On the evolutions of the Arab Spring

in Regions and Cohesion

Abstract

This article looks back at the 2011 Arab Spring where the movements that brought hope to the region and beyond seem to have gone astray. The military has taken over in Egypt, while Libya, Syria and Yemen have descended into civil strife with tremendous human costs. Bahrain has witnessed repression that has overwhelmed the opposition, and while Tunisia, the country where Arab Spring began, has avoided the violence characterizing the aforementioned states, change has remained rather limited. As for other countries that rode on the same wave of mobilizations, hopes for democratic transformation have been subdued in some-what less violent contexts but with varying degrees of pressure from the state. This article examines what has happened to the Arab Spring countries, why and what is required to democratically transform the region.

As we look back in 2017 at the Arab Spring, we get a sense that it went astray rather quickly after beginning in December 2010. While in Egypt the military has taken over, Libya, Syria and Yemen have descended into chaos, and in Bahrain repression has overwhelmed the opposition. Although Tunisia has avoided going down in a spiral of havoc or violent coups, change has remained rather limited. As for other countries that rode on the same wave of mobilizations, hopes for change have been voiced down in somewhat less violent contexts but with varying degrees of pressure from the state.

Regions and Cohesion had me as the guest editor of a special issue on the Arab Spring in late 2012, and I still stand by what I wrote then: that the Arab uprisings already were stumbling against great difficulties and would continue to do so in the short run, but eventually they would have enormous and groundbreaking effects (Conde, 2012b). Most analysts were more optimistic at that time, and are more pessimistic now. In this brief article, I propose a reflection about what has happened, why and what is required to see more thorough changes in Arab countries.

What happened

Somehow, almost nobody expected large-scale rebellions to take place in the Arab region, as if it were an exception to all rules of social behavior. Regional integration had been a longtime goal, and to a degree it had been taking place, but with little if any improvements in social cohesion. Founded in 1945, the Arab League is among the first regional organizations established after World War II. Although attempts at unifying Arab countries into a single state have failed, Arabs seem to have a stronger sense of common identity than people in other regions, such as Latin America or even Europe. After the Khartum summit of 1967, rich oil-producing countries agreed to share part of their wealth to what could amount to social cohesion funds to help other Arab countries or individuals in economic distress. Further regional integration seemed to be in the works during the first decade of the 2000s with the interconnection of the electrical grid of Arab countries and the formation of the Great Arab Free Trade Agreement (GAFTA). However, economic and social differences have only increased.

During the few months after December 2010, as readers will remember, widespread rebellions did take place in many Arab countries. In January, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was deposed, and the following month came the turn of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Like a spark in a dry field, rebellion spread West to the Moroccan coast, East to the Syrian desert, and South to Yemen and Bahrain, attracting many others in the territories in between. Millions in the streets were seeking an end to authoritarianism, a stop to corruption, an improvement in living conditions, as well as other more local demands, summarized in the slogan, “The people want the downfall of the regime.” Many have reflected about the meaning of these mobilizations since then (Botiveau, 2016; Gelvin, 2016; Sierra Kobeh, 2012).

While the Arab Spring mobilizations somehow were a continuation of previous uprisings in the region (Barreñada, 2016; Pastor de María y Campos, 2012), they also represented a break with them. The new generation massively participating in many of the 2011 demonstrations had been born after the great defeats of opposition movements in the twentieth century, although many from previous generations were present as well. Nonetheless, there are many connections between the 2011 mobilizations and the anti-imperialist rebellions of the 1920s, 1950s and 1960s, as well as with the generally more Islamic-oriented oppositions of the 1980s and 1990s (although we should not forget that the Islamic opposition was not the only one to give a fight during this later period).

The 2011 mobilizations were so large and oddly unexpected that they frightened international and Arab economic, political and military elites. When Ben Ali and Mubarak started tumbling, oligarchs of the entire region feared for their own future. Their international allies also understood the stakes. The Arab Spring came as an earthquake to a state of affairs painfully established in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Conde, 2012c), which had put an end to a period of anti-imperialist and social revolution (Pastor de María & Campos, 2012). The order that protesters were challenging was far from perfect from the point of view of US and European governments and corporations, including major oil companies. However, it was sufficiently stable to guarantee their business, political and military goals.

The uprisings in Libya and Syria seemed to offer an opportunity for Western countries and their allies in the region to act in favor of the Arab Spring in these two countries without doing much for other experiences without affecting their interests too harshly. They could openly support regime change in Libya and at least nominally in Syria, while trying to limit changes in the rest of the region. However, this proved more complicated to achieve than they would have liked, as it spurred contradictions both at the global and regional arenas. The contest between the United States and Russia clearly reignited, as did the contests between Saudi Arabia and Iran and Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Turkey.

Fears and contradictions increased with the electoral successes of Islamic fundamentalist parties in Tunisia and Egypt. In quite unprecedented competitive elections, a relatively moderate trend of Islamic fundamentalist parties was able to capitalize on the mobilizations. The Muslim Brotherhood parties in these two countries achieved important victories. This came as a surprise to many analysts, since the Arab Spring demonstrations in the early months of 2011 rarely voiced religiously oriented slogans. Many early enthusiasts of the protests became skeptical of this evolution and stopped supporting the democratic transition in Arab countries. However, as Achcar (2013) has explained, it is quite inevitable that a transition to democracy in this region goes through a phase of Muslim Brotherhood ascendancy, as this current has for a long time represented the most active opposition to the authoritarian regimes. Later on, large sections of the people of these countries are bound to become disaffected with the Brotherhood in government as it starts putting into practice its reactionary policies, as it came to be seen in Egypt after only one year of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013.

The Syrian conundrum

The Arab Spring events in Syria are quite complex to summarize in few paragraphs, but they are very significant because they represent the turning point of the Arab Spring from a phase of success in bringing about democratic change into a phase of counterrevolutionary backlash from several sides. The Syrian regime managed to resist the uprising through a strategy that included an extremely violent crackdown on protesters and material and military support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. However, it was most effective because it combined with the counterrevolutionary goals of those who supposedly supported the uprising—the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and diverse Sunni fundamentalist groups.

Thus, the Syrian revolution was trapped in an insoluble catch-22 conundrum. Achcar (2013) convincingly argues that the Syrian regime, as the absolute monarchies of the Gulf, is a kind of oligarchy in which bourgeoisie and state are intimately, organically identified, and they can only be brought down by military means. However, at least to some activists and analysts, it also seemed true from early on that the militarization of the revolution risked leading it to its demise (Conde, 2012a).

Although protests were overwhelmingly peaceful for many months, the uprising turned into an armed revolution as the security forces and paramilitary groups attacked them, with massive killings, imprisonments and torture. The government seems to have sought the militarization of the rebellion, as it hoped to polarize society and have the upper military hand that would allow it to crush any armed rebellion. However, some of the governments from the region that had hoped to see an end to the Arab Spring—save in Libya and Syria—thought it was possible to bring down the Asad regime in a short period of time and opted to push the Syrian opposition to take up arms. As many soldiers and low- to mid-ranking officials deserted the Syrian Army, governments such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar supported some of them to establish the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Although the rebels received weapons and training, the United States strictly forbid its allies in the region from providing them with the ground-to-air missiles necessary to challenge the Syrian Army air superiority.

Once the uprising militarized, Islamic fundamentalists started to dominate the forces engaging the Syrian armed forces. This seems to have been the aim of the Syrian regime from the beginning of the crackdown—that is, to make the Syrian Revolution appear as a fundamentalist war against civilization. Asad had everything to win, as he hoped to divide the opposition, scare away from revolution minorities and anyone who had anything to lose from Sunni Muslim fundamentalism and convince the US government and others that they were better off with him than with a chaotic coalition of armed and military experienced revolutionaries, fundamentalists and terrorists loyal to al-Qaida and ISIS. While imprisoning pacifist demonstrators, the regime freed known terrorists it had in its jails. At the same time, Turkey was allowing anyone who sought to fight Asad to pass through its territory, and the governments and wealthy citizens of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries were funding them. Fundamentalists flowed by the thousands from Islamic countries, Europe and elsewhere.

In spite of limitations, Syrian revolutionaries achieved some gains on the ground. The official army had to leave large stretches of territory, either thrown out or because they sought to concentrate elsewhere. Little attention has been given to the fact that armed fundamentalist groups were not calling the shots in all of them (excluding, of course, towns under ISIS control). At least two kinds of promising situations characterized many such areas. Local committees administered civilian affairs that set an example of how life could be run without the intervention of the regime, its secret police and its thugs. In the Kurdish cantons of the north, self- management assemblies offered an alternative to inter-ethnic and inter- religious relations and conviviality.

Toward the end of 2013, the strategic goals of the United States and Russia started to coincide, which translated in both powers having increasingly similar policies toward Syria, even though each pursues its own interests and has it own allies. The Russian diplomacy convinced the White House not to attack the Syrian government in response to the use of chemical weapons against the opposition. Instead, the US administration started to focus on the danger represented by ISIS, an organization that was to reach its climax the following years in territorial control, attraction of militants and attacks against civilians in Syria, Iraq, other Islamic countries and Europe.

When the rest of the Syrian armed opposition managed to seriously challenge the government forces and their allies on the ground in 2015, Russia chose to weigh in with its military might to prop up the regime. Regardless of criticisms, the administration in Washington was focusing on the fight against ISIS, while Asad had become the least of its concerns. With its own problems in Yemen, Saudi Arabia kept its support to its allies in Syria, without making any extra contributions now that Russia was there in full force. After an initial effort to confront the Russians, Turkey ended up allying with Moscow in order to keep a say in the evolution of Syrian affairs, all but abandoning the goal of deposing Asad.

The roots of the rebellion and the current chaos

The causes and evolution of the Arab Spring rebellions are complex. They have been discussed abundantly, as have the reasons for its supposed failure. From the beginning, there was a tendency among a number of scholars, intellectuals, activists, think tanks and governments to interpret the Arab Spring in ideological frames, which led to a number of preconceptions that De Currea-Lugo (2012) called “mono-causal perceptions” of the uprisings. Through these years, the tendency to simplify these phenomena has only worsened through the positing of a number of hypotheses assumed as true with virtually no effort to demonstrate their factuality.

The Imperialist–Zionist conspiracy hypothesis

Some conspiracy theorists are inclined to argue that agents linked to the United States or Israel conspired to set off the Arab Spring and the Syrian uprising in order to topple the Bashar al-Asad/Baath Party regime. Before Syrians began to demonstrate against the government in March 2011, many of the current supporters of this hypothesis were excited with the rebellions as they targeted regimes allied with the United States, Europe and the Gulf elites. Now that these rebellions have been put under restraint and Syria has descended into chaos, they have opted for a different narrative. Imperialism and Zionism would have conceived and promoted the uprisings to destroy the Arab world, have Arabs and Muslims fight each other, dismantle the supposedly anti-imperialist states in the region and allow for a Middle East under the complete hegemony of US imperialism and its cronies.

The left has experienced a rift around the Syrian revolution. Although one would expect the left to support people’s revolutions against tyrannical regimes, it has broken up in several camps. By adapting to the geopolitical imaginations of the rulers of Russia, Syria, and Venezuela, a part of the left has refused to support the Syrian Revolution, claiming that it results from an imperialist conspiracy. The rest of the left, in its support for the Syrian Revolution and against the unspeakable crimes of the Syrian regime, has split in (at least) two, either cozying up to US geopolitics, hoping that the world hegemony would help bring down the Asad regime, or renouncing to support any given state and understanding that no government is going to seriously support a people’s revolution.

The Sunni–Shi’i conflict hypothesis

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, as well as many pro-West newspapers and analysts sustain that the current conflicts in the Middle East can be explained by the multi-century-old Sunni-Shi’i rift in Islam. They claim that Shi’i Iran is trying to advance its sectarian agenda by coalescing with other Shi’i governments and groups in the region, which has allowed them to form a block from Iran to the Mediterranean that includes Iraq, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, plus now Yemen. For them, Sunnis have rebelled in Syria against the Shi’i government of the Asads, the Shi’i Houthis in Yemen have toppled a Sunni Yemeni government, and the Shi’i militias of Iraq and Lebanon support the Shi’i Asad regime.

This theory constitutes a simplistic anti-Shi’i geopolitics, and many sincerely adhere to it as if it were political science. The US government is not so naive as to alienate the Iraqi government or other Shi’is with such a discourse, although it fails to say anything to refute the theory publicly. However, this hypothesis cannot withstand the test of facts. First, the Twelver Shi’a professed by the large majority of Shi’is in Iran (a fundamentalist theocracy), Iraq and Lebanon is quite different from that of Syrian Alawis or Yemeni Zaidis. Second, many openly Sunni governments and non-state actors in the area have held in previous decades long and tight relations with Syrian Alawis and Yemeni Zaidis or even with Iran. Third, Sunni governments often have severe disputes among each other, and Muslim fundamentalists often fight Sunni governments as violently as they fight Shi’is. The Egyptian military, who are Sunnis, toppled the Sunni government led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Arab Gulf monarchies used to fear the Iranian Islamic republicanism because it fostered anti-monarchical ideologies. Now, they are all fighting to perpetuate their rule, but for more prosaic reasons than religion.

Nonetheless, many Sunnis, and even Shi’is, swallow the bait of sectarianism and believe that the struggle is against heretics. It is undoubtedly true that many Sunnis have gone to Syria to join the Jihad against the regime because they perceive it as heretic. A non-negligible number of anti-Asad Syrian fighters have adhered to this view, and they fight to topple not only a dictatorship but also what they have come to perceive as a heretic Alawi regime, and thereby to reinstate the Shari’a and the Caliphate.

Interests and prospects

So what is a more suitable hypothesis? Certainly it should be one much more complex and difficult to assimilate than any of the two mentioned in the previous section, though an effort should be made to keep it as simple and clear as possible. The geopolitics of the large, medium and small states and the interests and resources of their economic, political and military elites have overwhelmed the Arab Spring, its subjects and their aspirations. The resulting war and chaos in the region has become a terrible deterrent for Arabs and non-Arabs to seek social cohesion, a new type of regional integration and the right to participate in defining their own destinies. However, many things have changed, and in the longer term, we still may see important changes.

The Arab Spring was a quite spontaneous revolutionary movement that, even though it was not entirely unprecedented, challenged like never before since the 1960s and 1970s the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world. The wealthiest oil-producing Arab ruling classes saw the entire regional status quo shaken and at least a substantial part of them perceived the possible development of unfavorable futures. At least two alternative multi-layered strategies were deployed, one supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the other by Qatar and Turkey. Both included aiding regime change only in Libya and Syria (and partially Yemen), and discouraging changes elsewhere, while the former successfully supported rolling back changes in Egypt and Tunisia.

The US administration began engaging the prospects for change but later left most of the decisions to its closest allies in the region—mainly the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph—although with a few conditions, primarily that sophisticated weaponry not be allowed to reach irregular groups, in Syria or elsewhere.

In Syria, the government interests coincided with those of Russia, Iran and their non-state allies not for anti-imperialist reasons. For the Syrian regime, organically tied to the Asad family, staying united in power was a question of life or death. Iran feared the downfall of its Syrian ally not for ideological, let alone religious, motives but because it feared the strengthening of Saudi Arabia and being cut from its allies in Lebanon, possibly compromising its existence as it could easily translate into a strategic imbalance with Israel, which publicly expresses its desire to target nuclear facilities inside Iran.

As for Russia, and something similar could be said about China, it has been developing its own imperial agenda in which the area between the Mediterranean and the Gulf plays an important role. Their naval outlets to the Mediterranean and Tartus port facilities, as well as its own terrorism issue, are at stake. But even more than that, it seeks to guarantee at mid- and long-term horizons the security of Iranian oil and its own Caspian oil, for which Syria plays a role.

Ironically as it may seem, the strategy of the Syrian–Russian–Iranian alliance matched that of their world and regional foes, i.e., to support the militarization, sectarianization and internationalization of the Syrian conflict (Conde, 2017). Even though this was at variance with the aspirations of most Syrian demonstrators during the spring of 2011, the pressures were too great and the states had their way. The militarization led to the bogging down of the Syrian Revolution and the expansion of Islamic fundamentalism.

In spite of all this, flashes of hope can still be seen for Syria. Local committees and autonomous councils organize civilian life in areas freed both of the Syrian security forces and the rule of Islamic fundamentalist fighters. It should not come as a surprise that Syrian government negotiators at peace conferences refuse any role for these grassroots institutions. There are also many other Syrians longing for an alternative to the regime who became refugees as they fled from death and its equivalents—such as imprisonment and torture, forced conscription, barrel bombs, siege and hunger, and ISIS.

If there is hope in Syria, which is the worst scenario in the Arab Spring, there is certainly hope elsewhere. The youth of Egypt, Tunisia and many other countries have not relinquished their desires for change, but they are being cowed with repression, fundamentalism and violence. In some years, many of their ideas will have to become established. A greater degree of success, however, may require that they turn a deaf ear to the siren call of so-called “friendly states” and their geopolitics.

REFERENCES

  • AchcarG. (2013). Le peuple veut: Une exploration radicale du soulèvement arabe. París: Sindbad-Actes Sud.

  • BarreñadaI. (2016). Las revueltas árabes y el papel de los movimientos sociales. In G. CondeM. Tawil & C. Pastor (Eds.) Mundo árabe: Levantamientos populares contextos crisis y reconfiguraciones (pp. 75112). México City: El Colegio de México/Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas.

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    • Export Citation
  • BotiveauB. (2016). Hipótesis sobre la reconfiguración de los equilibrios regionales a partir de los levantamientos árabes de 2011. En G. CondeM. Tawil & C. Pastor (Eds.) Mundo árabe: Levantamientos populares contextos crisis y reconfiguraciones (pp. 251271). México City: El Colegio de México/Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas.

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  • CondeG. (2012a). Framed between change and stability: Syria between people’s revolution and regime survival. Regions and Cohesion 2(3) 118138.

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  • CondeG. (2012b). Guest editor’s note: La primavera de las rebeliones populares árabes. Regions and Cohesion 2(3) 321.

  • CondeG. (2012c). Los movimientos populares árabes de 2011 y su significado histórico. In L.M. Delmonte (Ed.) El Pueblo Quiere que Caiga el Régimen: Protestas Sociales y Conflictos en África del Norte y en Medio Oriente (pp. 3346). México City: El Colegio de México.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CondeG. (2017). Génesis del torbellino sirio: Insurrección, represión y guerras. In G. Conde (Ed.) Siria en el Torbellino: Insurrección Guerras y Geopolítica (pp. 3156). México City: El Colegio de México.

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    • Export Citation
  • De Currea-LugoV. (2012). Questioning “mono-causal” perceptions of the Arab revolts. Regions and Cohesion 2(3) 6783.

  • GelvinJ.L. (2016). Comprendiendo las insurrecciones árabes. En G. CondeM. Tawil & C. Pastor (Eds.) Mundo Árabe: Levantamientos Populares Contextos Crisis y Reconfiguraciones (pp. 5374). México City: El Colegio de México/Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas.

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    • Export Citation
  • Pastor de María y CamposC. (2012). Revolt and revolution in the modern Middle East 1830–2012. Regions and Cohesion 2(3) 2244. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3167/reco.2012.020303

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sierra KobehM.L. (2012). El mundo árabe a un año de las revueltas populares. Regions and Cohesion 2(3) 139152.

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Contributor Notes

GILBERTO CONDE is associate professor at the Center for Asian and African Studies of El Colegio de México and teaches history, geography and politics of the Middle East. He authored Turquía, Siria e Iraq: Entre amistad y geopolítica, El Colegio de México, 2013, edited Siria en el torbellino: Insurrección, guerras y geopolítica, El Colegio de México, 2017, and was the guest editor of “A changing of seasons? The Arab Spring revolts and past uprisings, Regions and Cohesion, vol. 2, num. 3, special issue, winter 2012. E-mail: gilberto.conde@colmex.mx

Regions and Cohesion

Regiones y Cohesión / Régions et Cohésion

  • AchcarG. (2013). Le peuple veut: Une exploration radicale du soulèvement arabe. París: Sindbad-Actes Sud.

  • BarreñadaI. (2016). Las revueltas árabes y el papel de los movimientos sociales. In G. CondeM. Tawil & C. Pastor (Eds.) Mundo árabe: Levantamientos populares contextos crisis y reconfiguraciones (pp. 75112). México City: El Colegio de México/Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BotiveauB. (2016). Hipótesis sobre la reconfiguración de los equilibrios regionales a partir de los levantamientos árabes de 2011. En G. CondeM. Tawil & C. Pastor (Eds.) Mundo árabe: Levantamientos populares contextos crisis y reconfiguraciones (pp. 251271). México City: El Colegio de México/Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CondeG. (2012a). Framed between change and stability: Syria between people’s revolution and regime survival. Regions and Cohesion 2(3) 118138.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CondeG. (2012b). Guest editor’s note: La primavera de las rebeliones populares árabes. Regions and Cohesion 2(3) 321.

  • CondeG. (2012c). Los movimientos populares árabes de 2011 y su significado histórico. In L.M. Delmonte (Ed.) El Pueblo Quiere que Caiga el Régimen: Protestas Sociales y Conflictos en África del Norte y en Medio Oriente (pp. 3346). México City: El Colegio de México.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CondeG. (2017). Génesis del torbellino sirio: Insurrección, represión y guerras. In G. Conde (Ed.) Siria en el Torbellino: Insurrección Guerras y Geopolítica (pp. 3156). México City: El Colegio de México.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De Currea-LugoV. (2012). Questioning “mono-causal” perceptions of the Arab revolts. Regions and Cohesion 2(3) 6783.

  • GelvinJ.L. (2016). Comprendiendo las insurrecciones árabes. En G. CondeM. Tawil & C. Pastor (Eds.) Mundo Árabe: Levantamientos Populares Contextos Crisis y Reconfiguraciones (pp. 5374). México City: El Colegio de México/Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pastor de María y CamposC. (2012). Revolt and revolution in the modern Middle East 1830–2012. Regions and Cohesion 2(3) 2244. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3167/reco.2012.020303

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sierra KobehM.L. (2012). El mundo árabe a un año de las revueltas populares. Regions and Cohesion 2(3) 139152.