To understand political developments in the Arab world requires a long view. None of the events in the region since 2011 are actually unusual when they are viewed against the history of other nations, with their own trajectory of wars, dictatorships, extremism, and periods of instability and stability. Every part of the evolving narrative of the Arab world is relatable to the historical experiences of Europe, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.
The revolutions that erupted across the Arab world, suddenly and unexpectedly in 2010, expressed the pent-up frustrations of populations seeking dignity, equality, freedom, and social and economic justice. The mass popular uprisings engulfed the entire Arab world, beginning in Tunisia in December 2010 and spreading like wildfire to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, with sustained protests occurring in other Arab countries. The revolutions that erupted in the Arab countries since 2011 were among the first post-colonial popular attempts to achieve transformative change in the predominantly authoritarian Arab governments.1
During 2011, many of the Arab regimes—created after World War I and reshaped in the aftermath of the independence movements from the 1940s through the 1960s—began to weaken, which had occurred in other regions and countries during the preceding four decades. The year ended with the beginning of a process to return active political participation to the Arab masses, which was a natural response to the populations’ discontent with deep-rooted societal problems.
The Arab revolutions succeeded during the first phase of their quest for change. Public opinion, including that of youth and human rights activists, was loudly and openly heard by the countries’ leaders. Through a sustained campaign of civil resistance, the people forced the presidents of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen from power and demanded the reinstatement of elections. The concept and content of constitutions also gained a new level of importance in 2011. The upheaval provided Islamists a major opportunity to increase or hold power, but not without potent challenges. The revolutions also sparked violence and unleashed deep divisions between competing groups within countries and overall visions for the region.
Prior to 2011, Arab regimes spent vast amounts of resources and time discrediting the political opposition and moderate forces in their societies. As a result of their long-term repression of dissent through the use of torture and other human rights abuses, the autocratic rulers had no allies and found no one with whom to negotiate the course of events when the revolutions erupted.
Even though in the first stages of the revolution the people were successful in unseating authoritarian leaders, as a consequence of the long-term suppression of political participation in the Arab countries, the organizers and participants in the Arab revolutions had limited experience in politics, governance, or managing rapid social change or transitions in administrations.2 The revolutionaries’ lack of experience in governing would provide an opportunity for a counterrevolution by the old guard.
Currently, the countries of the Arab world are experiencing the most complex series of civil wars and structural collapse of the entrenched Arab order since the inception of the modern Arab state system.3 The retreat of the Arab order since 2011 is a result of historical grievances and unresolved social and economic issues, including the Israeli occupation of Palestine, international interventions and wars in the region initiated by the United States and their allies, the political role of oil, Arab elites versus non-elites, economic transformation, and marginalization.
The revolutions in the Arab states alarmed and directly threatened the monarchies of the Arabian Gulf, and particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The eruptions took their leaders by surprise, and they were determined to stop them—one way or another, including by the use of force.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the UAE collaborated to crush the popular insurrection in Bahrain by rolling Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) tanks into Bahrain in 2011. Kuwait hesitated to support such an effort, but then sent medical assistance. In Egypt, the power structures controlled by the Egyptian generals led the counterrevolution, supported by important sectors of the Egyptian public that feared the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief period of governance. The GCC states, and particularly the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser degree Kuwait, supported the Egyptian military coup. However, leaks confirmed a deeper role by the UAE in the events leading to the coup.4 This laid the foundation for the ascent of General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013. While Qatar opposed the coup, Kuwait and Oman were caught in the middle. Since then, the Egyptian Army has been the main governing authority Egypt. The counterrevolutions in Libya and Yemen were supported by governments such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which feared they might be affected by the rebellions. The counterrevolution was an attempt to send the protest and revolutions away from the shores of the Gulf and other Arab stable states. This attempt missed the deep-rooted causes of the Arab rebellions.
The divisions between Islamists and non-Islamists played easily into the hands of the established status quo elites. The Muslim Brotherhood’s rising influence and popularity in the region from 2011 to 2012, and especially in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, added to the fears of entrenched regimes. Despite its popularity, the movement’s lack of flexibility and limited experience in governing proved detrimental, particularly in Egypt.
After the military coup, thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters were imprisoned in Egypt. Supporters of ousted President Morsi began to gather on August 14, 2013 to protest the military takeover in two locations in Cairo. For six weeks they protested, holding the largest organized protests in Rabaah al-Adawiyah Square in Nasr City in Cairo. Finally, Sisi ordered a military raid on the protestors after the government’s peaceful initiatives to end the six-week sit-ins failed. Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the raids on the peaceful protesters as “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.” HRW estimated that between 817 people, and more likely at least 1,000 people, were killed during the military’s raids.5
After the massacre, the government banned about 1,000 civil society organizations, expelled student activists from universities, jailed some 60,000 people deemed to be opponents, and brought hundreds of court cases to trial, seeking the death penalty. Torture was not uncommon in well-known prisons and numerous secret jails across the country. In January 2015, a new law6 gave universities the right to expel faculty on national security grounds, and another law froze the assets of more than 110 individuals, most of them Muslim Brotherhood members. Merely holding an opinion critical of the government could result in being targeted as a national security threat.7 Such practices continue in Egypt until today.8
After seizing control, rather than a progressive, citizen-focused government to lift society out of its political crisis, the people of Egypt were thrown back to an autocratic rule, with the military in control of more than 30 percent of the economy, and are served by a nonfunctioning bloated bureaucracy ruling through repression and fear.
Activists were reduced to mere numbers in courts, jails, and torture sites. By labeling the Muslim Brotherhood—the most organized political group in Egypt and the region—a terrorist organization, the military government provided an opening for the emergence of more radical militant Islamic groups. As long as the military rules Egypt, and marginalization of major forces and groups in society continues as it is today, there will be neither progress nor development.
In conjunction with the coup in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced that the Muslim Brotherhood was a terrorist organization.9 This took place when Saudi Arabia joined the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in withdrawing its ambassadors from Qatar. Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood on the basis of including Islamists in the new regional structures after 2011. Kuwait refrained and respected its unique balances in parliament and society and decided not to ban the Brothers nor withdraw its ambassador from Qatar.
This situation created a “state of exception,” to use Agamben’s theoretical formula: the region appeared to be one big state of exception as if it were in a state of war when anything could happen and people could disappear without explanation.10 A 2016 in-depth essay by Scott Anderson11 explaining what happened to some of the leading democratic activists of the revolution is a case in point. Activists were either on the run, sentenced to long prison terms, or left the region all together.
At the foundation of the counterrevolution to the Arab revolutions lay the strong belief by the Arab elites in various governments and countries that the old order could be saved. It seems, therefore, that the trigger for the region-wide unrest was missed or purposely disregarded from the start by those in power. The entrenched regimes or their remnants struck back with a vengeance, ignoring human rights, attempting to quash political expression, and engaging in deadly clashes with demonstrators.
The regimes sought to contain the 2011 revolutions not through political reform, but by clashing with demonstrators and imposing new unprecedented restrictions on political and public expression. Behind the regional destruction was the regimes’ refusal or deafness to the protesters’ discontent and challenges to the social-political contract with their respective governments. A return to stability will not occur without the respective governments’ awareness of the grievances and implementation of corrective policy changes to meet the needs of their populations. No amount of force will result in stability.
With the counterrevolution, the leading elites in the region surrounded themselves with new psychological and social walls. These walls became the base for further degeneration and civil wars. In many cases, the elites stopped seeing the protesters as citizens and viewed them as terrorists. Some regimes started to fear slogans, books, songs, and any expression that suggested discontent and change. Elites were paralyzed by the demand for change surrounding them and were unable to satisfy the voices clamoring for development, employment, human rights, and honest and effective governance.
The Arab elites, particularly those most involved in the Arab counterrevolution, consider the masses incapable of enjoying freedom responsibly and believe that unemployment and poverty result from a lack of commitment to work. The Arab elites, with some exceptions, do not view political monopoly, corruption, injustices, abuse of citizens, and lack of freedom and transparency as reasons for the masses’ dissatisfaction and revolt.
The French and British colonizers used the excuse that the people inhabiting the Ottoman territories, whom they wanted to dominate and colonize, were not “ready” for independence. Today, elites in many of those nation-states use the same excuse—that the people are not yet ready for democracy and full civil rights—in order to maintain their authoritarian and patriarchal regimes.
The challenge of the Arab states is by far a moral one. The strong do not even pay attention to the weak, and those who are privileged do not understand the needs of the underprivileged. Those attitudes, which accord no space for others who have differing viewpoints, in part also explain why violent opposition by the masses is also prevalent. Such dogmatic inflexibility produces failed states, conflicts, wars, terrorism, casualties, and refugees.
The Sunni-Shia Divide and the Counterrevolution
Sunni-Shia political and sectarian strife is part of the counterrevolution. Shia Iran supported the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its brutal suppression of the nonviolent popular revolution. Iran also encroached on Iraq’s independence and interfered in Yemen and Lebanon. The counterrevolution has taken on social and political dimensions that focus on the divide and not the ideals and goals of the 2011 revolutions’ democratic aspirations. It played into identity politics rather than emphasizing a vision for human rights and equality for all Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Yemenis, and Libyans. The elites of each state had no interest in any democratic transition because they risked losing their preferential status. This meant that Iranian intervention was met with Sunni assertion, whose nature was equally non-democratic. This was calculated to avoid a democratic Syria and a democratic transition in Yemen or in any part of the region.
Several regimes’ power structures have been tied to the allegiance of one sect or one Islamic interpretation to the exclusion of all others; examples are the minority Alawites in Syria, the minority Sunnis in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the current reversal of the ruling Shia in Iraq. The social and political dimensions of the counterrevolution have generated dynamics and brought a deeper reaction from Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular. It is in this context that the Syrian, Yemeni, and Libyan civil wars at some point became sectarian. Underneath the sectarian nature of the counterrevolution lay a non-democratic ideology focused on recreating the old Arab order.
On the other hand, Iran’s main miscalculation can be seen equally in its underestimation of the Arab Spring and the Syrian revolution. Iran ended up supporting its form of the counterrevolution. It never sought to open a true dialogue with the centrist and nonsectarian forces in the Syrian opposition and rebellion (an example is the Free Syrian Army). This applies equally to the way Iran dealt with Iraq after the failed US policy there since the 2003 invasion. Iran marginalized the Shia parties that were not fully on board with its vision, and it equally helped marginalize Sunnis, which produced a radical form of Sunni extremism: the Islamic State.
IS and the Marginalized
The Islamic State, or IS, was the latest of the extremist simplistic ideologies aimed at filling the vacuum created by intense social political and economic challenges. Its ideology is far right of the 2011 peaceful protests and revolutions and represents an important aspect of the post-2011 counterrevolution. In many ways, IS itself represents a marginalized and traumatized group composed of disaffected segments of Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis. This so-called Islamic State is a result of the brutality of the Assad regime and the alienation experienced by Iraqi Sunnis in the post 2003 US-led war in Iraq. Terrorism and violence also played into the hands of the counterrevolution.
The Syrian revolution was initially peaceful and nonviolent. The aim of Syrian intelligence was to undermine the revolution, which was gaining momentum and popularity. The brutality of the of the Syrian regime resulted in defections and splits in the Syrian Army. This formed the pragmatic centrist Free Syrian Army. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad released all the imprisoned jihadists from jail in late 2011, who formed al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, and other jihadist groups such as IS—the Arab version of the Jacobins’ violent extremism of the French revolution. The Syrian regime was clearly aware that the released jihadists would seek to alienate the population in areas they terrorized and occupied. From then on, the Syrian rebellion was regionalized and then internationalized.
IS’s criminality cannot be attributed to Islam. All religious adherents have the potential to be extremists in ideology as well as compassionate pacifists. In fact, the major factors that nurture extremism among marginalized groups are the sociopolitical structure of marginalization, persecution, relative deprivation, a blocked future for youth, arrogance of regimes, the lack of democracy, widespread corruption, multiple foreign military interventions, and occupation.12
A case in point is the recent modern history of Iraq, which has been one of death, destruction, and repression since the 1980 Iraq–Iran war, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, international sanctions imposed on Iraq since 1990, the 2003 US-led invasion which destroyed huge swaths of the Iraqi state infrastructure and disbanded the Iraqi army, and a decade of Sunni marginalization in the country. Some of IS’s foot soldiers are composed of the unemployed soldiers of the Iraqi Baath army that the Americans ill-advisedly disbanded when they invaded the country in 2003.
Many of the governments in the region are utilizing the war against IS and terrorism to undermine their populations’ civil rights and to clamp down on any freedom of critical expression. More youth activists and political opposition members will be imprisoned or exiled, creating more anger and violence and less state legitimacy. Ironically, the government’s pretext of fighting terrorism will only incite terror by the disaffected groups.
Despite the attempted government repression in Iraq, Syria, and the other Arab countries, their citizens’ desire and struggle for centrist, humanist, and democratic values continues undaunted and has increased momentum fueled by millions of young people.
Monarchies and Change
The revolutions put pressure on the region’s monarchies. Although the monarchies have tended to enjoy more popular legitimacy than the entrenched despots of the Arab republics, their populations nonetheless endured the same lack of political expression, freedoms, and government accountability as the populations living under other systems of government in the region. The monarchies’ welfare policies and a respect for internal social and cultural balances, enabled by oil production, have managed to partially pacify the populations and mask deep-rooted problems.
Protest movements during 2011 in Jordan and Morocco, both non-oil-producing states, initially gained some momentum. The Jordanian monarchy, confident in the stability of its structures, carried out very limited reforms. Yet, its serious challenges of high unemployment, coupled with the dire economic losses from trade with its two main trading partners Iraq and Syria, widened the gap between classes. Jordan seems to be heading toward a crisis. Some of the main changes to the constitution that Jordan’s King Abdullah II approved in 2011—to create a constitutional monarchy in deference to the mass protests across the region—are being reversed by the monarchy. This happens in the context of the counterrevolution in the region.
When the monarchies felt threatened by the mass protests, they offered limited reforms in an attempt to satisfy the population’s grievances. However, as the counterrevolution successfully reclaimed power, the reforms were minimized or reversed.
Moroccan King Mohammed VI is a most astute ruler in terms of constitutional and political reforms. He demonstrated, at least in the short term, an ability to absorb and accommodate the energy of the street. His pragmatic approach helped to prevent major instability in Morocco, where the prime minister and the government were elected through multiparty competition. But Morocco, like Jordan, also sought to minimize the constitutional amendments once the agitation in the street calmed. Nevertheless, Morocco is a much bigger country than Jordan with a larger population, which requires that the king be more responsive to the population’s grievances.
The unrest since fall 2016 in the northeastern districts of Morocco resulted in dozens of arrests. The regime tried to demonstrate its ability to positively address the popular demands for infrastructural development by investing in roads, schools, hospitals, etc. The Moroccan government did not dismiss the population’s demands; rather, the king sent his ministers and senior representative to the area to prevent an escalation of the protests. The police report confirmed the peaceful nature of the protest movement, while the intelligence report focused on the need to provide stability and highlighted the potential danger of the movement and urged for a repressive approach to ensure security. The goal of the Moroccan regime, and particularly of the palace, is to undermine the protest movement while at the same time negotiating with the movement’s leaders to reestablish stability. Even though the Moroccan monarchy is the most flexible in the region, it still faces immense challenges and will not be able to absorb sociopolitical change and pressures without major compromises with the opposition and instituting reforms.
In 2011, Bahrainis filled the streets of the capital and the country to peacefully protest discrimination, the government’s centralization of power, and the marginalization of the Shia majority by the Sunni minority, before being crushed by local military forces supported by GCC forces. Headed by Saudi Arabia, the GCC rolled tanks into Bahrain in 2011 to quell the demonstrations. The Bahraini population was seeking genuine reforms, which would not undermine the essence of the political system. Bahrainis were looking for a new power structure based on accountability, civil rights, and a stronger parliament. The Bassiouni report on the events gave no indication of any Iranian involvement in the rebellion.13
Bahrain remains divided and its political fate is closely linked to the Saudi government. It continues to have a blocked political culture, and the Shia–Sunni divide remains at the forefront of the grievances. In the case of any of weakness in the Saudi projection of power, Bahrain could be the first to move in the direction of a full constitutional monarchy. Scenarios that include the end of the monarchy cannot be dismissed, however. The ruling Bahraini and Saudi Arabia regimes accused Shia Iran of instigating the protest movement in Bahrain. The Saudi intervention to crush the popular protest further alienated the Bahraini population, which is seeking civil and human rights, as well as justice.
Kuwait remains the most politically open Arab Gulf state with a constitution and a freely elected parliament, which openly challenges the prime minister over policy and direction. Nonetheless, the government’s prohibition on political partiess not contributed to the development of its political maturity. From 2011 until early late 2012, a Kuwaiti youth-based movement organized opposition and demonstrations against the government, mobilizing tens of thousands of people of the over 3 million Kuwaiti population at that time. The protests resulted in the resignation of the prime minister. Indeed, the peaceful protest movement left a deep mark on Kuwaiti society. It also led to confrontations led by the government’s heavy-handed policy of arrests, legal cases, and prison sentences imposed on the organizers of the movement.
The protest movements in Kuwait and in the other monarchies did not focus on regime change. In fact, many focused on the goal of a constitutional monarchy with a popularly elected head of government chosen by a legislature. Yet none of the governments moved in that direction. The counterrevolution resulted in a return to the status quo ante in Kuwait and Bahrain. The parties and groups that lost their struggle or were jailed, or even left their countries altogether, were disappointed by the outcomes; they continue their work and await regional changes that will open the political space.
In Saudi Arabia the transition from the older generation of the ruling Al Saud family to a younger generation, particularly after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) as crown prince during the summer of 2017, is another challenge facing the kingdom. The rise of MbS as crown prince required deposing the influential Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. It also resulted in one branch of the family totally marginalizing the other branches of the sons of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud. The familial balances that provided Saudi Arabia with a level of internal debate between branches of the ruling family suddenly had disappeared and a new more concentrated power dynamic emerged.
The current ruling branch of the Al Saud family moved to consolidate its power and eliminate dissent. Dozens of intellectuals and religious leaders known for their opinions were targeted, including journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was forced into exile. Khashoggi is a member of the Saudi elite, with strong contacts to the regime and the ruling family; his silencing and forced exile is a sign of rising authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia. The arrest of Salman Alodah (and dozens of reformers), the leading Saudi cleric who supported the Arab Spring and called for reform and democracy, is another sign of a more repressive government in Saudi Arabia. However, the most recent arrests of November 5, 2017 of dozens of leading ruling elite members of the Al Saud family, such as billionaire Walid bin Talal, and of leading members of Saudi business families, such as owners of major media channels and large construction companies, is testimony to the high level of tension present in the Saudi system. The consolidation of power and restrictions on dissent were harbingers of the more aggressive Saudi foreign policy, leading to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in 2015 and the Qatar blockade since June 2017.
Even though a popularly elected prime minister under a sitting monarch is not yet a priority among the Saudi population at large, by the beginning of the next decade, it would not be surprising if Saudis begin to ask for certain constitutional rights. Current events and Saudi foreign policy will only hasten such a possibility.
The Qatar Crisis and the Counterrevolution
The period of calm and normality in Doha ended on June 5, 2017 when Qataris awoke to startling news. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt had closed their embassies in Doha and imposed a blockade against Qatar, which included all trade and land, travel, and airline routes. The governments enforcing the blockade also ordered all Qatari citizens to leave their countries and forced their own citizens to leave Qatar.
The surreal situation was like the summer of 1990, just before the full-fledged Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. The surprise and shocking blockade affected students, mixed families, and residents of each of the countries involved. The UAE even froze the businesses and bank accounts of Qatari citizens there. The measures against a GCC member were unprecedented and shocking. Prior to the imposition of punitive measures, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt had launched a propaganda campaign against Qatar, which began with the hacking of the Qatar News Agency website on the May 23, 2017. It was an orchestrated, all-out negative media campaign.
The intervention by the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah, to mediate between the countries was a welcome development. To be sure, Kuwait had experienced crises in the past, and by far the worst was Iraq’s 1990 invasion. What helped to reassure observers was Turkey’s sending military forces in support of Qatar two days after the initial crisis. Turkey’s intervention and the Kuwaiti mediation efforts changed the balance of the crisis and provided a significant regional balance.
Oman’s neutral position was yet another balancing force in the GCC. Iran provided Qatar with food supplies and access to air and sea routes. Supportive interventions to Qatar by other Gulf countries were factors that the blockading countries had not taken into account; they presumed that the Qatari government would quickly capitulate to their demands. A military option seems to have been averted at the last minute resulting from either the disapproval by President Trump or the quick regional mediation and Turkey’s intervention. It is noteworthy that Saudi King Salman had been in Doha just a few months prior to the crisis, and GCC kings and emirs had hosted President Donald Trump at a summit in May 2017 in Saudi Arabia.
The aggression against Qatar was seemingly inexplicable. Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia were in a coalition fighting in Yemen, had combined forces in Syria, supported some of the same groups fighting against Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and fought other terror groups in Iraq. The countries had been united in more ways than they were divided.
The blockading states soon realized that they had to provide justification for isolating Qatar. Their original rationale for the crisis was unreasonable and the crisis appeared manufactured, baseless, and illogical. The blockading countries did provide a list of terrorists living in Qatar (who do not appear on the international list of terrorists), among whom was Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the well-known cleric of the Muslim Brotherhood. It became clear that anyone critical of the four blockading states could easily be accused of terrorism, which is why the nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood appeared on the list.
President Donald Trump contributed to escalating the Qatar crisis by tweeting signals of support to the blockading countries. In contrast, the US Department of State and the Department of Defense held another opinion of the crisis. Whereas the president was supportive of the blockade, during the early phases of the crisis, the Qatari military participated in joint military exercises with the US Army while the government of Qatar moved forward on large purchases of US military airplanes. Both the US diplomatic and defense agencies continued to carry on business as usual with Qatar, despite President Trump’s actions.
When the blockading countries were pressed by the USA and the Kuwait mediation efforts to provide a detailed list demands to lift the blockade, they produced such a list on June 23. The demands included that Qatar reduce diplomatic representation with Iran, shut down the Turkish military base it was establishing, and halt any military cooperation with Turkey. They also stipulated that Doha shut down Al Jazeera television and all affiliated channels, stop interfering in other countries’ domestic and foreign affairs, and provide all databases related to any opposition groups Qatar supported. The four blockading countries also specified that all media outlets backed directly or indirectly by Doha be shut down. In addition, Qatar was to refrain from naturalizing any citizen from the three GCC countries if that person had been stripped of his/her citizenship in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Bahrain.
Qatar also was required to sever all ties with ideological and sectarian terrorist organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah and to cease funding any activities by extremist and terrorist individuals, entities, and organizations. Qatar was ordered to hand over all designated terrorists wanted by the four countries, freeze their assets, desist from hosting any terrorists in the future, and provide reparations to the four countries for any opportunity costs incurred over the past few years because of Qatari’s policies. The countries also demanded that Qatar cooperate with the other GCC Gulf states on all levels.
Qatar responded to the accusations of terrorism by signing an anti-terrorism pact with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.14 The US State Department certified Qatar’s activities as non-supportive of terrorism. In fact, US representatives announced on several occasions that the Qatari role in combatting terrorism and fighting IS is essential to the war on terror. However, the blockading states viewed opposition and nonviolent groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as terrorist.
The crisis allowed Qatar to discover new allies and find new trade routes such as Oman, Iran, and Turkey to bypass the blockade. The crisis also pushed Doha toward a neutral stance vis-à-vis Iran, particularly in the areas of food and trade. The new reality resulted in Doha dealing with its borders as if it were an island in the midst of the ocean. The inherent contradictions of the crisis resulted in large sections of Arab public opinion holding sympathetic views toward Qatar.
Qatar withstood the attack on its independence and managed the crisis well. It succeeded in securing necessary food supplies and utilized its new airport and port to make deals with Turkey, Kuwait, Iran, and Oman. Qatar discovered a new national consensus as the popularity of its young untested emir and his associates reached unprecedented levels.
The pressure to lift the blockade on Qatar will continue and there will be numerous legal cases in international courts to challenge the legitimacy of the blockade. The pressure will continue by the United States and other world powers to lift the blockade and Kuwait will continue its mediation efforts.
The Gulf Crisis and the Arab State Reforms
The Gulf crisis was only part of a general situation linked to the counterrevolution in the region. Attacking media outlets, treating peaceful opposition as terrorists, and asking that Qatar cooperate with all GCC policies meant abandoning any critique, debate, or discussion about the Yemen war or human rights abuses in the region or activities of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A transnational Sunni Islamist organization founded in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood combines political activism with Islamic charitable works. Members represent a particular sector of society and have formed a popular grassroots organization. They will not be crushed by repression, which only contributes to their popularity. Their demise will occur only through loss of public trust in their organization and via the ballot box.
The question arises: Would it be better to have Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Qatar or Istanbul, or to make them move to Iran? The blockading countries’ actions, in fact, strengthen Iran. Further, their claims that Hamas is a terrorist organization are problematic. Has Hamas ever targeted citizens or areas of another country, as IS did? After all, Saudi Arabia supported Hamas for a long time, since its inception. A resistance movement, Hamas focuses its efforts—which are sometimes violent—on Palestine and the land occupied by Israel, with all the complexities and moral issues stemming from the occupation and siege of Palestine.
Violence spreads among those countries that instigate war and occupation and employ torture, executions, and imprisonment against opponents. Violence in the Middle East will only be resolved by opening the public space, ensuring freedom of expression, and laying the foundation for economic and political reform that addresses the marginalized groups.
The Limits of the Counterrevolution
The counterrevolutions did not change or resolve the grievances that sparked the initial revolutions. On the contrary, the counterrevolutions’ goals are essentially to maintain the status quo. According to the Arab Justice Report, the average and unofficial unemployment rate is approximately 21 to 25 percent among youth in many Arab countries.15 In addition, employment is not merit based. Most of the wealth in the region lies in the hands of a few, with the middle classes stuck in a steady downward trajectory. The Global Financial Integrity organization reports that the Arab world lost $740 billion through the illegal transfer of monies from 2003 to 2012. The annual average losses in Egypt was $3.8 billion and in Syria $3.7 billion.16 Greed among elites is indeed a major Arab economic challenge. During the last two decades the political security elite encroached on the national wealth of states in the context of the new-liberal economy of privatization. High levels of nepotism and corruption made such a process take root at the expense of the middle and lower classes. So far, no Arab state has a decent or progressive tax system.17
Injustice in the Arab world is also evident in citizens’ inability to influence the political system or the government at any level, including by electing heads of state or prime ministers. Citizens lack the right to criticize their leaders or remove them from office through peaceful means. Constitutional rights on paper are weak in implementation. Public funds become the private wealth of a very small minority, while for the majority of the population, opportunities in employment, education, and health and fair treatment by the state are sorely lacking or nonexistent.
Differences in opinion and actual opposition can result in repression, imprisonment, or death. In the Syrian civil war, the government adopted an organized approach to destroying the country’s ancient cities and forcing populations from their homes. Syria, however, remains the state in the world with the most internally displaced persons. Over six million Syrians and 3.5 million Iraqis are internally displaced. This is not counting the millions of refugees who have crossed borders from Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are currently involved in a protracted war in Yemen against Houthi rebels. The Yemeni campaign will ultimately have a huge detrimental financial and political impact on Yemen, the Saudi political system, and the region, especially when coupled with the decline in oil prices and the series of wars in Syria and Iraq. The number of internally displaced persons in Yemen has exceeded 2 million. Deaths from the war exceeded 10,000 in January 2017, of which the majority are civilians. The human medical and infrastructural toll in Yemen has only gotten worse by the day since the war began in 2015.
The Arab order is in a state of disorder, despite some stable areas and countries. Most of the region is sitting on a time bomb composed of youth between the ages of 15 and 29; they comprise about 27 percent of the population and require freedom, dignity, jobs, security, and a happier life.18 Many more Arabs are also under the age of 15. The unaccountable security-oriented state will not meet their aspirations. The more time that passes, the more radicalized grassroots movements will become. The entrenched regimes lack imagination and creativity in providing solutions to deep-rooted social and political problems—this is the core of the problem.
A victory on the battlefield by any party in Syria does not mean that the nation has recovered. It marks the beginning of a long period of dealing with armed groups and new ethnic and tribal divisions, which have emerged from the actions of the rebels and the regime in Syria. Such chaotic circumstances, further complicated by the emergence of the Islamic state have led to multiple foreign interventions by Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the GCC to support rebels and the survival of powerful segments of the old regime.
The command-based structure and plans such as the Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia or similar policies in the region, which typically are emptied from any discussion at any level, are creating further challenges. Long-term policy plans face immense challenges among critical populations; without political or human rights or justice dimensions, they will inevitably stumble.
The Arab struggle is back to the drawing board. Activists will have to convince more people that the entire regime needs transformation and that only mass action will bring about change and democratic transition. Regimes will continue to demonstrate that any move or expression or tweet or talk will end up being severely punished. To different degrees, Arab regimes fear slogans, books, songs, poetry, and anything suggesting change. They are stressed by the changes around them, but prefer the security approach to addressing the driving forces demanding change: lack of development, high unemployment, deep corruption, limited accountability, and violations of human rights.
The Arab youth is not all of one mind or one kind, but most have nowhere else to go, which is at the root of their politicization. Emigrating to Europe or the United States is not a viable option for those in the middle or underprivileged classes. Without change, youth in the region will only become more desperate, making them less likely to live with the apathy of the past. They will move either toward a radical nationalist ideology, join violent extremist groups, or take part in nonviolent revolutionary or reform-oriented civil and human rights movements. The competition between the paradigms will become more intense. The established Arab order will be the main factor in pushing youth in one direction or another.
The Arab counterrevolution has had one major accomplishment: buying time while making the problems worse and complex. The only real option for regimes is to pursue political settlements with the opposition and implement genuine processes for reform. Arab societies will absorb the effects of the counterrevolution, but ultimately, failure to deliver change will inspire another revolutionary wave and/or further violence and state failures.
Today, the old order is fighting on two fronts: first, against violent extremism, including IS, al-Qaeda, and other splinter groups; and second, against nonviolent opponents and activists seeking change and democratization. The struggle against both has created a dynamic whereby states are using the fight against the former to undermine the rights of the latter. The greater the number of activists and political opponents who land in jail for their opinions or criticism of leaders, the greater the anger and potential for violence and the threat to state legitimacy.
The era of mass politics, activism, unionism, strikes, peaceful resistance, and youth movements will continue to expand in the region. Nonviolent activism will exist side by side with the inevitable violence and war on terror in reaction to heightened levels of repression.
If the West makes fighting violence its priority without distinguishing between groups, causes, roots of anger, military occupation, human rights, people and regime, and violence and peaceful struggles, it will only feed into the larger conflicts and its own failure in dealing with the region.
The West wanted oil and provided open unconditional support to Israel. It also sold the most expensive and sophisticated weapons to the region and ignored human rights abuses and repression. What we have today is a result of failed international policies within the region.
The Arab world has one successful example of a peaceful transition to democratic governance. Tunisia is the first of the post-revolution Arab countries to succeed in electing Islamists into power and then removing them from power through the ballot box and popular pressure. This example has calmed the deepest fears held by many that the Arab revolutions would commence with the revolt of the youth and end with Islamists reinstituting a dictatorship. Tunisia is clearly an exemplary case as the country continues to adapt its policies and reject exclusionism.
The cataclysmic political events experienced by the Arab world will not be resolved without a major future transformation of the status quo. In some countries, a second revolutionary force will emerge; in others a grand deal is possible, which could lead to reform or a new revolution. In the absence of reform and change, and the survivability of dictatorship, the next Arab revolutionary wave will be more radical in thinking and method and will focus on accomplishing what was not accomplished in 2011. It will have a deeper level of anger and determination to reach its goals. Those who made it through the revolutions of 2011 will appear soft compared to their younger radicalized brothers and sisters who saw how the revolutionaries were hunted down and abused. All attempts to return to authoritarianism will only contribute to deeper conflict in the region.
1 See my earlier paper, “The Arab Revolution: A Second Independence,” in The GCC in the Mediterranean in Light of the Arab Spring, Mediterranean Paper Series, 2012, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, pp. 1-8.
2 See Marwan Muasher, The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
3 On different forms of more peaceful revolutions, see George Lawson, Negotiated Revolutions: The Czech Republic, South Africa and Chile. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2005.
4 Recordings Suggest Emirates and Egyptian Military Pushed Ousting of Morsi, David D. Kirkpatrick, March 1, 2015.
5 Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: Rab’a Killings Likely Crimes against Humanity.“
6 The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, “Legislation Tracker, a Constitutional Perspective.“
9 BBC, “Saudi Arabia declares Muslim Brotherhood ‘terrorist group’,” March 7, 2014; The National, “List of groups designated terrorist organisations by the UAE,” November 16, 2014.
10 See Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
12 For a theoretical base for such suffering, see Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics” in Biopolitics: A Reader. Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, eds. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013, pp. 161-192.
13 See the Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, M. Cherif Bassiouni, Chair, et al., presented in Manama, Bahrain, on November 23, 2011.
16 Dev Kar and Joseph Spanjers, “Illicit Financial Flows from Developing Countries: 2003-2012,” Global Financial Integrity, December 2014.
17 From “Injustice in the Arab Region and the road to Justice,” originally prepared by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. The report was removed from the ESCWA website as a result of pressure by several Arab states.