Is the Arab world better off, five years after the Arab Spring?

Hicham Alaoui

It is worth asking this question because many people, including many Arabs, no longer think so. During 2011-12, the Arab Spring burst into the Middle East political scene like a shock of adrenaline to the immobile bodies of authoritarian regimes. The regional wave of revolutionary protest marked a collective and contingent moment of hope for democrats and activists, as protesters mobilized in support of reform, dignity, and change.

Today, it is easy to shrug off the Arab Spring as an anomalous interruption in a longer narrative of regional stagnation and stubborn dictatorship. Apart from the bright case of Tunisian democracy, the states that saw uprisings remain under rule by autocratic governments, or else have fractured into civil wars. Yemen and Libya have collapsed, with their national governments torn asunder by competing militia groups, provincial rebels, and foreign interventions. More than a decade after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq still suffers from internal factionalism, weak governance, and chronic insecurity.

Egypt has returned to military rule, with pluralism and opposition – including the Muslim Brotherhood – facing the most repressive atmosphere since a half-century ago. Syria has become one of the most desolate places on Earth, with half its population displaced and most cities damaged or destroyed. Much of the Syrian countryside has been reduced to a battleground between, on the one hand, the Asad regime and its foreign allies, and on the other, a hodge-podge of enemies descending from all over the world. Of these, ISIS stands apart in claiming to have established an archaic Caliphate in its lands.

Given all this evidence, it is little wonder so many people now ask whether Arabs are better off, five years after the Arab Spring. This is a legitimate question, and a difficult question. But above all, it is the wrong question.

It is wrong because it presumes that the Arab Spring was avoidable, and that the region had any other choice. The Arab Spring was unavoidable, however, due to the single underlying problem that plagues most countries in the region – stagnant authoritarian governments. The closed autocracies that have long governed the region have meager capacity to meet the needs of their people, and have destroyed the fabric of their societies. They suffocate pluralism, demand obedience, and see themselves above reproach.

Given this syndrome, it is both natural and inexorable that societies will not only revolt against such insult, but also demand new possibilities of participation and democracy.

So, if the original question demands an answer, then it must be yes.

In a material sense, the Arab world is worse off than before the Arab Spring simply by virtue of the violence, civil wars, and unrest that has occurred since then. Furthermore, it is going to get worse. These uprisings will continue to erupt until societies around the region gain a voice in their own governance. Like a body that must suffer a fever due to an infection, the Arab world will still need to face heated times in order to fully overcome its ailment.

We do not know where the future will lead necessarily, but we know this much: we cannot go back to the past, a time when governments ruled with impunity and expected unflinching obedience from their populations. The Arab Spring awoke something that can never be erased – the undying thirst for dignity and freedom, which will always express itself with or without violence.

With that in mind, let us examine three relevant factors in charting the trajectory of Arab politics: the origins of the Arab Spring, the retrenchment of authoritarianism, and finally what the next wave of revolts might look like.

The origins of the Arab Spring tell us much about the underlying political decay of authoritarianism that continues to afflict the region. The Arab Spring was characterized by a common feeling felt from Morocco to Bahrain. That collective emotion was a combination of frustration and rage against a failed model of governance, the autocratic state that is neither accountable nor effective.

This was a pan-Arab movement, but one that did not invoke the usual pan-Arab issues like support for Palestine or anti-Western sentiment. Indeed, the Arab Spring decoupled what had once been traditional pan-Arab issues from the domestic agenda of many political forces, who then turned inwards to problems of domestic governance rather than blame their problems on foreign conspiracies.

The political regimes targeted by the Arab Spring protest movements were an assorted cohort of nondemocratic governments. Some were extremely repressive, using the threat of violence to silence critics, control public spaces, and destroy opposition. Some were more manipulative and strategic, employing divide-and-conquer tactics to fragment civil society, pit social groups against one another, and utilize the façade of parliamentary elections .

Over the past decade, most governments confronted growing demands from below for greater participation and voice, thanks to a booming youth population that aspired to achieve things greater than their parents. In response, many Arab states hoped to appease their restive middle classes with the phantom of economic growth, and with it the promise of more jobs and prosperity. However, we know that even as “late developers,” the Arab states were no Asian tigers. The Middle East has not been able to reproduce the miracle of Korean industrialization, or Singaporean modernization, or Taiwanese development, and thereby create booming capitalist economies integrated into global markets.

One reason is that many states remained saddled with patrimonial politics and endemic corruption, problems that thrive under conditions of extremely closed authoritarianism. Patrimonialism and corruption has sabotaged privatization, discouraged entrepeneurship, and maintained inefficient public economic sectors. There have been pockets of growth in select economic sectors that have attracted investment, such as banking and finance, information technology in Jordan, and textile manufacturing in Egypt, but overall there has been no trickle-down effect.

Thus, while most Arab countries exhibited impressive growth during the 2000s, the creation of aggregate wealth did not reach much of the urban middle class. Another is that the rise of crony capitalism created a new class of wealthy businessmen and political elites, whereas most middle-class families saw their incomes and opportunities stagnate or even shrink. In this way, the myth of developmentalism has been shattered.

Joblessness is most acute among Arab youths, the precise demographic that mobilized during the Arab Spring. Youth unemployment stands at over 30%, the highest regional rate in the world. Simply preventing this figure from rising by 2020 would require creating 17 million new jobs in the Arab countries. Even in countries where opposition was legal, the electoral laws and institutional rules governing the policymaking process were carefully designed to keep executive power concentrated in the hands of presidents and kings. Constant promises of reform never created meaningful change, and citizens were told continually to be patient and trust in their leaders.

This underscores the fundamental motive that the Arab Spring protesters held in common, namely the desire for dignity. I am still grappling with this idea, which eludes analytical categories and scientific variables. On the one hand, to observe that Arabs are driven by a universal value like dignity is to recognize our inherent shared beliefs in freedom. But on the other hand, to ascribe rebellions to an amorphous and vague feeling that we cannot truly measure threatens to plunge us back into the very Orientalism that had decreed Arabs were exceptional in their mentality.

Still, in retrospect, the origins of the Arab Spring tell us that culturalist and Orientalist assumptions about Arabs being trapped in obedience to tyranny were wrong. Undeniably, the Arab Spring has ended, or at least paused now, and in its aftermath we see an undeniable phenomenon – that of retrenched authoritarianism.

The autocratic regimes that escaped the Arab Spring have retooled their strategies in response to these uprisings. The result is retrenched authoritarianism, which we can loosely define as not simply a return to the pre-Arab Spring status quo, but rather, the creation of more intransigent and potent means of controlling society.

The core strategy behind retrenched authoritarianism is crafting alliances with those sectors of Arab societies that grew fatigued from the social and political crises of the past years. Those segments include the secular middle classes that see Islamist movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, as a threat to their secular identities and personal freedoms. They also include lower-income workers who saw the social unrest and political chaos as detrimental to the economic normalcy needed in their sectors, such as tourism, retail, and construction. A final plank of this coalition consists of the business elites and crony capitalists who wish to restore some degree of legal order and political privilege, so that they can continue to monopolize key sectors and profit.

In sum, there are three different sectors of society hailing from different class structures, but whose interests have temporarily converged. The fatigue of these social forces constitutes the terrain upon which retrenched authoritarian regimes thrive. However, the retrenchment of authoritarianism also rests upon the lethargy and passivity of the revolutionary generation, whose demobilization has opened up space for regimes to temporarily restore their political order.

Beyond this strategy of building new social alliances, there are four operational tactics of retrenched authoritarianism which we witness in countries, whether they are republics or monarchies. The first is greater repression, which takes varied forms, but has a common purpose – to neutralize any autonomous organization, to monitor all public spaces, and to reduce the potential for future insurrections.

In Egypt, for instance, the violent suppression of all opposition including not only the Muslim Brotherhood but independent civil society movements and student groups has reached levels not seen since the Nasserist era. The disappearances and deaths of those in detention have reached the hundreds. In many countries as well, the judiciaries have tightened anti-terror laws, which has criminalized many forms of online speech, reduced the space available to criticize government policies.

Whereas Egypt embodies acute repression, on the other side of the spectrum, more banal forms of coercion can be found in Morocco. In Morocco, security forces went after the February 20 protest movement, punishing many of the original protesters with dubious charges. It restricted the activities of many civil society organizations, such as the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (Association marocaine des droits humains) and the Freedom Now NGO. It has likewise restricted the Islamist movement ‘Adl wal-Ihsan. Finally, it has also imposed pressure on individuals and groups with sustained smear campaigns.

Such strategies of control have always existed within the repertoire of soft authoritarianism, but from the 1990s until the Arab Spring the state preferred to utilize carrots rather than sticks. While the region is intently focused upon the threat of terrorism and ISIS, the state is dismantling what it sees as the infrastructure of social resistance.

The second tactic of retrenched authoritarianism is the exploitation of fear, which manifests as a dichotomous discourse presented to citizens of Arab states. From their official proclamations to the language of the state-run media, these regimes have broadcast a powerful but distorted populist message since the Arab Spring. The only alternative to autocratic political order is absolute chaos, as embodied by collapsing or failing states like Yemen, Syria, and Libya. In this way, the choice given to citizens is quite austere, for it is acceptance of stability enforced by repression or else a plunge into darkness as embodied by ISIS and breakdown.

The third tactic is the careful redeployment of religion along puritanical principles, partly to sideline Islamists and partly to reassure the pious and traditionalists that rulers have their interests in mind.

In Egypt, for instance, citizens who publicly ate and drank during Ramadan were arrested last June for not showing respect for the holy month and Islam. We are also aware that on a mass scale, Egyptian women protesters taken into custody have been subjected to virginity tests. These virginity tests have had the effect of humiliating and shaming them, while the security forces justify this practice on grounds of ensuring the moral probity of both the women and the state.

In Jordan, one of the largest new economic development projects in Amman, the Boulevard Arjaan, is one that pointedly does not sell alcohol. The government has also strongly supported the spread of Islamic banking, and implemented Islamic financial principles within state institutions such as the Postal Savings Fund.

In Morocco, last year the state preemptively banned the controversial film Much Loved, which explored the problem of prostitution from the perspective of four women. Such censorship was justified on grounds of upholding moral order. However, such an action also completely circumvented the legal standards of newly drafted regulations, which explicitly lay out guidelines for the rating and prohibition of media content.

These expressions of religious identity are selective, so as to not disaffect the secular middle classes, and do not intend to empower Islamists and other religious groups. Rather, this new mode of operation deprives Islamists of monopolizing religious discourse without strengthening the discourse itself.

A fourth tactic of retrenched authoritarianism is increased foreign interventions, which are justified in the name of fighting against radicalism and containing regional threats, such as Iran. Indeed, the use of sectarian identity and the Sunni-Shi‘a divide has been a major factor in shaping the foreign policies of Arab regimes since the Arab Spring. More than ever, Arab regimes frame Iran and its clients, namely Hezbollah and the Asad regime in Syria, as the primary threat facing the Arab world. Inversely, Iran is spreading the same sectarian discourse on the other side of the Sunni-Shi‘a divide, and framing most Arab regimes as an existential danger to Shi‘a Islam.

While initially motivated by a geopolitical logic, over time foreign interventions have evolved in such a way that allow the Arab autocracies to support one another while drawing attention away from domestic problems. In Yemen, many Arab countries are now immersed in an ongoing intervention that has resulted in numerous civilian casualties and limited military success. Libya and to a greater degree Syria have also experienced this new wave of interventionism. Both civil wars have been greatly amplified and escalated by the financial and military contributions of other Arab states.

In all of its expressions, however, retrenched authoritarianism makes the major but untenable gamble that youths can be permanently deactivated. In general, repression has become symbiotic with social mobilization: the more that a regime perceives society as willing to rebel, then the more repression it will deploy.

This, however, is a mistake.

As a researcher, I do not like to prognosticate about the future, but we can certainly identify viable trends based upon present circumstances. As hesitant as I am in predicting the timing or sequence of another Arab Spring, I am extremely certain in its inevitability given the resurgence of authoritarianism and the undeniable demand for voice in politics articulated by young citizens.

Historical perspective is necessary here. If you asked most people in the region during the fall of 2010 to imagine a Middle East in which the following happened:

  • An Egyptian revolution, a Muslim Brotherhood government, and then military coup resulting in an autocracy more repressive than the Mubarak regime;
     
  • A Syria torn apart by civil war, in which half the population has been displaced by fighting and Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah forces fighting on the side of the regime;
     
  • The emergence of a new jihadist militant group called ISIS that is so radical that it makes Al-Qaeda appear as a more reasonable alternative;
     
  • A Yemeni war involving a wide military coalition that has resulted in extensive damages to the country as well as civilian casualties;
     
  • A fractured Libya with two competing governments;
     
  • And finally, a Tunisia featuring a democratic regime in which both Islamists and secularists cooperate to hold free and fair elections;

Then, they would call you insane, and they would have laughted at the possibility that any one of these, much less all of them, could happen.

Yet that is where we are now in historical terms, where the boundaries of our imagination have been shattered by the actions of those on the ground. When the resurgence of authoritarianism meets the undeniable desire for dignity, another explosion will result.

The next revolutionary wave will be more intense and violent than the previous one. Citizens will be more ardent and revolutionary rather than moderate, because now they know the bloody extent to which dictatorships will go in order to preserve power. They understand the enormous stakes involved in this struggle. As they face revolutionaries fighting for political change, Arab regimes will have fewer excuses to hold off popular demands.

First, they cannot credibly make promises for future democratic reform, because that is precisely the empty bargain they have made already. In this sense, the Arab regimes cannot put the figurative genie back into the bottle.

Second, the impetus of rebellion lies not only in organizations and networks, but within the minds and perceptions of everyday people. These will be influenced by the powerful example of Tunisia. Tunisia demonstrates not only that democracy can take root in Arab contexts, but also that political forces split by major cleavages such as religion can still cooperate for the sake of peace and stability.

Third, youths and activists learn over time, and adopt more sophisticated strategies in response to state repression. The strategic occupation of public spaces, the use of social networking technologies, and mass outreach efforts will eventually outpace regime efforts to control them.

Above all, protest movements have learned the most critical lesson of all. The toppling of a regime is just the first step in the process of political transformation. Militants cannot rely upon others to act for them, but instead organize into new political forces, and translate their energies into entering politics.

The scenario I portray here is not a glamorous narrative, but I am not in the business of romanticizing revolution. When it emerges next, political change may be violent, problematic, and intense. However, I do not also portend the collapse of states and the destruction of the region at the hands of radical actors like ISIS.

Rather, the next phase is going to be a messy process of disorder that will spread from country to country, but be also deeply inflected by differences within the region. The Arab Gulf, the Mashreq, and the Maghreb will each experience more unrest but shaded through their own unique structural factors.

Most Gulf countries suffer from weak and fragmented civil societies, and a lack of established political party organizations. Moreover, these regimes will benefit when oil prices rise sooner or later. Thus, mobilizational patterns will likely be the weakest here.

By contrast, the Mashreq features highly polarized countries immersed in ethnic, sectarian, and religious conflict. Civil societies and social actors are far more organized and vocal in these countries, which implies a far greater level of mobilization and uprising. State boundaries will not fundamentally change, but the nature of political authority within them will. For instance, defeating ISIS inherently means giving voice to disenfranchised Sunni communities, which will necessarily shift the balance of power in Iraq.

Egypt will ultimately face another uprising after failing to resuscitate the myth of developmentalism. The broad economic reforms and structural overhauls of the Egyptian state necessary to generate millions of new jobs are impossible to undertake by an authoritarian regime that requires such centralized control over society.

I finish with the Maghreb, which is perhaps the most hopeful area of the Arab world in terms of prospects for genuine democratic pluralism. In Algeria, the major pillars propping up authoritarian rule are oil rents and the militaristic networks underlying the state apparatus. However, society remains active and mobilized, but also abides by an implicit pact of nonviolence between the population and the state, which is the legacy of the civil war. Any future democratization would require social forces to overcome an entrenched regime financed oil and protected by a deeply embedded military actor.

In Morocco, we have reached a reasonable consensus about the state of politics. Five years after promulgating constitutional reforms during the Arab Spring, the underlying structure of power has changed only minimally.

Despite the formation of a new parliamentary government led by an Islamist party, all major domestic and foreign policy decisions still go through the monarchy. The economic and political authority of the royal center still reigns supreme, despite the claims made by legions of well-paid lobbyists in Washington and complacent observers in the West.

In my book, I have stated and argued that the patrimonial nature of the monarchy itself is the true raison d’être of Moroccan authoritarianism, and is enshrined in the makhzen. The institutional architecture of politics, alongside the use of religion and other regime strategies, are all carefully attuned to maintain this state of affairs. Since then, I have refined my thinking, and added a new dimension which I will submit to you here.

The current direction of the Moroccan state is a marked departure from its past orientation. Until the mid-1990s, the monarchy perpetuated a cynical double discourse: It constantly strived to contain popular sovereignty by instrumentalizing the discourse of traditionalism within the Moroccan state. It was firmly lodged within this paradigm.

By contrast, the present regime reigns through a formula of political dualism in which that traditionalism is pursued as an end, equal to other ideas. It espouses the language of modernity and democracy, and has even sponsored progressive laws such as those lowering the voting age and improving gender equality. However, at the same time, the present regime’s very identity requires a hegemonic traditionalism that harkens back to the premodern era.

The culmination of this dualism manifest in the constitutional reforms of 2011, which h paradoxically announced the death of the makhzen by proclaiming the birth of a new ere. But the death certificate was never signed. This is an unsustainable dualism that allows each side to perpetuate itself unconstrained, and therefore gives the impression of a government running on autopilot. Like a notary who loyally administers the assets of an estate long after its owner’s passing, the Moroccan regime is running the machinery of a patrimonial state but not actually deciding anything that is fundamental to the system itself.

This dualism has empowered a very narrow set of political actors within the state, with the effect of making the monarchy prima inter pares with other centers of power, such as economic coalitions and security lobbies. Within such an ecology, the regime strives to maintain and develop its position vis-à-vis these other elite actors, but short of empowering citizens through popular sovereignty.

In addition, this dualism perversely shapes the strategies of opposition forces hoping to break through within the political system. It reduces opposition actors like the Islamist PJD to a strategy of “entrance-ism,” meaning they seek not only to promote the Islamization of society but also entertain the illusion that by entering political institutions, they can separate the monarchy from state.

Thus, while until the 1990s, political opposition mobilized around the goal of dislodging the makhzen, today new opposition forces congregate around the much broader and elusive aim of overturning this dualism itself. The difficulty precisely resides here, because the goal of overturning this dualism is extremely hard to discern, and requires pedagogy to efficiently mobilize more people. My sense is that this Hegelian contradiction will eventually collapse upon itself.

Thus for the monarchy, the fundamental problem has not changed. It remains highly vulnerable to social and political contestation from below, especially as trendy new opposition actors like the PJD lose their appeal, and their political attractiveness vanishes over time. The resolution to this dilemma is to shift out of this dualism altogether, and occupying the pole directly opposite to King Hassan – the perspective of popular sovereignty.

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Coca-Cola World Fund at Yale Lecture
Remarks prepared and delivered by Hicham Alaoui
April 12, 2016

Tuesday, April 12, 2016