but also a willingness to allow a process of compromise take hold that ended up maintaining continuity with the past and ensuring moderation in the present. In this regard, for all its trials and tribulations, Tunisia not only initiated the Arab Spring but has alone among the states affected, achieved so far achieved a steady forward democratizing momentum.
Egypt, in many ways the most important of Arab states, followed a much different path than Tunisia after its own spectacular movement succeeding Hosni Mubarak who had ruled the country for three decades.
Its uprising centered in Tahrir Square, and was initially notable for its relative nonviolence and for the use of social media to mobilize support, succeeded in getting Mubarak to give up power, and accept internal exile in summer home. It appeared in early 2011 to be a great victory for democratic forces that inspired activists in many parts of the world, a major stimulant of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. and Britain.
The formidable Islamic presence in Egypt was centered in the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), whose leadership has long been kept in prison and was confined to largely underground political activities and the dispensing of social services in communities throughout the country. At first, the MB calmed secular concerns by pledging not to compete in many of Egypt’s political provinces during a series of legislative elections and also not to field a candidate of its own in the all-important presidential elections.
When it turned out that the MB won dominating support in the legislative elections, results augmented by electoral successes of new Salafi parties, it prompted both the MB and its rivals to reconsider the future of the country.
It was this show of strength that undoubtedly led the MB to withdraw their pledge, and compete everywhere in the country and to put forward a MB leader when it came time to elect a president. And there is no doubt that the prospect of Islamic control of the political destiny of the country caused worry and a shift in outlook on the part of many urban Egyptians who had originally supported the uprising.
These developments cast a cloud over the victories of Tahrir Square. Although there was an initial consensus that the MB should be allowed to compete politically as part of a move toward inclusive democracy, this mood among the secular elites of Egypt quickly dissipated.
The secular elites had originally supposed that MB strength would be no more than 30% in terms of legislative participation, and this could be accepted, but when it turned out to be double that level, a dire prospect confronted secularists: Either Egypt will become dominated by the secretive, hierarchical MB and sharia law or it must revert to an authoritarian form of governance.
The seeming unanimity of the Tahrir period disappeared, with the liberal supporters of the anti-Mubarak movement now either withdrawing or joining forces with falool, or remnant of the Mubarak Era. It became clear that the old regime had substantially survived the downfall of the leader, and that the Egyptian armed forces held the key to the future of the country.
It seemed that the Egyptian armed forces remained passive in the early stages of the uprising and its aftermath. In an important respect, the uprising achieved an outcome to the liking of the armed forces, namely, disqualifying Mubarak’s two sons from succeeding their father in the governance of the country.
There were even indications that the MB and the armed forces had made a deal exchanging political support for assurances that the privileges of the military with respect to budget and a large stake in the private sector would not be challenged. But then things started to go wrong.
The MB candidate, Mohamed Morsi, narrowly won the national elections, and secular forces in the government and society refused to accept this outcome, doing their best to create a crisis of legitimacy that would destabilize the elected government. At the same time, Morsi once sworn in as the Egyptian president displayed no skill or tact in managing the governing process, and quickly alienated and frightened minorities, especially the Copts, and handled the economy in a manner that gave few hopes of either equity or growth.
Tourism and commercial life declined sharply, and within a few months there were many whispers from former supporters of the uprising that things had been better under Mubarak. At least tourists came then, and small businesses flourished.
A second popular movement took hold, actually larger than the one that captured the world imagination in 2011, culminating in huge street demonstrations and a widely supported coup led by General Abdel Fattah el- Sisi, the current president.
The coup has been followed by a bloody repression of the MB, and more recently, anyone who criticized the regime faced torture and prison.
Unlike Tunisia, Egypt is now more authoritarian than under Mubarak, and although enjoying vast economic support from the Gulf countries and strong backing of the Egyptian armed forces, it has not found a way to revive the economy or to satisfy the grievances of the poor and unemployed.
We note then that Tunisia and Egypt as of 2016 have seemingly reached very different outcomes, but perhaps examined more closely, the present phase of governance is not that dissimilar.
To be sure, Tunisia has managed a transition to a democratic process, although it is beset by unresolved problems and faces serious threats of disruption. Yet as of now, it has navigated the turbulent waters, partly by not threatening the Ben Ali bureaucracy or class structure, and partly by working out some viable accommodation with Islamic forces and their flexible and realistic leadership.
Egypt, in contrast, has achieved comparable continuity with the past, but by jumps and starts, accompanied by harsh and bloody crackdowns. Neither country has found a way to overcome the fundamental economic difficulties arising from mass poverty, accompanying unemployment, corruption, nor are gross forms of inequality, and both vulnerable to spikes in food prices or renewed global economic recession, and possibly to renewed political agitation.
Richard Anderson Falk is an American professor emeritus of international law at Princeton Universit
- For perceptive overview see Mohammed Ayoob, Will the Middle East Implode?
- See Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans
- For assessment of World War I peace diplomacy on contemporary Middle East see Richard Falk, Power Shift: On the New Global Order, Chapter 9.
- See Daniel Byman, Al Qaeda, The Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement; also helpful, Phyllis Bennis, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.
- Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict; see also Victor Kattan, From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1891-1949.
- See Farhad Khosrokhavar, The New Arab Revolutions that Shook the World; also, Richard Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring
- See Khosrokhavar, Chapter 2.
- An insider account is Wael Ghonim, Revolution 2.0; see also Khosrokhavar, Chapter 3.