Five years after a wave of uprisings, the Arab world is worse off than ever. But its people understand their predicament better
“I AM the free and fearless. I am secrets that never die. I am the voice of those who will not bow…” The voice in question, raised in song amid the crowds packing Avenue Bourguiba, a promenade in Tunis, at the beginning of 2011, was that of Emel Mathlouthi. For a moment of calm in a month of clamour, she gave voice to the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of her compatriots.
On January 14th those protesters forced Zein al Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator for the previous quarter-century, from office. What followed was not easy. Terrorism hindered both economic progress and deeper political reform. But in 2015 the country became the first Arab state ever to be judged fully “free” by Freedom House, an American monitor of civil liberties, and it moved up a record 32 places among countries vetted by the Vienna-based Democracy Ranking Association. In December Ms Mathlouthi sang before another spellbound audience—this time in Oslo, as part of celebrations surrounding the award of the Nobel peace prize to four civil-society groups that shepherded in the new constitution of 2014.
Sadly, that outcome remains a stark anomaly. There were six Arab countries in which massive peaceful protests called for hated rulers to go in the spring of 2011. None of the other uprisings came to a happy end. Libya and Yemen have imploded, their central states replaced in whole or part by warring militias, some backed by foreign powers, some flying the flags of al-Qaeda or Islamic State. Egypt and the island kingdom of Bahrain are now yet more autocratic, in some ways, than when the protests began. And Syria has descended into an abyss. Half its cities lie in ruins, much of its fertile land has been abandoned; millions have been displaced within the country, millions more have fled beyond it; hundreds of thousands have died; there is no end in sight.
With the exception of its far east and west—the oil-rich Gulf and quietly prospering Morocco, aloof behind a border with Algeria that has been sealed for 21 years—the rest of the Arab world does not look much better. Iraq’s Shia south and Kurdish north and north-east are, in effect, separate countries, while in the war zone of its Sunni-dominated west the fearsomely brutal rule of the so-called Islamic State has taken root. The Algerians and Sudanese have emerged from civil wars to find themselves still beholden to opaque and predatory army-backed cliques. Palestinians, divided into rival cantons, are weaker and more isolated than ever. Jordan remains an island of calm preserved through fear: both the kingdom’s own people and the donor countries that prop it up are too spooked by the chaos buffeting its borders and flooding it with refugees to talk much of political reform.
Change it had to come
In short, Arabs have rarely lived in bleaker times. The hopes raised by the Arab spring—for more inclusive politics and more responsive government, for more jobs and fewer presidential cronies carving up the economy—have been dashed. The wells of despair are overflowing.
The wealthy Gulf states have seen their incomes slashed by collapsing oil prices. The tighter immigration rules they have set up to replace expatriate labour from other Arab states with natives, or Asians, have hit the remittance flows through which they subsidised their poorer brethren. Demographic pressures are unyielding. Some 60% of the region’s population is under 25. Figures from the International Labour Organisation show that youth unemployment in the Middle East and north Africa, already a terrible 25% in 2011, has risen to nearly 30%, more than double the average around the world. Rent-seeking remains rampant, and standards in both public education and the administration of justice are still dismal. Economic growth is slow or stagnant; the hand of the security forces weighs heavier than ever, more or less everywhere. Sectarian divisions and class rivalries have deepened, providing fertile ground for radicals who posit their own brutal vision of Islamic Utopia as the only solution.
The Arab spring seems therefore to have brought nothing but woe. It has become fashionable in some circles to ape Russia and Iran in blaming this failure on supposedly “naive” Western policymakers. Had Western powers not abandoned old allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak; had they not intervened in support of Libyan rebels; had they not presumed that the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was just another domino waiting to topple; had they not turned a blind eye to the danger of Islamist fanatics: then all would be well.
This is tosh. To frame the uprisings of 2011 as a sequence of isolated events, each of which had a unique and optimal policy response, is to deny the historical reality of what happened. Such hindsight belies the actual experience of seeing an entire region—and the world’s most politically torpid region, at that—whirl into sudden, synchronised motion. It also denies agency to the actors themselves: to the crowds whose cries of “Enough!” reached critical mass; to the paranoid rulers whose responses exacerbated the protests.
This is not to say that the events of 2011 had no precursors. Algeria’s Islamist uprising in 1991, two intifadas in Palestine, the “Independence revolution” that ousted Lebanon’s government in 2005, even the short-lived “Green revolution” in non-Arab but nearby Iran, all signalled the region’s desire for change. But the world’s democracies were, by and large, correct in judging that what they were seeing in 2011 was something broader, more potent and more difficult to steer than a set of national crises that happened to coincide. Nor were they naive to think that an empowered “Arab street” would seek to move its countries closer to global norms of good governance. That was the demand the demonstrators made in protest after protest, from the Gulf to the Atlantic.
In judgment of all wrong
The West’s naivety, which was shared—and paid for—by those hopeful demonstrators, lay in underestimating two things. One was the fragility of many Arab states, too weak in their institutions to withstand such ructions in the way that, say, South Africa did when apartheid fell. The other was the vicious determination with which established regimes would seek to retain or recapture control. Who could believe that a soft-spoken leader such as Mr Assad would prefer to destroy his country rather than leave his palace? Those were the truths that brought hope to the ground.
Just as the spring itself was more than just a set of national events, so the current period of counter-revolution is an international matter. Conservatives across the region have received powerful backing from the Gulf. One early and stark example of this was Bahrain, where the ruling family called on fellow Sunni monarchs to help it crush a pro-democracy movement championed by its Shia majority. Last year’s intervention in Yemen by a Saudi-sponsored coalition can be seen in the same light. The Saudis are seeking not only to thwart Houthi rebels, whose Iranian backing they revile. They are trying to force a return to the status quo.
The most internationalised conflict is the bitter civil war in Syria, where powers from the region and beyond contend through proxies. The war has long since metastasised into a monumental free-for-all involving dozens of belligerents. But it remains at its core a fight between aggrieved citizens and a narrowly based—and in Syria’s case largely sectarian—elite intent on keeping its hold on power.
In Egypt, a nation-state of longer standing and greater stability, the ancien régime’s fight has—again with help from the Gulf—been won, for now. Egypt has long been seen as the region’s bellwether, and for good reason. Over the past five years it has provided the Arab spring’s most revealing story of failure; today it highlights the degree to which the tensions persist that brought about the uprisings.
The world looks just the same
In 2010, six months before the protests in Tahrir Square turned into the uprising (even Egyptian enthusiasts are now shy of calling it a revolution) that ousted Mr Mubarak, this newspaper warned of looming change in Egypt and suggested that there were three ways in which it might play out. The country might, like Iran in 1979, experience a popular revolution which would then be hijacked by Islamists. Like Turkey in the 2000s, it might become a genuine, if shaky and flawed, democracy, one with the power needed to tame the military-backed “deep state”. Or, like Russia, it might suffer a Putinist putsch, with the deep state reasserting control under a new strongman.
We were too parsimonious. Egypt has, in a jumbled fashion, experienced not just one but all three of these outcomes. Its revolutionaries did overcome, if briefly, the security forces that underpinned Mr Mubarak’s rule. Egyptians then voted in a government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood—a government which, rather than shrinking the deep state, tried instead to insert party loyalists into its depths. (As it happens, this is also what Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government has been doing since 2011, with rather more success.) Popular anger against the Islamists, stoked and nurtured by the deep state, then brought Egypt to the Russian option in a soft coup that saw Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, a general and the minister of defence, installed as president in June 2013.
Two and a half years later, Mr Sisi’s counter-revolution appears all but complete. Mr Mubarak and his cronies, not to mention the police responsible for killing and maiming hundreds in the clashes of 2011, are out of jail. Tens of thousands of Muslim Brothers, along with hundreds of secular revolutionaries, are imprisoned, in exile, or dead. Nearly 1,000 Islamists were killed when anti-coup protests were crushed in 2013. The police have killed scores more since then; others have died from torture or neglect in prison.
Mr Sisi’s men have taken particular care to harass the technically adept young people whose social-media skills made the revolutionary experiment possible. And the state has made an unprecedented effort to control the courts, universities and media. A tailor-made constitution that grants sweeping powers to the president and the army, and electoral rules designed to produce a fragmented parliament, furnish it with the trappings of democracy. But it is a sham. The Mukhabarat (secret police) intervened in 2015’s elections to ensure supine legislative loyalty to the president. Not surprisingly, turnout was dismal, particularly among the young. Their disdain proved further justified when the government abruptly cancelled the results of December’s student-council elections in the country’s universities. Pro-revolution candidates had won across the board.
Many Egyptians praise Mr Sisi for delivering the country from both Islamists and revolutionary hotheads. Many more now shun politics altogether, which from the autocrats’ point of view is almost as happy a result. The Muslim Brotherhood remains in shattered abeyance and more radical Islamists, who have mounted terror attacks and grabbed a chunk of territory in north-east Sinai, have not made broader inroads among the general public. Another uprising on the scale of 2011 is unlikely in the near future.
But the effort to build a bigger, stronger “wall of fear” has further alienated Egypt’s people from a state that is not just cruel, arbitrary and unaccountable, but also both too incompetent and too broke to buy their acquiescence. Investors are put off by erratic policymaking, the overweening power of the army and Mukhabarat, and unpredictable, often vindictive courts. Egypt’s government debt remains colossal. The budget deficit has topped 10% every year since 2011; in mid-2015 Egypt’s combined domestic and foreign liabilities pushed past 100% of GDP. The currency is in decline—and so is tourism. Incidents such as the killing of a group of Mexican tourists mistaken for terrorists by the air force, or the government’s farcical handling of what appears to have been the bombing of a Russian civilian airliner on Egyptian territory in October, show the state to be inept. Mr Sisi’s benefactors in the Gulf, who have propped up his regime with perhaps $30 billion in cheap loans, central-bank deposits and fuel, are reputedly running out of patience and risk running out of money. Repeatedly bailed out in the past, Egypt has no more saviours-in-waiting.
Tip my hat to the new constitution
A recent tweet—“Has anyone tried switching Egypt off and turning it on again?”—sums up the despairing mood of this broken country’s people. For lack of an alternative, or an on-off switch, most have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, praying that Mr Sisi will lighten his grip or hoping for a palace coup to install a less military-minded ruler. “The cheapest option is internal change inside the regime,” says Abdel Moneim Abul Fotoh, a former Muslim Brother whose centrist platform captured 4m votes in the 2012 presidential election. “Revolutions are cumulative, and it will take time for pressure to accumulate.”
But if the uprising changed little in the way things work, it changed much in how they are perceived. Hani Shukrallah, an Egyptian commentator, likens memories of Tahrir Square to King Hamlet’s ghost, a presence that may be intangible yet remains the driving force of the drama, and which mutely insists that something is rotten in the state of Egypt.
What underlies the rot, in Egypt and elsewhere, is the failure of generations of Arab elites to create accountable and effective models of governance, and to promote education. After some 60 years of essentially fascistic rule—the forced rallying behind a bemedalled patriarch, pomp and parades and propaganda disguising the reality that the people have no voice—it was perhaps not surprising that the backlash, when it came, was inarticulate and lacked direction. The Arab revolutions produced few leaders, few credible programmes for action, and few ideas. But they did produce much-needed clarity about such things as what political Islam actually means in practice, where the Arabs stand in the world and with each other, and what the weaknesses and strengths of Arab states and societies are.
Before it came to brief and inglorious power in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood attracted believers with the simple but vague slogan “Islam is the solution”. Experience now prompts many more Arabs to ask, which Islam? If it is the arm-twisting, head-lopping version proclaimed by Islamic State (IS), which dismisses all Muslims but its own ardent followers as shirkers and sinners, there are few takers. If it means giving political power to more mainstream religious figures who cannot agree on points of doctrine, this does not look appetising either. Nor do the Muslim Brothers, who revealed themselves to be conservatives bent on capturing rather than reforming the state, hold much more of an appeal.
For decades Arab opinion-makers have ascribed a host of regional ills to Western—and particularly American—meddling, even as its leaders turned habitually to the West for aid or military protection. And the West is hardly innocent; the biggest regional debacle until recent years was America’s spectacularly inept occupation of Iraq. But the morass left by that unforced error, along with the West’s ineffectual response to the Arab spring, have convinced all but a conspiracy-addled fringe that there is not much substance to talk of Western omnipotence, American hegemony or even a Zionist conspiracy. The West’s capacities have been revealed as limited and seldom effectively exercised. It is the region’s own weakness, rather than malign Western intent, that keeps sucking in outside powers.
At the same time many Arabs have also seen, not for the first time but perhaps now more clearly than ever, how weak the links between Arab states actually are, despite decades of slogans proclaiming Arab unity. And they have seen how weak the states themselves are, and more sadly how weak many of their own societies are. Iraqis and Syrians are fond of saying that before the American invasion or the 2011 uprising there were no tensions between Sunnis and Shias. If this is true, though, such solidarity was very easily shattered.
History ain’t changed
If states’ weaknesses stand exposed, so do their workings. In Egypt and Tunisia, and even more so in Mr Assad’s Syria, no one used to know who in which of the many competing security agencies really controlled what, or how. They could not put their finger on the way that, say, a compliant judiciary fitted in to the overall shape of things. Now they can. In Egypt the current crop of thoughtful young revolutionaries shuns the street in favour of drawing up quiet plans for overhauling the police or reforming the judiciary. If another uprising starts, its demands will go beyond the removal of a figurehead and the election of a legislature kept well away from the levers of real power.
And what else may be on the agenda for change? One place to look is to IS—which, in ghastly irony, is the only truly new model of government that the wave of revolutions has thrown up. The group is monstrous. Its “state” is in many ways a far nastier reproduction of previous autocratic regimes, overlaid with a brutal “Islamic” veneer that most Muslims find repulsive. Yet the fact that this ugly experiment survives at all, despite the world’s semi-united efforts to abort it, holds lessons for the region.
Although IS’s laws are grotesque, other Arab states should take note that its emphasis on quick and firm justice appeals not only to Syrians and Iraqis desperate for order amid chaos. It responds to a burning public need to right decades of perceived wrongs. So does IS’s intolerance of corruption within its own ranks and its focus, even with limited means, on providing services such as health, education and social welfare. Unlike other Arab states, which tend to be hyper-centralised, IS grants broad powers to local administrators. These officials seek to regulate and tax commerce rather than to control it. Instead of assuming ownership of the oil industry, as nearly all other Arab states do, it sells the crude oil in its territory at the wellhead, subsequently exacting taxes from the people who go on to refine and transport it.
The missing ingredients in this formula are obvious: a basic respect for human rights and for diversity, systems of accountability, a method of lawmaking that pays heed to the will and interest of the public and not simply religious texts or the whims of a so-called caliph. Such essential components of good governance are often lazily bundled together as part of a grab-bag labelled democracy. The Arab spring showed that it may be these constituent elements, more than such theatrics as toppling tyrants or holding noisy elections, that are the key to success.
In the tense calm that has settled over countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, in the brittle peace that will no doubt eventually prevail across Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and during the continuing, ever-expectant pause endured by other Arabs as they wait for change, it is these kinds of institutional building blocks that need attending to. Arabs may take heart from the fact that in Europe, the supposedly revolutionary years of 1848 and 1968 produced little forward motion; indeed their immediate effect was to prompt a conservative backlash. A.J.P. Taylor, a historian, described 1848, a year of continent-wide insurrection against autocracy, as a moment when “history reached a turning point but failed to turn.”
But in both cases revolutionary change did come, in protracted form, in the next generation. It was brought about less by street action than by quiet evolutions in culture, society and the economy, and by the building of new and stronger institutions. It is not as intoxicating as mass action in Tahrir Square. But if some future season of rebirth is to lead to a lasting summer, there needs to be some thoroughgoing climate change first.