A new Arab revival: not to be – for now

Standing in the squares of Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi, Sana’a or Manama in early 2011, one could be forgiven for believing that these joyful, family-oriented mass gatherings heralded a dramatic peaceful change in a region that badly needed it, but who had seen it. It was a time before the reigning autocrats turned their guns on the demonstrators; before Russia and the Arab counterrevolutionary forces rushed to maintain a senescent order that could no longer stand on its own feet, and the Western powers politely coughed looking away; and before Iran intervenes to exploit the political vacuum left by the collapse of the Arab state. It was a time before the promises of the welcome storm turned into fading dreams or, worse yet, living nightmares.

Ten years later, after the Arab Spring, where did the uprisings of 2011 leave the Arab world? For a century, this collection of post-Ottoman states, united mainly by language and some common cultural traditions, struggled with deep issues, a mixture of colonial legacies and internal contradictions. Suffice it to say here that they led to a continuing crisis of legitimacy that ruling elites could control as long as they provided security, jobs, infrastructure and services under an unwritten social contract. The uprisings have brought these tensions to the fore, forcing those in power to confront them. They represented a break: not in the nature of state systems, but in how the world viewed them and how the people of the region themselves debated them. Even though the opportunities for change seem slim, people have been awakened to their latent power, while autocratic regimes in the region remain in place, well past their sell-by date.

The old order was able to survive for so long in part because of its effective blend of coercion and cooptation, and in part because of what scholars call the “stability paradigm” – the calculation of Western countries, Russia and Europe. other powers of the status quo which their interests were better served by the stability of the Arab regime. For Western countries, before the 2011 revolutions, investing in stability was much better than encouraging anything beyond cosmetic political change. They have therefore ensured that their efforts to promote democracy, even supported by financial incentives, remain largely rhetorical and symbolic. The uprisings challenged this paradigm, undermining not only the stability of regimes, but also the idea that their stability was unshakable.

What has happened since 2011 is that Arab regimes have started to rebuild themselves, donning new armor to deter and, if necessary, ward off new popular challenges. At the same time, the Western powers have started to piece together the paradigm of stability that they believe has served them for so long. They saw what systemic collapse could produce – in the form of refugees and the rise of jihadist groups with transnational goals – and therefore acted to prevent regional upheavals from undermining their own societies by tacitly readjusting to governance. autocratic. For regimes themselves, stability is not a means to an end, but an end in itself – it is synonymous with self-perpetuation. The means to achieve this objective translate into an ever greater degree of repression, as attempts at co-optation through favoritism lose their effectiveness in the face of failing economies and, in some cases, dwindling resources.

Yet this apparent impasse creates an enigma. Faithfulness to stability as an end in itself can only precipitate the inevitable end of stability: to press the lid of a pressure cooker is to require accumulated forces to blow up the container, while lifting the container a little. cover and allow the container to vent, this is to invite all of its contents to inflate and overturn, making it impossible to replace the cover. Thus, for most autocratic regimes in the Arab world, the slightest movement of reform could jeopardize their own survival. Regardless of what happened in individual Arab countries – the uprisings of 2011 produced a series of results – the region has seen no fundamental changes except in people’s perceptions of what might be possible. Sight forces the future revolutionaries among them to make their own calculation: move forward or backward and wait for a better day? The answer revolves around the cost of the procedure: for themselves, their families, their property and livelihoods, and for social stability.

Lasting fundamental change will require two essential ingredients. The first is a determined population led by a diverse vanguard who can articulate both hope and a cohesive alternative vision, which includes a wide range of opinions and invites participation. The other, albeit to a lesser extent, is a set of tolerant outside powers willing to bet that the benefits of transforming the region will eventually outweigh the growing fallout from maintaining its status quo. For change to happen, the vision proposed by opposition leaders or protesters – and the resulting reallocation of resources – should prompt political and security elites to abandon the regimes they underpin. And that should convince outside powers not to express support for their allies when they are shown the door.

These ingredients are not present in the region today. The former inhabitants of the squares are in prison, scattered or curled up in their houses; many are demoralized, even though they are newly aware of their potential. It is only in Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria that we are seeing dispersed protests, which build on their 2019 outbreak – eight years after the events of 2011 – and are limited by lockdowns linked to the pandemic. . As for the outside world, it is focusing on more pressing concerns and seems to wish that the problems of the Arab world simply go away. In the meantime, it continues to support – albeit in some cases with more reluctance than others – the old and trustworthy, if not always appreciated, forces of apparent stability.

Ingredients for change are also not likely to emerge as long as the region is crisscrossed with fault lines that can disrupt, distort, and disable any grassroots movement that attempts to merge. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had that impact and, as popular anger over Israel’s normalization of relations with a handful of Arab states suggests, will continue to do so. Iran’s projection of power hardened the defenses of Arab regimes, pushed them to new alliances (including with Israel), and gave them the rhetorical fire with which to fight popular demands for change. The same goes for the dispute over the role of Islam in governance, settled for the moment in Iran but which rages in the Arab Gulf – mainly between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, whose deep pockets are among them. made it possible to transfer their rivalry to political and sometimes military battles in unstable countries. in the Horn of Africa and North Africa, such as Somalia and Libya.

If the dominant state rhetoric is to be believed, Mubarak’s regime in Egypt was defending itself, not against a popular challenge to the autocratic regime, but against Islamist radicalism in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supposed global conspiracy. . Meanwhile, the Bahraini monarchy has accused the protesters in Pearl Square of being Iranian agents determined to wrest the island – a part of the Saudi kingdom across the causeway – from the Sunni Arab fold. In Iraq and Lebanon, the protesters’ initial grievance – their exploitation by the kleptocratic ruling elites – has been overshadowed by the rivalry between Iran and an alliance of the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

For all these reasons, while we can see other examples of popular protest – the record since 2011 confirms this – a real Arab revival, in the broad sense of a fundamental transformation of the way the region is governed, remains a hope. distant.

“A New Arab Renewal: Not Being – For Now” – Op-Ed by Joost Hiltermann – International Crisis Group.

Op-Ed can be downloaded here

Comments are closed.