Standing in a Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi, Sanaa or Manama square in early 2011, one could be forgiven for believing that these joyful, family-friendly mass gatherings were an augury of dramatic peaceful change in a region that badly needed it, yet had very rarely seen it. That was a time before the reigning autocrats turned their guns on the protesters; before Russia and Arab counter-revolutionary forces rushed in to uphold a senescent order that could no longer stand on its own legs, and Western powers coughed politely while looking the other way; and before Iran jumped in to exploit the political vacuum left by Arab state collapse. It was a time before the promises of the welcome storm turned into fading dreams or, much worse, living nightmares.
Ten years later, where have the 2011 uprisings left the Arab world? For a century, this post-Ottoman collection of states, united mainly by language and certain shared cultural traditions, has wrestled with deep problems, a blend of colonial legacies and internally generated contradictions. I have described these at some length elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that they led to a rolling legitimacy crisis that ruling elites could control as long as they provided security, jobs, infrastructure and services as part of an unwritten social contract.
The uprisings brought these stresses to the fore, forcing those in power to confront them. They represented a rupture: not in the nature of the state systems but in how the world saw these and how the people in the region themselves debated them.
The old order was able to survive for so long due partly to its effective blend of coercion and co-optation, and partly to what scholars refer to as the “stability paradigm” – the calculation by Western countries, Russia and other status quo powers that their interests were best served by Arab regime stability. For Western countries, before the 2011 revolutions, investing in stability was far better than encouraging anything beyond cosmetic political change. They therefore made sure that their efforts at democracy promotion, even when backed by financial incentives, remained largely rhetorical and symbolic.
The uprisings challenged this paradigm, shaking not only the regimes’ stability but also the notion that their stability was unshakable.
What has happened since 2011 is that the Arab regimes have started to rebuild themselves, donning new armour to deter and, if necessary, ward off fresh popular challenges. At the same time, Western powers have begun to reconstitute the stability paradigm that they believe served them for so long. They saw what systemic breakdown could produce – in the form of refugees and the rise of jihadist groups with transnational objectives – and so they have acted to prevent regional upheaval from undermining their own societies by tacitly accommodating themselves anew to autocratic governance.
Yet the seeming stalemate creates a conundrum. Fealty to stability as an end in itself can only precipitate stability’s inevitable end: to press down on the lid of a pressure cooker is to ask for built-up forces to blow up the vessel, while to lift the lid just a little and allow the vessel to let off steam is to invite all its contents to well up and spill over, making it impossible to put the lid back in place. Thus, for most of the Arab world’s autocratic regimes even the slightest move toward reform could jeopardise their own survival.
Regardless what happened in individual Arab countries – the 2011 uprisings produced a range of outcomes – the region has seen no fundamental change except in people’s perception of what may be possible.
Durable fundamental change will require two indispensable ingredients. The first is a determined populace led by a diverse vanguard that can articulate both hope and a cohesive alternative vision, one that is inclusive of a broad spectrum of opinion and invites participation. The other, albeit to a lesser extent, is a set of tolerant external powers willing to gamble that the benefits of the region’s transformation will eventually outweigh the growing fallout of upholding its status quo. For change to occur, the vision put forward by opposition leaders or protesters – and the attendant resource reallocation – should sway fence-sitting political and security elites to abandon the regimes they underpin. And it should convince outside powers not to voice support for their allies when the latter are being shown the door.
These ingredients are not present in the region today. The erstwhile people of the squares are in prison, scattered or hunkered down in their homes; many are demoralised, even if newly aware of their potential. Only in Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria do we see scattered protests, which build on their outbreak in 2019 – eight years after the 2011 events – and are limited by pandemic-related lockdowns. As for the outside world, it is focused on more pressing concerns and seems to wish that the problems of the Arab world would just go away. In the meantime, it continues to back – albeit in some cases more reluctantly than others – the old and trusted, if not always liked, forces of apparent stability.
Nor are the ingredients of change likely to appear as long as the region is crisscrossed with fault lines that can disrupt, distort and disable any popular movement that tries to coalesce. The Israel-Palestine conflict has had this impact and, as the popular anger prompted by Israel’s normalisation of relations with a handful of Arab states suggests, will continue to do so. Iran’s power projection has hardened Arab regimes’ defences, pushed them into new alliances (including with Israel), and given them rhetorical fire with which to battle popular demands for change. So has the dispute over the role of Islam in governance, settled for now in Iran but raging in the Arab Gulf – mainly between Qatar and the UAE, whose deep pockets have allowed them to transfer their rivalry to political and sometimes military fights in unstable countries in the Horn of Africa and North Africa, such as Somalia and Libya. (They earlier similarly competed for rebel support in Syria, setting insurgent against insurgent; this gambit ended abruptly with Russia’s September 2015 intervention, which convinced them that their investment in these groups had lost the potential to yield the benefits they sought.
For all these reasons, while we may see further instances of popular contestation – the record since 2011 bears that out – a veritable Arab revival, in the broad sense of a fundamental transformation of how the region is governed, remains a distant hope.