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On the “Arab Spring”: Thinking Beyond the Moment (I)


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By Mehdi

More than three years ago the Arab world was plunged into turmoil by Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. The flames from Bouazizi’s act of despair set the region ablaze in revolt; a signal for Tunisians and Arabs in general to take to the streets and let their voices be heard.

The Arab world is no longer the same, and yet, the complex chain of events (traversing social movements, uprisings and a civil war in Syria) that swept across the region was not a surprise. Warning signs had long been in evidence, leading many Arabs to express surprise, not about the fact that all of this happened, but that it took so long.  The Arab spring or chain of uprisings has not been, and was never going to be, a quiet journey ending in happy democracies. The journey has been difficult and its outcome looks uncertain, even depressing in some cases like Egypt or Syria.

The point of this article is not to predict the future but to analyze the dynamics of what has happened and look to what could lie ahead. To be clear, it is too early to draw conclusions, there is a long process ahead that could last decades, but before looking ahead, one has to understand the reasons for the Arab spring.

A complex region and historical legacy

Sykes_PicotBeginning with colonialism, an era that drew the current borders, for example the infamous, Sykes-Picot agreement following World War I, and sometimes left them unclear, as for instance between Morocco and Algeria (explaining partly the bad relations between both regimes despite close cultural ties between the people). Colonialism also assembled conflicting identities and communities into countries that did not have a common national identity beforehand as in Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon.

The independence of most Arab countries happened along with the creation of Israel and the cold war, resulting in tensions and rivalries, clearly supported and manipulated by the Western superpowers and the USSR. The Arab people did not accept these neocolonial involvements and often challenged them, the Arab nationalist movements are an example of such reactions, but the tense post-independence context ended with most Arab regimes gradually becoming dictatorships, some leaning to the West, some to the East, most of them repressing any opposition movement, whether communist or socialist, or Muslim conservative.

The regional rivalries were used and encouraged by Western powers, Israel, Russia (or the USSR during the cold war), and the emerging regional powers such as Israel, the KSA, Iran or Turkey, as “divide and conquer” measures: to protect their own security and economic interests, natural resources, commercial contracts, or other strategic goals. In the end, it resulted in a deep interdependency between Arab rulers and their external sponsors.

The context of the 911 attacks in 2001 and the so-called “war on terror” was also an important factor, the security collaboration between the United States and Arab states was central, and included exchange of intelligence information, and even arrangements to outsource interrogations to mukhabarat services; it was easy for Arab rulers to push back on limited Western “pressures” to implement democratization measures, emphasizing the risk of “Islamists” winning elections. All parties were thus content to keep this status quo going, and too cowardly to openly question it, any change was considered too risky. This view is a recycling of the racist theory that Arabs are not able to support democracy and manage their own destiny.

Despite the weight of this status quo, the regional earthquake of 2011 did not come out of nowhere, warning signs occurred beforehand. Every single Arab country has had its moments of instability,

There are many more examples, along with many wars (Lebanon, Iran-Iraq, Yemen, Oman, etc.), the Palestinian intifadas that explain why the mix of political rivalries between regimes, authoritarianism and external interventions gave the feeling that most countries were “sitting on a volcano” that could erupt through some local event: a demonstration or strike getting out of control, a football derby turning into a street battle, or a Tunisian municipal officer slapping a street vendor in December 2010.

Very different regimes

This overall regional picture, while already complex, involves many differences across the Arab countries and political regimes.

First, Arab countries did not become independent while having the same sense of history or identity: countries like Morocco, Yemen or Egypt, have century-old national identities that go back to many founding events. The gulf states, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq built up a national identity in the 20th century on top of communities, other states gradually built a national identity, while Libya or the KSA are countries whose foundation relies on personal and tribal allegiances.

Beyond the differences between monarchies and republics, proximity with the USA or the USSR during the cold war, Arab countries also have different social structures; societies can be tribal, rural, urban or mixed. Arab countries also include many different minorities with different aspirations, from Berber cultural and linguistic movements in North Africa, to the Kurdish movements across Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, and the different Middle Eastern religious communities, all of whom have a long history of coexistence and deals with their countries’ authorities, mixed-in with foreign manipulations (just in Lebanon, France had close ties and manipulated the Christian Maronite while Great Britain was the self-proclaimed protector of the Druze).

As a consequence, when facing crisis situations, Arab regimes have very different approaches in settling conflicts, while most of them repressed opposition movements, all of them worked hard to maintain order and their social basis. This was a “carrot and stick” model with specific arrangements and agreements with tribe leaders, protection measures for religious communities (for instance in Syria and Lebanon), arbitration of land conflicts (for instance in Jordan), redistribution of subsidies or lands seized from colonial settlers (as was the case in Egypt or Morocco). These measures were important buffers that were activated to prevent economic explosions.

Societies under transformation

While Arab leaders were working hard to hold their grip on the countries and keep them stable, the societies changed silently but radically.

After independence, most Arab societies were either tribal or rural, they are now mainly urban, very young on average, much more educated (despite significant regional gaps), which results in different aspirations in terms of jobs, economic needs, wish to travel. The young Arab generation also tends to have more autonomy towards their communities or families, for instance statistics have shown a strong decline in endogamy (the practice of marrying within a specific ethnic group, class, or social group, rejecting others on such basis as being unsuitable for marriage or other close personal relationships), or the tendency not to live with them anymore after their marriage.

Women’s role in Arab societies, while traditionally very present through the role of “Rabbat el bayt,” (lord of the house) has also increased, it is not limited anymore to their presence at home, and their active presence in education or the job market is now a fact, this can be seen everywhere. Many observers tend to analyze women’s status in Arab societies by focusing on the concentration of veils, or over-focusing on real issues around harassment or violence (while not comparing them with violence in other regions), but they tend to miss the point: While many issues remain in the whole Arab world (from traditional machismo supported by appalling and often un-Islamic laws, unpunished sexual harassment, glass ceilings at work, etc.), a calm and thorough analysis of the evolutions shows that the glass is at least half full and keeps filling.

In general, women have never had as much autonomy as they do today, they are much more educated, politically active, tend to marry much later than their mothers did (from under 20 in many countries in the mid-20th century to 28.8 in Lebanon in 2006, the same trend can be seen in Morocco with differences between rural and urban areas), the possibility to live by themselves now is a reality in many Arab countries (while not all), and they also have far less children.

Birth rate is rarely debated but is a very important factor, for instance in Morocco, a demographic study by Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd, dating back to 2007 showed that it went from 5.5 to 2.5 per women between 1982 and 2004, the same happened between 1760 and 1910 in France! While this change is not uniform for all Arab societies, it highlights a radical transformation, societies changed as much with one generation as the European ones did during the entire 19th century, all the while political parties and rulers were incapable of understanding the dynamics under way. This picture alone obviously cannot explain the Arab uprisings, but the correlation between demography and revolutions has always been analyzed by experts and historians and it seems that the Arab uprisings will not be an exception.

The economic structure of Arab societies

petro-dollar-warFrom a macro-economic point of view, one of the main trends is the over-reliance of Arab economies on natural resources, especially oil, which, while not available in all Arab countries, has a major political impact as it is at the center of all alliances and corruption schemes. Petrodollars, their impact on global and local economies, and on US foreign policy-making is well known. From the perspective of Arab economies, they are an asset but also a long term challenge, as few countries have diversified their economies and built enough skills and productive capabilities for the future.

Turkey is often brought up as an example for Arabs to aspire to, Muslim conservative parties tend to refer to Turkey’s AKP as a political model, but there lies an important difference; Turkey already was a diversified and innovative economy before Erdogan came to power. Turkey could rely on a strong network of companies (based in Istanbul and also in other smaller conservative Turkish cities) to build its soft power, this network of entrepreneurs was key to building Erdogan’s success, on the political and economic side. Unfortunately, such a basis is missing in the Arab world.

Resulting in the fact that most Arab economies are overly reliant on natural resources and in other cases on tourism, diaspora money transfers, textile industry, construction, or agriculture. In general, their job creation records are not impressive, unemployment being high; in the best of cases, they managed to create a few added-value jobs in IT services (e.g. Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, or the UAE). Thus, the perspectives for young Arabs are often low qualified badly paid jobs.

These economies are also under the tight control of the regime leaders and their relatives or allies, resulting in patrimonial systems where they literally own lands, shares in profitable businesses, receive important commissions during sales and privatizations, or award important markets to their allies and relatives (as Ben Ali did for instance with his family-in-law in Tunisia). In most Arab countries, armies and security services also benefit from this “legal looting”.

Up until the 1990s, this form of enrichment was mostly focused on “smaller transactions” (commissions on sales, lands etc.). Things changed with the wave of globalization that started then, under the pressure of institutions such as the IMF, it involved privatizations, and massive international capital investments, and opened the way for a new group of decision makers handling and collecting massive commissions and shares.

Since their relatives and allies were involved in the negotiations and in the creation of such new entities, it is no wonder why many Arab leaders accumulated fortunes that are often estimated in billions of dollars. These practices do not only happen in the Arab world, this pattern has been seen in most emerging economies. One of the main examples of such “transactions” is the sale of mobile telecommunication licenses, which did benefit the countries’ infrastructures, but made a happy few people extremely rich.

In summary, the Arab economies are overly reliant on natural resources, late in terms of innovation, and involve massive wealth concentration in the hands of a few. The effects on society are massive unemployment, and the tendency of regimes to try to address these challenges by “purchasing peace” through subsidies and low quality job programs (for instance when Ben Ali tried to hire 300,000 young people into public administration, to try to stop the emerging revolution from expanding).

Next part in the series: “What about Islam? And Looking Forward”…

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  • Jekyll

    Yup, we are like the fifth or sixth bastard generation. Most if not all of us don’t even know what a Muslim society looks it feels like. Our past has been taken from us or perhaps it was meant to be.
    Really you are quite correct, that great injustice has spread it’s vile wings over the entire globe. In the past entire peoples were removed from the Earth for their disobedience but now in an increasingly globalized, next time there is a wipe out, we all go!
    Injustices of all kind, being oppressed oneself, oppressing others, and being oppressed by others.

  • Seeker

    Like I wrote, ” They want the freedoms that Islam itself allows.”
    But a beginning has to be made somewhere.The MB in Egypt while claiming to be based on Islam was far from it as was obvious in the rule that they implemented. It’s quite possible that much of the Muslim world does not even know properly what Islam is, seeing how it has been manipulated by the rulers to serve their own purposes.
    And frankly, much of the world should be in protest, in the East and the West, because really, oppression is all over – it just manifests itself differently.

  • Seeker

    If I have understood your point, as you state correctly Islam is submission to God; not humans or rulers or sheikhs and this is the question that Muslims living in the East are raising. In the form of the Arab Spring. Many people who are protesting are asking for Islam and not the West-imposed puppet rulers.
    They want the freedoms that Islam itself allows.
    And even if, as you seem to feel, they are asking for ‘Western-based’ freedoms, I’d say that’s still a better deal than the hypocrisy of ‘Islam-based’ values that are currently imposed on the people that have little to do with Islam itself. Eg: women not being allowed to drive in Saudi.

  • Mehdi

    Thanks a lot, wow, I am really flattered by your comment.
    To answer your question, I think you have a point, semantics are important indeed. From what I’ve read, there is no real consensus on how to name all this, the term spring echoes the 1848 people’s spring revolution, and to a smaller degree the 1968 Prague spring (that end very badly).
    The term Arab uprising is maybe more accurate, I think we should not talk about revolutions as we didn’t really see political or socio-economic revolutions (I will come back to that in the series btw).
    The term awakening is in my opinion not accurate as the Arabs weren’t really asleep as I tried to explain highlighting the warning signs.
    For now I prefer Arab uprisings or spring more because it gives hope 🙂

  • Sodium

    Thank you for not merely an excellent article, but for an outstanding essay, only an honest and highly knowledgeable journalist or historian could handle. Very impressive indeed.
    One thing has bothered me since the Arab upheavals have started in 2011 and still counting is calling such bloody upheavals an ” Arab Spring, ” not an ” Arab Awakening ” which will take years, if not decades, to achieve positive results. As it is well known that the Spring Season lasts only three months of the year. What are the bases for the term, ” Arab Spring ” ?
    I do realize that my concern has to do with semantic, not content. I will much appreciate any assistance you may be able to offer. Thank you again for an outstanding essay, indeed.

  • Tanveer Khan
  • Seeker


  • Tanveer Khan

    Yah mon.

    Now let’s define “soon”. ‘;)

  • Heinz Catsup

    Well written article. I’m looking forward to part 2.

  • Seeker

    Ha ha ha.
    In that case, I presume we shall have the honour to read your article soon?

  • Seeker

    Thanks for the vote of confidence.I’m honoured.
    I suppose it would be a good opportunity to motivate myself to learn something that I am curious about but too lazy to research on – like maybe the flag colours of the Arab nations?

  • Mehdi

    Honestly, not sure what your point is. Just trying to explain facts, have a nice day.

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