North Africa, West Asia

'Something wicked this way comes': the Arab transitions (part 1)

An excerpt from a NOREF report on the background to the current situation in the Middle East, focusing on the aftermath of the 'Arab Spring'. Part one: North Africa, Egypt and the Gulf.

George Joffé
9 September 2015

It is currently fashionable to decry the mass movements in the Arab world of four years as a failure through which autocracy has reproduced itself or chaos has penetrated the region.

The future of the Arab Spring in North Africa

Superficially, this is a position that is very difficult to deny; after all, only in Tunisia is there an unambivalent democratic transition actually in being, after a new constitution and parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014. Yet even here there has been a rise in instability and violence, with Salafi extremism in major cities and jihad violence along its borders with Algeria. In addition, the Nidaa Tounes-dominated victors in the parliamentary and presidential elections have decided to exclude Islamists from any role in formal power. Thus threatening to recreate similar divisions to those that exist in Egypt, unless Ennahda is prepared to demonstrate its forbearance in moving into opposition, despite being the second-largest party in the National Assembly.


Hamideddine Bouali/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The outlook for Tunisia is, although hopeful, still clouded and, quite apart from the political and security situation, its economic circumstances and continuing high levels of unemployment are considerable causes of concern. In social terms, too, Tunisian youth are increasingly disaffected from the political process, yet have nothing to offer as a generally acceptable alternative. Against this, however, is an increasingly vibrant artistic and media environment that is beginning to entrench a new political culture that, in turn, will help to guarantee the permanence of the country’s democratic transition.

The same seems to be true of the much more restricted political liberalisation in Morocco, where an Islamist movement, the Parti de Justice et du Développement, is the major component in a coalition government and provides the prime minister, but where the Royal Palace still stands outside the formal political system and effectively dominates it. Once again, the dire economic situation—a result both of the European economic crisis and the relative lack of success of economic development to create sufficient employment—coupled with the growing royal lack of interest in political evolution towards a more liberalised system could severely hamper the advances that have been made.

Algeria, having successfully stemmed popular anger over the economic drivers (food and oil prices in 2010) of the Arab Spring and having begun its own uncertain transition three decades ago with the Berber Spring in 1980, but still riven by its memories of the civil war in the 1990s, has seen little change. Instead it is trapped in a time warp recalling the political principles of an earlier era, with a severely physically and intellectually disabled president and the political stasis that attends prolonged succession processes.

The process is complicated by the opacity of the Algerian political system, dependent as it is on occult power elites in the army and security services. As a result, its “façade democracy” (the term is Algerian) exists in a kind of meta-stable suspension made possible only by its ample financial reserves, while the youth feel increasingly isolated and repelled by a system that can offer them no inclusion. The one arena, however, in which Algeria’s government has shown a degree of activism is over reining in its public expenditure in view of the collapse in oil prices at the end of 2014, for it fears that its reserves of around $190 billion will otherwise soon be exhausted.


Michel/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Libya, on the other hand, lurches from one crisis to the next as the Qaddafi regime’s failure to bequeath to it a viable bureaucratic infrastructure denies it security, let alone political stability. The lack of effective central institutions has led both to the fragmentation of the state and to the subordination of the political process to the vicissitudes of a plethora of militias and the interplay of political and religious extremism.

Around the country, with its two governments in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (the first recognised by the international community and the second bolstered by Islamist moderates and Qatari and Turkish support), a hinterland of growing chaos, insecurity and violence is spreading through the Sahara and Sahel. Western short-sightedness in tolerating regime change under the guise of its “responsibility to protect” the country’s civilian population and then abandoning it to its own devices once the Qaddafi regime had been overthrown bears a considerable responsibility, together with indigenous mutual political intolerance and the mobilisation of tribal identities, for the country’s plight. Despite UN attempts to mediate a reconciliation between the two sides, the outlook for a unified state looks grim and the spectres of civil war, a failed state or a federal solution seem very close.

Meanwhile the chaos in North Africa is driving massive and intensifying illegal migration into Europe, as much from North Africa itself as from Africa south of the Sahara (Joffé, 2015a).

Attitudes in the Gulf and Egypt

Attitudes in the Gulf have significantly hardened over the past four years. In the wake of Saudi Arabia’s decision, backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to support the Sunni minority government in Bahrain against the Shia protest movement there in early 2011, the Gulf has emerged as a strong opponent of the objectives of the Arab Spring. Although Oman has taken a neutral stand and Kuwait has been very restrained in its opposition to these events, Saudi Arabia, backed by the UAE and Bahrain, has taken a resolute stand against the events themselves, against the Assad regime in Syria and against Qatar, while remaining hostile to the Shia-dominated government in Iraq.

Two unifying themes have permeated this approach: the Gulf attempt to build a wider coalition of conservative states to resist popular demands for liberalisation and an open hostility towards Islamist movements previously generally considered moderate, but which now threaten to become involved in government, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood. Allied to this has been a concerted attempt through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to isolate Qatar because of its sympathies for moderate Islamist movements and force it into line with its neighbours in the Gulf.


Sayed Baqer Alkamel/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The one superficially aberrant feature of this policy has been the attitude adopted towards the Assad regime with which, before 2011, the Gulf states had been on reasonably good terms. This seems to have a consequence of Damascus’s brusque and arrogant response to Gulf attempts to mediate a solution to the crisis that erupted in March 2011 in Dera’a and elsewhere to which the Assad regime reacted with open repression.

The same has been true of Turkey’s newfound hostility towards the Assad regime, an attitude amplified by Ankara’s growing anxieties over Kurdish extremism in Syria creating “blowback” inside Turkey itself. The result has been the growing irrelevance of the Gulf states and Turkey to the future of Syria, despite their proximity to it, and a worsening estrangement between them and the west—principally Europe and the US—as western policy increasingly deviates from the ideal they have sought.

During the past year Saudi Arabia has made desultory moves on at least two occasions to persuade monarchies outside the Gulf—Morocco and Jordan—to join an expanded GCC, thereby forming an alliance of conservative states to resist the radical initiatives to restructure the Arab world in the wake of the upheavals of early 2011. Both monarchies quietly resisted the proffered Saudi embrace, while Oman made it clear that it wished to have nothing to do with such an initiative, so the idea was stillborn.

Another Saudi initiative to force Qatar into line with its Gulf neighbours was more successful, however, after a three-month diplomatic embargo, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrawing their ambassadors in March 2014, ostensibly because Qatar had interfered in their domestic affairs. Relations were only restored the following October after Qatar had agreed to rein in the Al Jazeera satellite channel and discourage moderate Islamist leaders from attacking its neighbours. In mid-November Qatar also restored diplomatic relations with Egypt, after Al Jazeera had closed down its Misr Mubashir programme, which Egypt considered to be hostile to the al-Sisi regime in Cairo. Although Kuwait and Oman stood aloof from these moves, it was clear that Doha felt unable to resist the pressure emanating from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

The pressure on Qatar had been presaged by a growing campaign orchestrated by Egypt and the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, throughout 2014 to demonise the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of its ejection from power in Egypt at the end of July 2013. Egyptian hostility was, no doubt, a consequence of the military-backed regime’s determination to eliminate all potential competitors for power by delegitimising and marginalising the Brotherhood while linking it with the Sinai-based extremist Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Cairo’s change in attitude also made it possible for the new military regime to isolate Hamas in the Gaza Strip by aligning it with both the Brotherhood and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis as being responsible for violence in Egypt in the wake of the coup, a change in attitude that certainly eased US and Israeli acceptance of the changes in Cairo.

In the Gulf, the UAE has long been antagonistic to the Brotherhood and, by extension, to Doha’s espousal of it. Saudi Arabia, however, had previously been a protector of the Brotherhood, harbouring Egyptian Islamist intellectuals in the 1960s. Its hostility today appears to be based on its determination to both resist political change in the Middle East and to challenge any competitor to the religiously based political system it has itself introduced or to its preferred Salafi/Wahhabi religious vision. The speed with which the Gulf endorsed the military coup in Egypt in 2013, with grants-in-aid of up to $12 billion and promises of a further $10 billion in 2015, was a notable consequence of the Saudi change of heart.


Ahmed Tarek/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Two consequences have flowed from this realignment. The first is that Egypt is now firmly lodged within a constellation of conservative Arab states in which it has lost agency as a regional power to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it is now an open secret that the Gulf states covertly exchange security information with Israel, for in the current regional climate they share a common interest over regional security which is so acute that formal arrangements are, perhaps, not necessary.

Israel and Egypt have also improved their collaboration over common security issues and it could be argued that the diplomatic engagement between the two engendered by their peace treaty in 1979, and then guaranteed by the US, has been revived, albeit with a weaker guarantor in the form of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners, against which either state can apply pressure. This is a situation that is likely to persist, given Egypt’s financial weakness and the hard line it has taken against political Islam—President al-Sisi was recently calling for a reformation within Islam, by which he seems to have meant the subordination of religion to the state and its domestication primarily within the private sphere. Yet his regime increasingly represents the return of the feloul, i.e. of the autocracy that the Tahrir revolution was intended to eliminate, and, as such, is further entrenching the political divide throughout Egyptian society, which now means that large parts of the country—from Sinai to the Sa'id (Upper Egypt)—are suffering from a worsening security crisis to which the army reacts with brute force.

The second is that Gulf attention to the sectarian divide, that was so typical of attitudes there in 2012 and 2013, seems to have been replaced by a determination to eliminate religious competition to Salafi Wahhabism in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although Iran is still seen as a geopolitical threat and an hegemonic challenge in the Gulf, the urgency that previously acute concerns about the Sunni-Shia divide seems to have abated. Indeed, a third recent development in the region appears to offer indirect confirmation that this has occurred.

This has been the spectacular decline in global oil prices in the second half of 2014 to below $40 per barrel—60 percent of the figure in the previous June. Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it is primarily interested in market share rather than maintaining global oil prices and, given its foreign exchange reserves of around $749 billion in November 2014. This is a choice that it can afford to make.

The question is why it has chosen this approach: it clearly adversely affects Iran and Russia, two states with which it has serious disagreements; the first over geopolitics and Syria and the second over its policy towards the Assad regime. Neither, however, appears to have been its real target; instead it is the US and the issue of unconventional oil resources that appears to have stimulated Saudi ire, for the US’s rapid transformation into the world’s largest oil producer and a potential net exporter threatens the market hegemony of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Unconventional oil becomes unviable at prices below $58 per barrel, while Saudi production costs are far below this level—hence Saudi Arabia’s concern to maintain market share, even if returns are reduced, will still be positive whereas, for the US, the reverse will be true.

And, as far as Iran is concerned, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a tacit supporter of President Rohani of Iran and still an immensely influential figure, has suggested that the time has come for a replay of the Saudi-Iranian agreement of 1998 over OPEC that saw Crown Prince Abdallah—as he was then—visit Tehran. Now Tehran proposes a return visit with the same objective—surely an indication that Gulf anxieties about the arc of Shia extremism have subsided, at least to some degree.

In Jordan, too, the relatively liberal political system that emerged from the Arab Spring is vitiated by a continuing economic crisis and royal lack of interest in further political liberalisation. Both factors being compounded by the country’s serious external challenges, trapped as it is between Gulf intransigence and the appalling violence in Syria and Iraq. It, like Lebanon, is bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis with remarkably little help from the international community.

In Lebanon, the Syrian crisis has sharpened the sectarian divides throughout the country and, through Hizbullah’s engagement in the civil war in Syria as a supporter of the Assad regime, is slowly threatening to reintegrate Lebanon into the political sphere of “Greater Syria”. There are growing fears that these developments will be internalised in a recrudescence of some variant of the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s or that conflict with Israel will explode once again, threatening domestic stability alongside the refugee crisis it now experiences. 

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