North Africa, West Asia

Not the end of the "Arab Spring", is it?

Much has happened in the Middle East in the last four years, but in Europe, the development of the state and of democracy took four centuries and many wars.

Mariano Aguirre
11 June 2014
Survivor pulled from rubble in Aleppo

Survivor pulled from rubble following a bombing raid by Syrian forces on Aleppo. Demotix/Karam Almasri. All rights reservedThree and a half years ago tens of thousands of people occupied the symbolic Tahrir Square, in Cairo, demanding bread, freedom and social justice and an end to the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Now, the hitherto head of the armed forces, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, has just been sworn in as Egypt’s President.  A significant part of Egyptian society voted for him in restrictive elections seeking an uncertain stability.  Meanwhile, various analysts and governments believe that Bashar al-Assad has won the war in Syria, although limited armed resistance persists.  So we must ask, given the geopolitical importance of Egypt and Syria in the region, are we facing the end of the so-called, "Arab Spring"?

High expectations in politics often lead to great disappointments. The uprisings that since December 2010 broke out in several Arab countries, have generated great hopes in a region that seemed doomed to live under authoritarian governments. Yesterday´s expectation and today´s disappointment hide the complexity of political processes that go beyond the pattern of rise and fall in a short period of time. The Arab uprising or awakening, not “Spring”, has a history, a dynamics, in all its national and international actors and components, that prevent us from making definitive judgments despite the current negative indicators.

Military officials take charge

The riots that started in Tunisia and Egypt and spread to Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and to a lesser extent to other countries, had their origin in the poverty and inequality created by the post-colonial political model, the exclusion of the majority in government decisions, repression, lack of information, the marginalization of women, widespread corruption and the growing perception that ‘the State’ did not serve the interests of the majority but those of the elites who know how to play the game for their benefit and their privileges. The implementation in the last decades of neo-liberal policies has only deepened these tendencies.

The manipulation of ethnic, tribal or religious identities grew into a revolt against marginalization and injustice. At the same time, access to information on freedom, goods and customs in other countries hit some youth sectors especially hard in the early stages, who led the demonstrations using social networks to do so.

The revolt has altered two structural parameters related to the region’s insertion into the process of globalization, as described by the late Fred Halliday, internal political control over and international relations with the local states in the region. Internally, governments have lost their legitimacy, and international relations have been also affected by the crisis of legitimacy of the United States, the lack of any policy in the European Union and the rise of the emerging powers.

Everyone was taken by surprise by the uprisings. The responses of governments were varied but marked by constant learning and adaptation. The dictators of Tunisia and Egypt did not calculate that its armed forces would leave them to fall. The mighty Egyptian army chose to let Hosni Mubarak be toppled and be applauded as a reformer. This ensured that it has remained the arbiter of conflict between liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood, allowing the latter to come to power without any reaction and ending up as a result recovering the power they have never really lost in terms of the acclaim of a major part of Egyptian society.

In Tunisia, however, the balance of power between a less powerful army, more advanced liberal civil society, the unions and more openminded Muslim Brothers has allowed negotiators to curb more radical religious groups and resulted in the most stable and successful of the Arab Awakening cases. Still, many problems persist, particularly with regard to how to respond economically to the awakened social expectations. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for their part, rapidly intervened to crush the uprising in Bahrain.

In Yemen the necessary negotiations and compromises were made to marginalize critical social sectors, to reach an agreement between tribes and not to change anything of substance. In the Libyan case, a strong international component came into play. The Arab uprisings generated very timid and limited responses from Europe and the United States. But Libya offered Washington and Brussels the respite to use force while appearing committed to the clamour for change.

The family regime of Muammar Gaddafi believed that he could control the revolt with its various militias. That brutality and lack of political vision had an equivalent response in a militarized and dispersed opposition. Their lack of unity, strategy and policy formation could never have dispatched Gaddafi if NATO, driven by French and British ambitions to gain more status in the Atlantic Alliance by leveraging an easy target, had not intervened. The current fragmentation of Libya, with hundreds of militias, an almost nonexistent state and society immersed in uncertainty is the result of an irresponsible regime change affected by force and without a follow-up plan.

Syria, international battlefield

Most of the Syrian opposition inside and outside the country waited unsuccessfully for more than two years for NATO to repeat for them the work that it carried out in Libya. But it is not at all the same thing to use air power to overthrow a ruler isolated internationally, without a loyal army, and in a desert environment as it is to remove a dictator with strong support from the population, professional armed forces, together with military, economic and diplomatic support from Russia and Iran. While the Syrian opposition have shown their inability to present a common front, the country has become a battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia (with limited support from Qatar, some European countries and the United States).

An important factor in this is the international shift in geopolitical influence from the great powers to the regional powers. Both the US and Europe have no coherent policy towards the region, and their influence is less noticeable than in the past. At the same time, such regional powers as Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have a strong say. While Russian and US diplomacy are locked in confrontation over Syria, the greatest influence on the situation are the active roles played by Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a backdrop to the confrontation stands the clash between the Sunni and Shiite religious-political affiliations.

Meanwhile, Turkey has shown its belligerence towards Bashar Assad, while other emerging powers such as Brazil and South Africa have aligned themselves with Moscow to express their strong disagreement with the way in which NATO’s use of force in Libya, given its mission to protect civilians, turned into one of regime change.

The military capability of Bashar Assad supported by Hezbollah, the growing presence of jihadist  and al-Qaeda groups that have inhibited further military support from the west, and the end of the dialogue between Moscow and Washington due to the crisis in Ukraine have all combined to give the regime a victory in practice,  although some armed outbreaks continue.

Regionally, millions of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries alongside all the internally displaced persons will have an as yet unpredictable impact. In Lebanon, the impact of war on Syria has weakened that country's situation.  On the other hand, radical Sunni militias are active on the border between Syria and Iraq, blurring these state boundaries. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is taking over cities in Iraq and threatening the Shia-led government.  The border configuration as it was born out of colonialism is actually being affected.

The Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, and to some extent Jordan and Algeria, have all pumped money into their societies and directly to the internal allies of the regimes, introducing some reforms as a way to confront or prevent the riots. They have won in the short term, but in each of these cases there are enough complex problems that will demand changes. Sectors of their societies will return to the streets at different times.

Meanwhile, the Gulf monarchies are massively channeling funds to the Egyptians to try to improve the economic situation and consolidate the military establishment as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudi double regional strategy is to control revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, the other Gulf countries and Libya while overthrowing the regime in Syria.

Long-term processes

In this situation, despite the negative outlook from the perspective of progress towards democracy, there are several good reasons to argue that any announcement that this is the end of that process that began in December 2010 would be premature. First, all of the factors that led to social unrest are still present: poverty, inequality, corruption, social exclusion. Neither local governments nor foreign powers have changed their economic models and approaches. The military governments of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Bashar al-Assad do not possess plans that can provide any alternative for the millions of young people with no hope of work or any role in their societies. Nor is there any reform in sight in Saudi Arabia (comparable, for example, with that which is being experienced in Iran).

Secondly, the elections in Egypt were a failure for the military establishment. The vast abstention shows that repression can imprison or kill the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, but does not ensure that those who supported them have been convinced to change their loyalties. Maybe the liberals in that country are also wondering if they might also be the victims of military repression, now or some time in the future. On the other hand, the millions of people who now support Sisi because of the chaos of the last three years want results, especially economic consolidation and stability in their daily lives, something the government can hardly achieve. To see an end to the Arab revolt in either the Egyptian elections or the military successes of the Syrian regime is to lose sight of a fundamental process of social change that will be the work of decades.

Thirdly, the so-called Arab spring includes at least six countries, but has impacted on the entire strip running from Iraq to Morocco. The region has coveted energy resources that are a major factor in trading and competition, and is also the home of one of the three major world religions. The processes of political change and the building of representative systems, not necessarily on the European model of democracy, in countries that until a few decades ago were European colonies, cannot happen in four years, though many things have happened in this short period. This was certainly not the case in Europe, where the development of the state and of democracy took four centuries and many wars.

Years of struggles and negotiations between liberals and conservatives, religious, military and civilian groups, militias and armed forces to find the common spaces of deliberation, constitutional and parliamentary may well be required. In the introduction to his new book, Fawaz A. Gerges notes that "(I) nstead of proclaiming the end of the so-called Arab Spring, analysts should focus on understanding the sources of vulnerabilities facing the transition in separate Arab societies and the drivers behind the political ideological struggles among dominant groups ". Declaring the Arab awakening over and done with is premature both for the Arab world and for the history books.

An earlier, short version of this article was published on BBC Mundo

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