The Arab Spring 18 Months Later: More Questions than Answers

The Arab Spring 18 Months Later: More Questions than Answers

The Arab uprisings which commenced in December 2010 continue to be an unfolding story, where outcomes are still fluid, and where each day brings to light new twists and turns to the tale, intriguing scholars and laymen alike. The spontaneous movements by citizenry against authoritarian regimes long considered immovable, within political systems long deemed static, have challenged previously existing notions of political rule in the Middle East. Arguably, at the current juncture and across the affected states, we are not seeing revolutionary devolutions of power from autocrats to the mass publics, nor are the transitions towards more open and free political systems occurring seamlessly and easily. The decades’ old dictatorial actors have not all been toppled in one fell blow, nor have the long-entrenched, adaptable ruling coalitions and assorted apparatuses of state power been transformed into inclusive and transparent entities. We are still in a process of transition and change, the tangible effect of which may not be known for some time to come.

While visible signs of a total alteration of existing power structures may be absent, there is little doubt that the ongoing deterioration in state-civil relations has exposed the fragilities of the autocrats who have ruled for so long. While at this time there is scope for both optimism and pessimism, the final outcomes remain indeterminate and unpredictable. The resilience of authoritarianism is being vigorously tested in some countries while strongly reasserted in others. We see most clearly signs of this in the ongoing deterioration in situations in Syria and Bahrain, and to some extent in Egypt’s struggle to translate successful civilian mass mobilization into tangible changes in power equations. Regardless of how successful or unsuccessful we can consider the Arab Spring to be in terms of bringing about lasting, popular socio-political change, the ongoing popular mobilization is at the very least a sign of deep and abiding public dissatisfaction with ruling elites, and is also indicative of a profound popular yearning for a different sort of political order.

Academic institutions, research centers, and think-tanks are undertaking a host of efforts to try to make sense of these unfolding events. There is broad agreement that while engaging in meaningful analysis of rapidly evolving situations is extremely difficult, it is still necessary and useful to try to provide some in-depth insight. Radically realigning theoretical frameworks to fit what still remains to be determined might be unfeasible, but recognizing and questioning the flaws of stagnant paradigms is crucial. Clearly, what has transpired to date has already had a significant impact on the way scholars are thinking and talking about the Middle East. Academic and policy myopia regarding enduring authoritarian bargains in the Middle East has certainly been challenged by the events of the past eighteen months. The uprisings have forced political scientists, economists, historians, journalists, policymakers, and scholars across the spectrum of the social sciences to question their previous assumptions and to explore new ways for the study of Middle Eastern states, Arab societies, the construction of political power, and the ways in which power has been and is being asserted or threatened.CIRS is amongst those research centers devoting attention to some of these questions. Along with its own multi-disciplinary research project on The Evolving Ruling Bargain in the Middle East, which brings together a number of scholars to critically assess different dimensions of the Arab Spring, CIRS has also taken on collaborative efforts with other regional and international bodies with a similar research agenda. Most recently, CIRS participated in the Arab Uprisings Symposium hosted by the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute. Through such engagements CIRS is contributing to the scholarly discussions that seek to explain both the causes and consequences of the uprisings sweeping across the Arab world, and is contributing toward developing clarity around some of the emerging thematic areas that require focused academic exploration.

Consensus has still not emerged regarding the key factors that led to the uprisings, and disciplinary partitions appear to stress the significance of certain contributing causes over others. The significance of internal pressures versus international pressures, or the dynamics of domestic reform versus globalization or how both have combined is one element of the debate. The significance of factors relating to political economy as opposed to historical-sociological dynamics is another vector of analysis. Consensus over possible future outcomes is also lacking, and while many potential future scenarios continue to be debated, they also still remain contested. A lack of agreement amongst scholars is inevitable given that the situations are still evolving and in a state of flux.

One of the key questions informing the inter-disciplinary research agenda is framed within the terms of “can we determine whether post-Arab Spring things are better or worse across the Middle East?” Again, one sees a polarity of views amongst those attempting to address this question. Some scholars suggest that pre-existing authoritarian ruling coalitions will not be substantially affected by these peoples’ movements in the long-term, and that for a variety of structural reasons autocratic rule will continue to dominate the regional domestic political architecture for some time to come. Personalities might have changed, they argue, but most of the deep-seated structures of authoritarian rule remain intact. Other scholars offer a more optimistic prognosis, maintaining that authoritarian bargains across the Middle East have been seriously destabilized, have had their core weaknesses exposed, and will not emerge from this period unscathed. This polarity of views tends to be magnified along disciplinary divides, with historians, political scientists, economists, and sociologists each employing distinct analytical frameworks of their own and often leaving little room for interdisciplinary dialogue. The one thing that scholars of the Middle East are ready to currently agree on is that things are certainly different than they were in early 2010.

If finding analytic consensus amongst scholars is not possible at this stage, there are at least certain common areas of agreement. One of the running themes within the academic and policy debate is that if the Arab uprisings cannot be categorized as revolutionary, some of their outcomes, even at this early stage, certainly can indeed be considered as such. Mass mobilization and battles in the public sphere, broadcast over national and international satellite television channels, have challenged state power in unprecedented ways. Populations across the Middle East, even in those states where we have not seen widespread protest movements or efforts at mass mobilization, are certainly more politically aware than they were assumed to be in the past. Dismissive assumptions that the region’s populace is politically indifferent, lethargic, and incapable of resisting the authoritarian strangle-hold have lost any vestige of credibility they may once have had. The regimes in power have had their legitimacy questioned, their strength tested, have been proven weaker than they were assumed to be, and have been critically threatened by mass civic unrest. Those authoritarian regimes with the capacity to do so are asserting power to curtail the impact of the civil movements, and the very viciousness with which this is occurring in certain countries is indicative of how seriously the threat is being taken.

A second reoccurring theme focuses attention on the effects of agency-structure relationships and how these have informed the Arab revolts. The continuing capacity of authoritarian regimes in some states to withstand months of popular mobilization against them, the lack of any efforts at popular mobilization in other oddly silent states (such as Algeria), and the lack of significant political gains made through mobilization efforts so far (as visible in Egypt), highlight the need to further scrutinize particular agency-structure factors in each of these states. Pre-existing political and military structures might have greater capacity in some countries, enough to overpower the collective actions of the people or altogether inhibit them. Examining the impact of ruling coalitions, their competitors, and how power is exerted by the different actors in each state needs another look given current events.

Another thematic element of the discussion, or perhaps more accurately stated as a question, is what is the most useful geographic lens through which to examine the Arab uprisings? One argument is that each state must be examined as a unique case, that each country and each peoples’ revolt needs to be analyzed on the basis of the particular complexities within each separate country. The tendency to lump a large number of quite different states into the amorphous designation of “Middle East” or “Arab world” may obscure or elide crucial factors that are not region-specific. Along similar lines, an additional line of inquiry sees the “Middle East” as concept that needs to be further reflected upon and refined, maintaining that the Arab Spring has something significant to tell us about “the Middle East” both at a conceptual as well as a practical level.

On the other side of this debate over appropriate geographic framing is the argument that what is required is the broadening of the geographic lens through which current events ought to be viewed. The Arab uprisings need to be considered not only as a Pan-Arab case study, or even as a series of events contextualized within the broader Middle East, but as being directly related to what is happening further afield. This argument posits that there are global issues at stake, global forces which are impacting the region and informing the outcomes of the revolts, and that the analytical framing of the Arab domestic protest movements within purely Middle Eastern contexts disregards these external and international aspects. The crisis in the Middle East has created new geostrategic opportunities for the leveraging of economic and political interests, both from within the region or from without. The regional republican heavy-weights have lost power and legitimacy, and this has created opportunities for the authoritarian monarchies to play a greater determinative role in regional affairs. The GCC states are emerging as actors with greater influence than previously displayed, and have been playing a decisive role in both regional and global responses to the ongoing crises. Saudi Arabia has been playing a pivotal role as regional “anti-revolutionary”, and may also be considered to represent certain international interests concerned with the stability of the status quo within the Middle East.As a separate but related line of this discussion, for some political economists the Arab Spring and the coordination of international responses to it, indicate that there are global geopolitical interests that are independent of the internal dynamics within the states themselves. These scholars propose that the transnational dimension of the events of the Arab Spring demonstrates the impact and interest of global capital. Some scholars suggest that these peoples’ movements are not just a desire to topple rigid autocracies, but rather are a push-back against neoliberal economic policies that these regimes adopted, and a rejection of the primacy of global neoliberal actors and their agendas.

An additional thematic area of academic exploration on the Arab Spring focuses on the role of Islamists and Islamic political movements. Much is being discussed regarding the impact of political Islam during the Arab revolts, and what the possible role for Islamists will be in any new political coalitions or ruling arrangements that come out of these uprisings. There is a division of opinion on the positioning of Islamists in the Arab Spring, and also on whether they have a legitimate space to occupy in the evolving bargain.Around current discussion on political Islam in the Arab revolts one notes a number of different analytical streams. One school of thought asserts that Islamists have flourished in the Middle East to date solely because of the ruthless repression by regimes of all other socio-political and civic actors. The assumption then is that if socio-political space is opened up to others, “secular” actors will emerge to displace Islamists who will thus be relegated to an archaic past. A second school of thought holds that there is a real and persistent threat posed by Islamists, whose non-democratic tendencies deny them legitimate space to participate in future power coalitions. Islamist currently have a structural strength, which if unchecked, will be unleashed in a post-Arab Spring environment, allowing them to stand a strong chance of becoming major political players, and whose alarming social and economic agendas will send Middle Eastern societies back to the dark ages. A third group of scholars views Islamists and Islamic political movements as legitimate political actors who voice the interests of significant swathes of social actors, and who do have a contributive role to play in the changing dynamics of the region. This scholarly view contends that Islamic movements have emerged and operated under extremely challenging circumstances, have withstood the pressures of authoritarianism, and have now earned the right to participate as rightful social and political forces in an environment with greater democratic openings. Still others maintain that Islamist actors and interests are transformed through institutional involvement with the political process, eventually emerging out of the uprisings as another in a multiplicity of mainstream political actors. Clearly, given these distinct readings of the current and future role of political Islam, there is a strong need for research and focused examination on this subject.

Political developments across the Middle East continue to be uncertain and unsettled, and will remain so for some time to come. Not surprisingly, so far the popular mass protests which in some states effectively and euphorically brought down dictators have not been as successful in bringing about revolutionary socio-political change. In other states the crises are still ongoing, and continuing violence and confusion impede possibilities for meaningful prognosis. If these movements that have swept across the region have not entirely dismantled the adaptable authoritarian structures of state power, they have clearly broken the notion that the populations are torpid and driven by fear. These peoples’ movements have also destroyed the stagnant paradigms for scholars engaged in studying the region. One thing, though, is clear. The Arab Spring has been an awakening, not just for the people who live in and belong to the region, but also an awakening for those studying and seeking to better understand the Middle East. 

Article by Zahra Babar