Updated: Sep 2, 2021
It has been a decade after the protests in Tunisia that created the domino-effect in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This spate of regime change in the region culminated in a lot of instability and all-out war in some of the countries like Libya and Syria. What is the way forward? Will this end ever? What do model countries tell us?
The Arab Spring in Pictures (Source: The Economist)
Authoritarianism and the Arab Spring
The Arab Spring was ignited by authoritarianism and the exclusion of different segments of societies in North African and Middle Eastern countries. Everyone saw it coming, but no one could do anything about it.
At the most basic level, the forms of governance and statecraft in the region was premised on an authoritarian tradition that goes back to medieval times. There was a general lack of freedom, a lack of desire for political reforms and poor wealth distribution.
All in all, the average country in the region was ruled by a potentate who had almost absolute powers. They ruled with a small circle of elites and gained authority through various forms of traditional loyalties.
Many of the regimes of the MENA region used repression to maintain law and order. The position of the citizen was not defined, except in relation to how they connected with the potentate or head of government. This gave room for centralization which allowed a few elites to control everything with the poor and working class having no voice.
Islamism, the Third Way became Significant after 9/11
MENA states always kept Islamism as an informal aspect of society throughout the Cold War. Governments in the region formed alliances with the East or West to survive through the period. In this period, ideology became the main driver of affairs and this created a modern framework of loyalties and connections that defined national consensus.
Islamism remained behind the shadows since alliances to the West or East was vital for the survival of any government. In the decade after the Cold War, Islamism became a weapon against the west. Some governments took advantage of the notion of “fighting terrorism” to seek survival and legitimacy overseas. Therefore, Islamism remained shut off from the rest of the society.
Information flow, Globalization and the Internet
Militant Islamism became more common in the media after 9/11. This created a new channel for the criticism of governments. There were many ideas about insurrections and opposition that were not existent earlier.
When the Internet became more common and popular, the possibility of mobilizing political groups increased significantly. The old methods of repression became difficult to implement as anyone could set up a social media account and spread any kind of information.
States that failed to gain grips of the Internet – particularly those in North Africa saw massive turmoil. Countries in the Middle East already had methods of monitoring the Internet and most of them were able to survive insurrections and repress uprisings more effectively.
What was Achieved in the Arab Spring?
There are two categories of countries that evolved from the Arab Spring.
Category 1: War Zones
Countries like Libya, Syria, and Yemen became all-out war zones. There was a complete breakdown of order because of the inability to achieve consensus and agree on a new constitution to run affairs. In the process, these countries got divided and plunged into a civil war situation that cannot be easily resolved.
What these countries demonstrate is the complexity of the region and the need for something novel to lay the foundation for state structures. This is mainly due to the fact that most of the countries in the MENA region were mere colonial creations that gained independence after World War II. Hence, the move towards a statecraft and national identity was extremely difficult.
Lebanon is quite unique on this account. Although it is not an all-out war-zone, the unrests in the country mirrors that of a war zone. However, the gridlock in national affairs show it is effectively in a state of war and the Arab Spring never really bore any results, other than anarchy.
Category 2: Transition from Repression to Constitutional Reforms
Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others were able to use repressive methods in the beginning to prevent the protests from spreading. This led to quick reforms and changes that expanded the scope of the constitution to guarantee peace and security. To a large extent, Iran had similar challenges, but blamed it on western forces and cracked down on the unrest lethally.
What these countries demonstrate is that authoritarianism remains important in the region. Centralization and authoritarianism played a major role in quelling the unrest. This will continue to be relevant for a long time in the future.
The Way Forward
The Arab Spring will prompt more tensions and unrests in the years to come. However, the move towards authoritarianism and centralization will remain relevant and useful for a long time to come.
Prospects of a Western type of democracy in the MENA region will take time. Therefore, it is necessary to accept the region as one that will have high elements of collectivism, authoritarianism and centralization.
The MENA region will remain volatile into the foreseeable future. The main regimes in the region will pursue various levels of efforts to prevent anarchy until long-term and sustainable constitutional reforms are undertaken. In the meantime, protests and unrests will break off from time to time and this might cause disruptions in some regions.
For countries that are embroiled in armed conflict (Libya, Syria and Yemen), ending hostility and stabilizing the country will take time. After that, peacebuilding will need a lot more time to be consolidated. Thus, care would be necessary in dealing with such countries.
Business operations in the region will still have to rely on a high level of centralized authoritarian systems that might be steeped in traditional hierarchical structures. Therefore, care must be taken to understand the region as it evolves in the foreseeable future.