Eugene Rogan | Director of the Middle East Center at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, author of The Arabs: A History (Penguin 2009) and The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920 (Penguin 2015)
In 2011, Arab states split into three categories. There were the republics whose people rose up demanding regime change and gave us the Arab Spring. There were the monarchies who, with the brief exception of Bahrain, resisted the call of popular revolt. And there were those states with a recent history of civil war that hesitated. In 2019, they hesitate no more. Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq know the price that comes with civil disorder. But even they reached breaking point with corrupt regimes and inequality dividing an ever growing body of have-nots from an ever smaller elite that has it all.
Suddenly it no longer looks like the Arab Spring ended or failed. It looks as though what started in 2011 is continuing, with setbacks and interruptions but continuing nonetheless. Without ever mentioning democracy, the Arab peoples are demanding government accountable to the people, they are demanding social justice, and they are rejecting autocracy and kleptocracy. They have been remarkably consistent over the past decade, and remarkably courageous in the pursuit of their legitimate demands. One hopes they have learned the lessons of 2011 and won’t repeat the mistakes that delivered the hard-earned gains of popular revolution to the forces of counterrevolution. And one wonders how much longer the monarchies can resist the popular will for good governance. By all evidence, the Arab world is undergoing a tectonic change, and the coming decade promises further challenges to the established order.
Amr Hamzawy | Senior research scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University
The meager results of the 2011 democratic uprisings in the Arab world gradually silenced popular calls for democratic change and accountable government. By 2013 Arab majorities, either collectively demobilized from protesting or disenchanted in the face of civil wars and repression, seemed once again willing to accept their governments’ autocratic bargain: food and security in return for submission to unaccountable rulers.
To ensure that the 2011 spring is not revived, Arab governments, with the exception of Tunisia, have passed draconian laws limiting citizens’ freedoms. They have extended the reach of the security services to keep opposition groups and pro-democracy activists in check. Furthermore, Arab governments have allocated more and more of the scarce resources in their states to regime loyalists in the upper echelons of corrupt state bureaucracies and to crony business communities. They have used vast media arsenals to create personality cults around the rulers—presidents, kings, or crown princes—who have been portrayed as their nations’ sole saviors.
Yet, toward the end of 2018 and throughout the last months of 2019, Arab governments unexpectedly started to face popular challenges to their hopes for a Pax Autokratia. In countries not part of the 2011 uprisings, citizens took to the streets demanding political change. In Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon, popular protests were fueled by economic hardship and negative perceptions of their governments’ commitment to improving standards of living and ending corruption. Whereas demands for political change in Sudan and Algeria focused on ending the reign of military controlled autocratic governments that presided over deteriorating economies, staggering corruption, and poor public services, as well as human rights abuses, demands for change in Iraq and Lebanon aimed at transcending sectarian politics. In all four countries, autocratic and sectarian governments will not give up easily. The interplay between them and protesting citizens will continue to shape Arab realities in the next decade.
Intissar Fakir | Fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program, editor of Sada
Since 2011, the range of transformations that have taken place in the Middle East and North Africa has left very little settled. Notions of governance, popular participation, pluralism—in essence the relationships that tie citizens to their governing structures—are still being negotiated and hashed out.
In Lebanon and Iraq, citizens are challenging sectarian-based political structures that the governments in both countries have relied upon to maintain power and (relative) stability. Elsewhere in the region, the challenging of these very notions is being manifested differently: the election of unconventional and potentially disruptive leaders, proliferating protest movements, increased migration, and even conflict and violence. The desire to undo the status quo and to reimagine political systems and the very foundations of nations is part of a global trend. These are moments of promise and hope for the region, even if there is much to fear.
Amel Boubekeur | Researcher at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, in Paris
What is currently called the Arab Spring 2.0 is actually a continuation of a longer historical accumulation of techniques for opposing authoritarian resilience that has survived through sham elections and the clientelistic redistribution of resources. Rather than just reading what is going on as efforts to get rid of dictators and aim for immediate democratization, as in the so-called Arab Spring 1.0, the ongoing uprisings should invite us to be more attentive to efforts by Arab peoples to regain control of the mechanisms of governance. In a nutshell, people seek to separate the ruling elite from the state. Therefore, sorting out the blurred arrangements between the formal and informal use of the state and power politics will be what the coming decade is about.
This means, among other things, putting pressure on the military—or in some cases on sectarian groups—to stop ruling by hiding behind puppet presidents and mock civilian justice. It means asking monarchies to act as fair arbiters, not as participants in political and economic games. It means inventing new negotiating schemes and replacing opposition parties whose disconnection from the people reinforces the ruling elite’s centrality. Finally, it means addressing how informal economic practices are more useful to leaders’ monopolies than productive economies.
The difficulty in overcoming the informal capture of the state by regimes through the corrupted formal means they enjoy—such as parliament, electoral processes, and political parties—is likely to push Arab societies to continue to push against those in power through unauthorized mass protests, resistance to iniquitous bureaucracies, and the proliferation of local political debates. The rupture seems inevitable although the outcomes are still unclear.