A year and a half later, the “Arab Spring” protests that have swept the Arab world look a lot more like a clash of four seasons and not simply the onset of one. Its four Rs are revolution, rebellion, religion and recidivism.
As in the French and American revolutions, many of those who have taken to the streets in the Arab world seek human dignity and political order based on democratic values and the rule of law. But there is also the simple smell of rebellion in their efforts to toss out bad leaders who have long since lost their political legitimacy and grip on power.
Religion also lies at the roots of the Arab Spring. Islamists of both moderate and extremist persuasion are now vying for political power either at the ballot box or through the barrel of a gun. Some clearly hope to introduce Sharia law into the political life and constitutions of their countries. The rights of women and religious minorities will accordingly suffer if there are not countervailing guarantees.
The Arab Spring has also let loose longstanding tribal and sectarian animosities. Those clinging to power have not shied from manipulating so-called “ancient hatreds” for their own selfish purposes. Those who seek to topple dictators and reigning monarchs have also appealed to ethno-religious symbols and partisan ties. Recidivism is thus yet another feature of the Arab Spring.
In some cases, the Arab Spring has simply been superimposed on top of a continuing conflict as in the case of Yemen where social protest erupted during the sixth round of a civil war between the Yemeni Army and the followers of Hussein al-Huthy.
The final direction of the Arab Spring’s winds is still uncertain. It courses through the different valleys of the Arab World with unpredictable force and uncertain direction. But these winds are driven by some common elements.
Throughout the Arab world, this political hurricane has gotten its gigantic energy from intergenerational change and a massive demographic bulge of baby boomers who are now in their late teens or early 20s. The Arab World’s young, like much of Europe and increasingly North America, are for the most part unemployed and deeply disenchanted. They blame their ill fortune on a predatory, dynastic power system that has survived for years on clientelism, cronyism and corruption.
Syria, for example, has a labour force of five million. Its economic growth averaged five percent per year in the five years leading up to the protests. The benefits of growth, however, were not distributed evenly. The Assad family and ruling Alawite minority controlled much of the country’s key businesses and governance structures. Syria’s official unemployment rate was eight percent. But the true figure was likely closer to 20 percent and even higher for youth and female unemployment. Economic growth, based largely on the county’s oil and agricultural sectors, could not create sufficient jobs for the roughly 300,000 annual new entrants into the labour force.
The dynastic state is a prominent feature of all Arab Spring countries. In a real sense, the traditional monarchies of Qatar, the Gulf and Saudi Arabia are no different from Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen where, for many years, ruling families controlled the state and key sectors of the economy.
In Egypt, the people were fed up with a corrupt dictator who wanted to transfer power to one of his two playboy sons. In Syria, the people clearly already had enough of the son of a dictator who, unlike his father, has been an inept power broker, though just as ruthless.
Another force of change is social media, which has been a key instrument of political mobilization and social protest in all Arab Spring countries. But the power and speed of the internet and mobile phones are not matched by equivalency in getting different groups to work together to build effective political coalitions, or to translate the power of the street into concrete plans of action based on a shared vision of the future. Arab Spring “revolutions” have generally tended to be leaderless with an opposition that is divided and weak.
There are two dominant patterns in the Arab Spring: the short track and the long track. Egypt and Tunisia were on the short track. Leaders were forced out quickly. A new political and institutional framework emerged in a remarkably short period of time and the process of writing new rules of engagement, negotiating new constitutional arrangements and holding parliamentary and presidential elections has already begun. Violence in short-track countries has also been somewhat limited.
In Egypt and Tunisia, the short track was helped by the fact that the military did not turn the full force of its guns against the people. This may have something to do with the conscript nature of the Tunisian and Egyptian armies and the relatively short period of service (one-to-two years), particularly for non-commissioned officers.
In those countries where the Arab Spring has taken the long track, things have been much more messy and violent. Libya, Yemen and Syria are illustrative examples. Ironically, the longer it has taken to get rid of the leader — and in the Syrian case he is still hanging on — the more fractured the opposition and the harder it has been to develop viable political coalitions which can work together and agree on common goals.
Finally, it bears mention that the Arab Spring is not just a domestic political phenomenon. It is having profound regional and geopolitical implications that we are only just beginning to grasp. It is generating new conflicts in the region while reigniting some old strategic rivalries. Left unattended, the escalation of these conflicts will be disastrous for regional and global stability.
Elections have failed to create stability in key Arab Spring countries. In Libya, for example, although oil production resumed shortly after Gadhafi’s fall, the security situation deteriorated rapidly. In the absence of any kind of proper and effective national military or police force, local militias and armed gangs have run amok in Libya’s cities, towns and villages. Strong separatist forces are also at play. Libya risks being torn apart by longstanding regional and tribal rivalries and by those who oppose even a return to the loose federal arrangement of the 1950s before Gadhafi seized power.
The real message behind the recent Egypt’s presidential election is that the ancien regime is alive and well, but that the country is also deeply polarized. Egypt’s young revolutionaries can take much of the credit for toppling Egypt’s aging dictator Hosni Mubarak. However, like student protesters in France in 1968, many of Egypt’s young revolutionaries are self-described anarchists.
There may be other parallels, too. De Gaulle eventually forged his own separate pact with France’s unions and sidelined the students. Egypt’s three political elephants — the Muslim Brotherhood, the residue of the Mubarak regime and the military — may be forced to do the same.
Although the Egyptian economy in the final years of Mubarak’s rule was chugging along at a respectable rate of growth, in the range of 4 to 5 percent GDP, it tanked during the revolution. Current growth is an anemic 1.4 percent. This is far below the 7 to 8 percent needed to provide jobs for young Egyptians who are entering the workforce in massive numbers. The country’s coffers are also running dry after Egypt’s military rulers turned down a major IMF loan last year. The Saudis have extended a helping hand with a $1 billion loan offer, but that is not going to be enough to pay the bills for very long.
Egypt’s new president has a lot on his plate and not much time to deliver the goods. He is also going to have to work with Egypt’s Islamist-dominated parliament to write a new constitution, which will mean shedding some of his presidential powers.
The conflict in Syria is a deadly tussle among competing narratives in the Arab Spring. Syria’s protestors seek dignity, justice and an alternation of power. But the rebellion against Assad is rapidly turning into an all-out civil war as Syria’s neighbours — Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudia Arabia, Qatar — exploit the country’s internal religious and sectarian differences.
Syria’s opposition is divided and confused. Unless its members can create some kind of common front around a key set of shared political goals, Syria’s future is anything but assured.
As one young Syrian female youth activist said recently: “We have two movements in Syria right now, but the civil movement has to eventually supplant the military movement. The regime can deal with the military movement but it won’t be able to defeat a united civil front. That is because the day civil activists can occupy the major squares of Aleppo and Damascus, the regime will fall.”
This young woman, wise beyond her years, also observed: “In politics, you have solutions — but not one solution.” That is Syria’s challenge. It is also the challenge for the rest of the Arab world.
Fen Osler Hampson is a Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Global Security Program at Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation.