From the Arab Spring to—What, Exactly? 2011 and 2019 Compared

A moment of hope arose in the Middle East eight years ago as the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2011 challenged existing orders and political regimes. Dictators in Tunisia and Egypt were overthrown. Libyan despot Muammar Qadhafi was toppled, then slain by his own people in 2011, but the country remains unstable today and its civil war goes on. In Syria, what seemed to be a revolution on the brink of success was defeated, at the eleventh hour, by the intervention of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. That war, too, continues. And in Yemen, a Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored political compromise led to a change from the presidency of the late Ali Abdullah Saleh; but the aftermath has been a civil war and outside intervention that touched off a massive humanitarian crisis.

The mixed results of the first wave of upheaval soon met a wall of denial in the region.  Countries that appeared immune to political upheaval remained immune, or so it seemed. Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon all seemed locked into ossified systems of governance that defied the winds of change buffeting other countries. Egypt, whose only democratically elected government was struck down by a coup in 2013, returned to autocracy of a harder and more unforgiving kind. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s oppression machine continued to function mostly without a glitch, while coasting on fumes from the revolutionary fervor that ushered it into power 40 years ago. Governments in the Arabian Gulf, lubricated by petrochemical money and high-tech repression enabled, in part, by western companies peddling arms and surveillance technology, continued the time-honored tradition of buying off the political aspirations of the people through government largesse, so long as the money held out. Only Tunisia seemed successful in negotiating a rough transition to electoral democracy, despite economic woes, government dysfunction, and the threat of terrorism.

Only Tunisia seemed successful in negotiating a rough transition to electoral democracy, despite economic woes, government dysfunction, and the threat of terrorism.

Analysts of the region who had been surprised by the outbreak of popular political will in 2011 were confident in their predictions that those events were an aberration and that the old order had reasserted itself, this time for good.

But then something new happened. Another wave of protests engulfed the broader Middle East, in ways and places that were quite unexpected. In Algeria, the sclerotic regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika was supposed to have been inoculated against massive change since the traumatizing civil war in the 1990s, but it wasn’t. The same goes for Sudan, where Omar al-Bashir, somehow still in power after international war crimes charges and a long history of repressive and corrupt rule, found himself out of office and in a cage on trial for corruption. (Bashir was convicted on December 14.) Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi tottered a bit during unprecedented demonstrations in September. The supposed “Moroccan exception” proved that it was nothing of the sort, as large demonstrations and online criticism revealed a deep dissatisfaction with the oligarchies running the state and, for the first time, with the king himself. Demonstrators in Lebanon are demanding the fall of the government, but most important, the fall of a system in which political wheeler-dealers purporting to represent the people prefer instead to represent narrow sectarian interests and, most important, themselves.

Iraqi citizens seem to have had enough, too, and have taken to the streets to demand sweeping change in the very basics of how they are governed (or ruled, as the case may be). The Iranian regime, having thought it was immune for the better part of the last 15 years as it built its vast influence networks in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, suddenly found itself on the receiving end of mass protests, echoing those of the Green Movement in 2009. The regime put them down with unprecedented ferocity, knowing exactly what they represented: a deep repudiation of the regime’s legitimacy and a significant threat to its rule.

Foreign policy experts in Washington and elsewhere are once again forced to confront what this all means. Why are these protests happening? And why now? Significant differences between the last wave of major uprisings and those of today suggest answers to these important questions—and what might happen next.

A New Starting Point, and Bigger Ambitions

To start with, the demonstrations of 2019 began where the protests of 2011 left off.

Demonstrators and activists across the board are airing many of the same grievances as they did in 2011—anger at corruption, abuses by the state, lack of jobs and poor public services, and even worse governance.

Now, however, the protesters have come to understand that governments of the region are structurally incapable of addressing these demands, the complex challenges of which were described in the Arab Human Development Report of 2009. As these challenges—ranging from worsening environmental conditions, threats to economic security and vulnerable groups in society, war and conflict, and the lack of human rights—have persisted and in many cases grown more serious, the “authoritarian bargain” has proven inadequate as a governing model: it can neither credibly address these problems nor continue to purchase political acquiescence by policies such as delivering increasing subsidies for basic goods or furnishing sufficient government jobs, particularly since the sustained drop in global oil prices that began in 2014.  Moreover, systems of governance, far from evolving to meet these challenges, have remained largely static and reactionary.

Demonstrators and activists across the board are airing many of the same grievances as they did in 2011—anger at corruption, abuses by the state, lack of jobs and poor public services, and even worse governance.

Thus, instead of focusing on the removal of a few key leaders, the protest movements of today have called for the entire political class to go, and even the very system of governance—demands that have resounded clearly in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere.

Protests Have Staying Power

Because the current protest movements have bigger goals than simply ousting a longstanding dictator, there is a collective understanding that long-term commitment to political resistance is required to achieve them. The protesters of 2019 have stayed in the streets, in larger numbers and for longer periods, to bring to bear the kind of sustained pressure needed to achieve real systemic change.

Since Bouteflika’s ouster, Algerians have demonstrated daily to thwart the ruling clique’s plans for an abrupt election and the continuation of governance as usual. The election to the presidency on December 12 of former Prime Minister Abdelmajid Tebboune, an old-line politician with close ties to the army chief of staff, does not seem likely to satisfy demands of many who want to see a real transition to civilian rule, and demonstrations have continued. In Sudan, protesters successfully sustained pressure on the military rulers and parlayed that into effective negotiations that established an interim Sovereignty Council to run the country under alternating military and civilian chairs, until new elections take place after the transitional period ends in November 2022. The staying power of protest movements in Iraq and Lebanon remains to be seen but, so far, the persistence of the demonstrators has been impressive and not placated by the resignations of the prime ministers in both countries. Iran has made some progress in harshly quelling the countrywide demonstrations that erupted in November; however, the fact that much of the agitation arose in poor and rural areas—hitherto the backbone of regime support—cannot be reassuring to Tehran’s rulers.

The staying power of protest movements in Iraq and Lebanon remains to be seen but, so far, the persistence of the demonstrators has been impressive and not placated by the resignations of the prime ministers in both countries.

Citizens Defying Government Violence, While Remaining Nonviolent Themselves

A key factor in the staying power of the current wave of demonstrations in each of these countries has been the rejection of regime violence and intimidation. Governments throughout the region learned many lessons since the Arab Spring first raised alarms, and among those lessons is that violence works when other tactics fail. The 2011 Saudi intervention in Bahrain; the 2013 Rabaa massacre in Egypt; Iran’s reprisals against its angry citizens in 2009—these all had their intimidating effect. But that effect is lessening. Indeed, Iran’s resort to extreme violence again this year; a bloody assault by security forces and paramilitaries on pro-democracy demonstrators in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, in June; the killing of hundreds by Iraqi security forces and Iran-allied militias since early November: none of this has succeeded in stopping popular mobilization. Despite violence directed by the government or militias, people still take to the streets, knowing that when the regime’s use of force fails to accomplish its ends, it rapidly runs out of tools in its toolbox. And that is the beginning of the end.

The corollary to protesters’ collective determination to persist in the face of state violence is that most have rejected violence themselves. The overwhelmingly peaceful nature of much of the current wave of protests—despite some notable incidents of violence by protesters in Iraq and Iran—has helped lend legitimacy to their grievances while depriving governments of an excuse to resort to even harsher crackdowns.

Official Promises of Change No Longer Valued

Another important aspect of today’s protest movements is that citizens have learned to put much less trust in facile assurances of reform offered by ruling cliques, and especially the military.

Much has been learned from the experience of Egypt, whose generals wrote the modern-day book on how to subvert experiments in democracy and retain power for themselves. Huge demonstrations in 2013 against the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi (which Egypt’s armed forces may have helped provoke and fund) prompted an opportunistic coup by the Egyptian military that July, which the armed forces justified by insisting that Morsi had failed to heed popular demands for change. Even the United States accepted the generals’ line that they had acted to “restore democracy.” But the military quickly moved to solidify control, imprisoning Morsi and suppressing his supporters with an unprecedented level of violence. In the last few years, President Sisi has become increasingly authoritarian; his government has approved laws cracking down on all forms of political expression and emasculating civil society, even as the military has vastly extended its own economic power at the expense of the private sector.

In the last few years, President Sisi has become increasingly authoritarian; his government has approved laws cracking down on all forms of political expression and emasculating civil society.

The people of Sudan certainly took note, marching on the Egyptian embassy in Khartoum last April, brandishing anti-Sisi placards, and chanting slogans against Egypt’s military and its efforts to subvert their cause. Algerian protesters, cognizant of the Egyptian experience and their own rulers’ unrelenting grip on power, continue to inveigh against the extension of military rule, insisting on a transition to genuine civilian government. Where once, as in Egypt, regional militaries were regarded with a certain respect as the institutional guardians of security and stability, that connection with the people has been broken.

Nor have the promises of reform by politicians served to appease the demonstrators or address their demands. In Iraq, for example, protesters display deep “mistrust of state institutions” and a “profound lack of trust in the current political players,” according to Munqith Dagher, director of Middle East/North Africa for Gallup International. Small wonder that the resignation of the prime minister and promises of reform, jobs, and new elections have not kept the protesters from the streets.

Protest Is Non-Sectarian and More Nationalist

While in the past, traumatized communities have often clung to sectarian or ethnic identities at times of political agitation, today’s protests have more often taken on a nationalist bent that emphasizes unified calls for sweeping change. This is most vividly on display in Iraq and Lebanon, where demands for the overthrow of the entire political class have focused on bringing down the very sectarian spoils systems that contributed to the corruption and dysfunction of the state. In the case of Iraq, for example, Dagher’s polling found that Iraqis “are insistent on achieving their goal of changing the political system into one that is merit-based and no longer shaped primarily by group affiliation.” This has been a powerful theme of the protests in Lebanon as well. Whether all this will help dislodge deeply entrenched systems—and the special interests that both enable and profit from them—is unclear, but the fact that the protest movements have taken on the fight is a new and encouraging sign.

Signs of Things to Come?

Are these aspects of the current protests an indication of something really new—that broad-based political change in the Middle East is inevitable and is already on the way? It is impossible to predict which, if any, of the current protest movements will succeed in overcoming entrenched regimes and bringing about democratic systems, or at least systems that prove more capable and responsive than those they replace. It is also worth noting that protests in each country are rooted in their own very specific cultural and political contexts, which makes generalizations treacherous and conclusions difficult.

But the trend lines are undeniable. As Marc Lynch of George Washington University has noted, “the deep drivers of instability and popular unrest across the region are clear. As economic and demographic challenges mount, and political institutions have been stripped of legitimacy, regimes that are already exercising maximal repression have few options for escalation.” Even if this second wave of mass protests fails to yield the type of regime change many in the region seek, it will surely have laid the groundwork for the next upheaval.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here