North Africa, West Asia

The Arab Spring and the changing balance of global power

From an empirical-analytical point of view, what has happened in the Middle East and North Africa since Mohammed Bouazizi died? This is not an opinion piece, but an assessment of underlying factors which have put pressure on the aspiration for justice and political reform launched by the Arab Spring. (5,000 words) 

David Held Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
26 February 2014
Demotix/Maggie Osama. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Maggie Osama. All rights reserved."Our demands are unchanged: justice and freedom" and "A martyr's mother bellows: my children and I have no rights"

More than three years have passed since Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid and inadvertently lit the spark of regional upheaval. The resulting conflagration caught regimes by surprise and led to the rapid toppling of ‘Presidents-for-life’ in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and the grisly demise of Libya’s dictator of 42 years, Muammar Gaddafi.

However, three years on the contagious revolutionary fervour has faded as successor regimes across North Africa failed to deliver quick or lasting improvements in living standards, the quality of life and governance. Moreover, the brutal civil war in Syria, the radicalisation of militia groups in Libya, and discrediting of the Muslim Brotherhood as a governing alternative in Egypt have all strengthened the forces of status quo throughout the region. The removal of Mohammed Morsi from the Egyptian Presidency in July 2013 and consequent reinstatement of military-led rule encapsulated the stunning reversion to the status quo ante in the Arab world’s most populous nation.

In an essay published in openDemocracy on the day of Mubarak’s fall in February 2011, we drew connections between the unfolding protests and the cascading social movements that swept away authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989. We drew attention to political transformations triggered by the intersection of economic stagnation, the failures of corrupt and repressive regimes, and a disenchanted population linked together through dense communication networks. In addition, we emphasised how the outburst of revolutionary fervour was connected to slow yet significant processes and changes that had gathered momentum over many years. Nevertheless, we cautioned that 1989 was not an entirely clear point of reference, in part because ‘the pull of the west, so marked in 1989, is weaker and more complex,’ and we concluded that the path ahead for the brave, inspiring, movements was thus more uncertain.

In 1989, the movements of central and Eastern Europe by and large shared an ambition to topple their governments and replace them with Western European forms of democracy, the entrenchment of human rights and the benefits of consumer-led economic growth. As the direction of travel was in western interests, governments in Europe and North America  wholeheartedly welcomed them. By contrast, the signifier ‘democracy’ carried much more complex meaning in the Arab world in 2011. This was because the west had propped up most of the Arab autocrats, the US had led a war against terrorism largely in the Arab world and young Arabs across the Middle East had often protested against western imperialism, as it was understood. Against this background, democracy appeared all too readily as a veil masking the shifting tide of western geopolitical interests, propping up authoritarian leaders in the name of ‘stability,’ commercial and energy concerns, and support for Israel’s security.

In this new article, we address three overarching issues. We begin in the first section by arguing that the Arab Spring was from the beginning quite different from 1989. Whereas in Eastern Europe the ideological lines were relatively clear, this was never as true in the Arab Spring. Western media, moreover, misread the latter through the rose-tinted glasses of liberalism, democracy, and the new age of social media.  

The second section examines how shifts in geopolitical power and influence have blunted the reach of hegemons in a much more complicated and fragmented regional order. In place of the Cold War bipolarity is a growing diversity of national and transnational interests and voices, which make negotiated or imposed solutions much more difficult. This can be seen most clearly in Syria’s tragic civil conflict, where the long tentacles of regional actors can be felt in different ways, with ramifications in Iraq and elsewhere.

In the third section we note how the clustering of the Arab Spring into a number of different country trajectories now looks ever more uncertain in the wake of the Gulf counter-revolutionary influence and the fragmentation of opposition movements on the ground. The result is a regional geopolitical picture of deep division and antagonism in which the splits and movements of people are producing a most uncertain future. In this context, the rule of law looks profoundly fragile and the hope for widespread more responsive accountable government seems to have faded.

The following analysis represents an attempt to understand, from an empirical-analytical point of view, what has happened in the Middle East and North Africa since Mohammed Bouazizi died. We say this in order to emphasize that this is not an opinion piece seeking to advocate one normative position over another. It is, rather, an assessment of the underlying factors which have put pressure on the aspiration for justice and political reform launched by the Arab Spring. 

Post-colonial leadership and the democratic alternative?

The uprisings that swept across North Africa in the spring of 2011 were rooted in mass demands, among them political freedoms, social justice, and human dignity. These universal norms appeared to take precedence over narrower forms of identity politics in the narratives of protest that gripped the public imagination.

After the extraordinary scenes in Tahrir Square and the fall of Mubarak, the unrest swept across swathes of the Middle East and North Africa in a cascading wave that – for a few weeks at least in February-March 2011 – seemed to be unstoppable. From Morocco to Iraq, underlying socio-economic discontent converged with pent-up feelings of deep political frustration with the authoritarian status quo, to generate powerful calls for greater levels of freedom, social justice, and, above all, self-determination. The entire region quickly became engulfed in protests which shattered the hitherto ‘safe’ assumptions about the durability of authoritarian control and the sanctity of ‘red lines’ of permissible opposition.

Amid growing international recognition that the suffocating grip of autocratic leaders had failed the peoples of the Arab world, a space opened up for advocates of a new approach to regional engagement. Ten years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan had laid bare the failure of western-led attempts to reshape regional and international politics at the barrel of a gun. Moreover, with the wider events of 2011, encompassing mass protests against austerity in southern Europe and Israel as well as the birth of Occupy in North America, fundamental questions were being asked both about Washington’s economic direction (the Washington Consensus) and Washington’s security strategy. The economic and financial meltdown of 2008-9 with its long-lasting impact on global public finance, and the military quagmire of Iraq and Afghanistan, illuminated a shift in distribution of global power, politics, and policy-making. These crises simultaneously exacerbated the decline of US and European dominance in the global order, and hastened the appearance of a more multipolar world, which in the Middle East signalled a growing role for regional powers.

The popular revolts across the Arab world which initially enjoyed international support found that this support was by no means as clear and unambiguous as it had been for their predecessors in Central and Eastern Europe. Powerful geostrategic and commercial interests meant that western governments were loath to jettison entirely the authoritarian rulers that had for so long underpinned their interests and an uneasy equilibrium across the region. Unsure how to respond to the appearance of new political actors and popular forces, the United States and the European Union belatedly withdrew their support from some authoritarian rulers but not from others in an increasingly incoherent pattern that won few friends or admirers within the region. The clash between ‘values’ and ‘interests’ became clear just ten days after the fall of Mubarak as David Cameron visited Cairo to congratulate the revolutionaries of Tahrir before embarking on a trade mission to the Gulf States accompanied by eight British defence companies.

Western stock was already at a low ebb as a result of decades of support for the postcolonial dictators and the post 9/11 wars. This legacy left a profound stain on its reputation among many young Arabs, and left them with a distrustful and often angry view of the west. The deeply flawed imposition of regime change in Iraq in 2003 tainted the idea of democracy and put it on the side of military interveners and conquest. This echoed and distilled the memory of postcolonial intervention as self-interested and destructive of local societies and cultures. The abrupt cooling of western enthusiasm for democratic processes, after the Palestinian elections of January 2006 resulted in victory for Hamas, caused further damage to US and EU credibility. Subsequent international acquiescence in the partition of the Palestinian territories and Israel’s suffocating blockade of Gaza cemented the perception among many in the Middle East that western support for democracy was wholly conditional on outcomes favourable to western interests.

By the start of the Arab Spring, the US and European leaders were on the defensive, switching sides almost overnight in Egypt and Libya but turning a blind eye to the violent suppression of protests in Bahrain and other Gulf States. It is hard to underestimate the incoherence and moral bankruptcy of these policies as countries which had supported Mubarak and Gaddafi ditched them in an effort to stay on side with the protesters and retain influence on the fast changing circumstances; and did so while, at one and the same time, continuing to support the autocrats of the Gulf monarchies.

This resulted in a chaotic response by the international community to the upheavals, intervening in Libya but not in Syria and with the shadow of Iraq looming overhead throughout. The failure to acknowledge the scale of the political earthquake shaking the Arab world further eroded confidence in the ability of western actors to adapt to or even comprehend the evolving regional dynamics. Initial attempts to highlight the role of social media and online networking in facilitating the spread of revolutionary messages masked a more complex reality, and failed to explain why mass upheaval occurred in Yemen, a country with a tiny internet penetration, but not in countries such as the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, which boast some of the highest smart-phone usage rates in the world. Deeply ambivalent about the direction (or even the desirability) of change from the outset, the relationship between ‘the West’ and the Arab Spring was far more contentious than it had been for the peoples of Eastern Europe after 1989.

Geopolitical shifts and regional transformations

The declining appeal of the west is part of a broader transformation in the global order that is reconfiguring pathways of politics and development. Big geopolitical shifts, including the rise of Asia and the growing influence of the Gulf countries, are blunting the reach of traditional ‘great powers’ and making it harder to reach consensus on critical global challenges. Power and influence are increasingly diffuse, and distributed among a wider variety of often-competing state and non-state actors. This has contributed to a profound disjuncture between the intensely transnational nature of contemporary political and socio-economic problems and the breakdown in global cooperation necessary to address them. The results can be seen across a wide array of issues in the Middle East.

No longer can superpowers organise a comprehensive international conference as the United States and the USSR did in Madrid in 1991 to discuss the Middle East Peace Process. The achievements and impact of Madrid stand in contrast to the faltering attempts, a little over two decades on, by the US and Russia to convene the meeting of Syrian regime and opposition groups in Geneva and persuade all warring parties and regional actors of the utility of joining in and reaching a negotiated settlement. In part, this reflects the multidimensional character of the contemporary global system, in which power is more intangible and refracted through overlapping layers of national, regional, and international interactions. Thus, the Syrian conflict encompasses a state that has lost control over much of its territory and arguably over elements of the military chain of command, myriad local groups loosely aligned into a national opposition coalition, and jihadist cells linked to cross-border movements of men, weapons, and ideology, all in receipt of declared and undeclared support from various regional states, from Qatar to Turkey and Iran. 

Decisions affecting conditions in Syria are as likely to be taken in Teheran, Istanbul, Riyadh, or Doha as they are in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, or Hama. In addition to the longstanding support given by the Iranian state (and its paramilitary and regional offshoots, including Hezbollah) to the Assad regime, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have played key roles in channelling political and military assistance to rebel groups. Meanwhile, Kuwait has emerged as a fundraising hub for both the government and the opposition (and their respective sectarian backers). But while these connections have added a degree of strategic depth to the competing rebel movements that has enabled them to fight the regime (and each other) to a stalemate, they also have imparted great unpredictability to the course of events within Syria itself. For example, it is doubtful that Kuwaiti, Qatari, or Saudi backers exercise any real leverage over the fighters they support, or even whether they are fully aware of which groups on the ground are benefiting from their aid.

This multiplicity of voices makes any consensual political settlement on Syria – or any other Arab Spring or international issue – very difficult to achieve. Solutions can no longer be imposed on recalcitrant societies by a dominant external player, as the Bush administration tried (and failed) in Iraq. Instead, the range of participants capable of exerting an influence on events is exacerbating the fragmentation of the international response to states in crisis or societies in transition. Post-Mubarak Egypt offers a prime example of the tangled and frequently competing agendas at play. After Qatar bankrolled the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi to the tune of up to $7.5 billion in 2012-2013, the neighbouring Gulf States of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates stepped in to buttress the reinstated military-led government with pledges of more than $12 billion in direct cash transfers, petroleum products, and investment.

Gulf provision of aid and development financing (in all its guises) prevented the total collapse of the Egyptian economy amid three years of near-constant political turmoil and steep falls in vital economic sectors, such as tourism. However, seen from an international governance perspective, the aid is more problematic in terms of the policy choices that it enabled Egyptian officials to make or, just as importantly, to avoid. In addition to reducing pressure on the government to seek a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF (as Morsi had been doing), Gulf support allowed the Egyptian finance minister, Ahmed Galal, to avoid having to raise taxes or cut public spending by utilizing the incoming monies to meet the cost of its burgeoning budget deficit.

Just weeks after the announcement of the financial aid packages from the Gulf States, he stated in August 2013 that the best way for Egypt to avoid unpopular austerity measures was by “counting on friends who can provide us with some injection of funds from outside.”[1] In other words, it provided some temporary respite to financial pressures without incentivising the Egyptian government to come to terms with the underlying economic collapse and political trade-offs that urgently need to be addressed. It also risks turning Egypt into a new type of ‘rentier economy’ dependent upon external support to keep it afloat – a position that is neither sustainable nor practical in anything but the short-term.

Changing trajectories across the Middle East

Our second article on the Arab Spring, published in September 2011, identified four broad trends across the region. These were 1) countries where non-violent transitions had already taken place (Tunisia and Egypt), 2) others where persistent protests might lead to greater degrees of constitutional rule and political plurality (Jordan and Morocco), 3) states marked by sustained violence as regimes fought for survival (Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria), and 4) the resource-rich countries of the Gulf that were leading an authoritarian counter-charge against the Arab Spring (Saudi Arabia and the UAE). At that point, it still was possible to discern the diverse trajectories and potentially different outcomes of the uprisings. Some two years on, however, the distinctions between the first, second, and third categories have largely dissolved as the uprisings have stalled and initial gains been rolled back.  

While there are still notable differences in post-Arab Spring developments across the Middle East and North Africa, the distinctive trajectories of 2011 have largely converged around the reassertion of authoritarian control. The early and widespread calls for political reform and greater participation in governing systems have yet to really translate into democratization and greater pluralism.

Elections have been held in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia but the democratic transition in Egypt was bitterly contested and forcefully reversed in 2013, while the Libyan election produced a government that has been unable to generate political authority or exercise power beyond the gates of its ministerial compounds. Even Tunisia’s transition, which was rooted in a long history of constitutionalism and stronger social and political forces, and marked by greater diversity in the sharing of political power, has operated in fits and starts, with democratic gains punctuated by surging popular anger at the perceived majoritarian rule by the Ennahda party.

Significantly, however, the Ennahda leadership was ultimately more willing to make political compromises than counterparts in other transition states, leading to the enactment of a new constitution and the instalment of a caretaker government in January 2014. Of course, with continuing and regular outbursts of violence, the trajectory of Tunisia is far from clear, although there are stronger countervailing pressures capable of resisting the return of authoritarian rule.

In other country-examples, the return to authoritarianism is starker still. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis mobilised to oust Ali Abdullah Saleh from power only for his vice-president to be chosen as his successor in a Gulf-backed transition plan and then ‘elected’ president in a stage-managed vote in which he was the only candidate. Similarly, the vibrant spectacle of tens of thousands of Bahrainis demanding their political rights was extinguished by the arrival of forces from Saudi Arabia and the UAE that provided cover as the Bahraini security services systematically put an end to the protests. Even the more hopeful scenarios of negotiated change in Morocco and Jordan have not made them more open, or meaningfully altered the structure or balance of political or economic power.

A common casualty of the past three years has been the right to freedom of expression. The threshold of regimes’ tolerance of dissent has been lowered dramatically while the cost of holding or articulating opposing viewpoints has soared. Scores of activists, scholars and students, human rights practitioners, social media users, and people merely taking an interest in public affairs have been harassed, detained, imprisoned, or subjected to travel bans or the denial of entry throughout the region. Worse still has been the assassination of political opponents, with events in Egypt following the July 2013 toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood the most extreme instance of bloodletting by a re-empowered security state determined not to lose control for a second time.

More than six hundred people were shot dead by the police in a square in Cairo in August 2013 as they protested in support of ousted president Mohammed Morsi. This incident was one of a series of violent clashes that has tipped Egypt closer to civil war as Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi prepares to run for President himself.

Therefore, in place of the revolutionary fervour and the popular mobilisation of 2011, we see today the reassertion of authoritarian control underpinned in large part by formidable resources from the Gulf. While Qatar reaffirmed its role as the region’s maverick by throwing its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its offshoots elsewhere, and Oman maintained its own reputation as an outlier among the Gulf monarchies by opposing a closer Gulf union and mediating between the US and Iran, the other Gulf States cracked down on any possible dissent domestically before spreading their influence regionally. Moreover, after being caught by surprise when Ben Ali and Mubarak fell in quick succession, the Gulf regimes became far more proactive in developing foreign policies designed to assert control over the processes of change.

The impact of Gulf support was most evident in Yemen. A nationwide outpouring of hundreds of thousands of people who demanded the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh culminated in his stepping down in November 2011. This was the centrepiece of a carefully stage-managed transition put together by Yemen’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbours. Far from involving the leaders of the protest movements, including the fresh Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman, in an inclusive process, the GCC plan saw power pass to Saleh’s vice-president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi via a presidential ‘election’ in which Hadi was the sole candidate. Although a National Dialogue was set up in February 2013, it was marred by political wrangling and rising tensions among participants, grinding the process to a halt even as the economy continued to spiral downwards and fighting flared in many provinces of southern, central, and northern Yemen.

The fragmentation of the opposition groups that forced Saleh out of power in Yemen has been repeated across the board. The leaderless and often joyful crowds that mobilised in 2011 undoubtedly was a strength that enabled protestors to take regimes completely by surprise and render ineffectual the subsequent responses of security forces. Yet, their amorphous nature complicated the transition of protest movements into political coalitions with recognisable leaders. It made it harder to convert protests into consolidated institutional change.

Furthermore, it made the opposition groups more susceptible to regime attempts to fracture them in crude policies of divide-and-rule. Such strategies of survival largely involved the manipulation of sectarian, tribal, or regional identities and have been used to great effect in the Gulf States, whether to crush the uprising, as in Bahrain, or to prevent dissenters from gaining momentum, as in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait. Moreover, the long arm of Gulf support has exacerbated sectarian tensions from Syria and Egypt to Yemen with incalculable consequences for social cohesion and consensual political authority as a ‘zero-sum mentality’ has increasingly taken root and defined people as either ‘in’ or ‘out’ on the basis of their identity and background.

As the uprisings of 2011 have lost their inclusive character, they have become more narrowly identified with particular interests or groups. This portends a desperately gloomy outlook for the wider geopolitical picture in the region, which is one of deepening division and antagonism.

The Gulf forces in support of the status quo ante are holding, but the splits and movements of people in many other Middle Eastern countries are producing a most uncertain future. Syria is in the direst condition as the civil war continues to rage with no clear resolution or political settlement in sight. Its conflict has ramified across the region inflaming the Kurds and greatly increasing sectarian violence in Iraq.

Libya is at risk of being torn apart by militia groups competing for localized power if it is not there already. Political freedom in Tunisia was for a time under threat from political assassinations and mass protests against the majoritarian style of rule of the elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government.

Meanwhile in Egypt, however much many people may dislike the Muslim Brotherhood and criticize its flawed exercise in attempting to consolidate power and authority, they had a democratic mandate as a result of parliamentary and presidential election victories and two referenda on constitutional change. To rip away an elected government with military power after one year in office has consequences which are hard to check. Egypt is now more divided than ever as a society, the military are as entrenched as they ever were, and the economy is spiralling out of control.

Just as the uprising that ousted Mubarak from power galvanized demonstrators across the region, so the reinstatement of military rule in Egypt sends a clear message about the embedded power of counter-revolutionary forces to resist the pressures that swept the region in 2011.

Both the United States and the European Union have been behind the curve from the very beginning and frequently find themselves in an increasingly incoherent position which wins few friends or admirers within the region. Having intervened in Libya and not in Syria and, with the shadow of Iraq still looming large, confidence in their capacity to adapt to or even comprehend the rapidly-changing regional dynamics is surely at an all-time low in the Middle East. The ebbing of ‘western’ political and economic influence places great strain on the military and security dimensions of relationships that have for so long underpinned the structure and balance of regional power. Hard choices lie ahead in Washington, DC and other capitals about the prioritization of interests in a Middle East once again torn between seemingly-competing notions of the nation, democracy and stability.

Sovereign power and lawlessness

There is another casualty in the region, the rule of law, which we explored in a third essay written in 2011:  Wars of Decline.

Of course, the rule of law imposed by post-colonial leaders was always a rule that ultimately sought to underpin their power. But there is a profound sense in which parts of the Middle East today are either lawless, in deep turmoil or subject to the ruthless imposition of the Gulf’s counter-revolution. Wars of Decline sought to understand the way in which the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya had not only failed in geopolitical terms, but also profoundly destabilized the regions in which these wars were waged. These failures are to be understood as both part of the declining reach of western hegemony as well as contributing to an acceleration of that decline.  In a world where militias roam free (Libya, Mali), where opposition lines are fragmented and at war with each other (Syria), where democracy in its nascent stages has been sacrificed to authoritarian and military reassertion (Egypt and to some extent Yemen), where some countries are making tentative progress but suffering fallout from the rest of the region (Jordan) and where the autocratic reach of the Gulf Monarchies is extended - the absence of the rule of law, linked and bound to minimum human rights standards and values, is a profound concern.  

These trends are exacerbated by the haphazard and inconsistent recourse to law by the global and regional powers whose interests are often at logger heads in the Middle East. Resolution 1973 justified a no-fly-zone in Libya but not regime change. The UN has floundered in the face of Syrian violence, with Russia and China vetoing attempts to set down new resolutions guiding humanitarian action. While international coordination on Syrian chemical weapons is a significant advance, it has done nothing to stem the flow of small and medium sized arms all across the region, and the conflict rages unabated. Gulf countries have acted to silence opposition, often resorting to means which would be hard to justify on liberal or democratic grounds; means often provided by western liberal democracies (e.g. US arms provision to Bahrain). And, following the failures of the 9/11 wars, the US has resorted to actions tantamount to acting like an outlaw cowboy, firing missiles from drones into several countries and killing not only targeted individuals but also large numbers of civilians.

Against this background, the struggle for the rule of law and human rights across the Middle East looks profoundly difficult. Parallels might be drawn with the European year of revolutions in 1848 and the reassertion of authoritarian control following the political upheaval that surged so rapidly across the continent. And yet if one left the matter here it would be as if the Arab Spring had not happened.

The struggle for self-determination, transparent government and human rights remains evident across the Middle East, albeit in multiple forms and patterns. Hegel writes in the Philosophy of Right that, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” In other words, we cannot know whether these struggles will yield a democratic future at this point in time. We can only know when we look back in time.

But we do know that the struggle for democracy in and across Europe took centuries, as did the cultural shift which allowed the separation of identities based on local and/or religious affiliations from identities based on equal citizenship, with its distinctive rights and duties. In a wired age, parts of this formation process may well be cut short. But there is every reason to expect that conflict and struggle are the norm in the brokerage of a new political order.

Empire gave way to post-colonial controls and lifelong presidencies. The struggle for self-determination and human rights has begun in the Middle East and North Africa, but we cannot be sure how the struggle will unfold. All we can be sure about is the direction of desired travel, and the formidable state-based assets, regional and western, seeking to divert or crush these changes.

[1] ‘Egypt to Use Gulf Billions to Spur Economy,’ Reuters, 21 August 2013.


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