June 19, 2012

The Arab Spring's Second Bloom

When did the Arab Spring end? Some analysts place it in March 2011—the start of the “Arab Winter” or the week when “the empire struck back,” in the words of Marc Lynch. And it’s true that there came a point, when Saudi troops marched across the causeway into Bahrain and Muammar Qaddafi swore to hunt the dissidents in his country alley by alley, that it became impossible to maintain the heady optimism of the early weeks of the revolutions in the Middle East. The cynicism deepened as the NATO intervention in Libya dragged out through the summer into the fall and civil war erupted in Syria. The Arab Spring wasn’t the same after that week in March, but did it end—or just change?

In early 2011, Morocco looked poised to join the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Like Tunisia, there was a self-immolation and a series of demonstrations, signs of a protest movement more pronounced than in any other Arab monarchist country other than Bahrain. Then, King Mohammed VI tried a different tack than his more ill-fated peers: he introduced a series of constitutional reforms that would supposedly empower marginalized groups through an elected parliament. A referendum was held, protests abated and new elections ushered in an Islamist parliament. And, as far as the monarchy was concerned, that was supposed to be the end of Morocco’s revolution—an early precedent of the “Arab Winter.”

But a second spring is in season in the Arab world. Despite the constitutional reforms, a new protest movement has taken to the streets in Morocco, motivated increasingly by “quality-of-life questions,” according to Issandr El Amrani. This is not mutually exclusive with the motivations that spurred the political protests of early 2011, but the economic component of recent protests seems more and more evident. It is also happening in Algeria, where “high unemployment, inadequate housing, and a dearth of social services” have brought protesters (and state security forces) back into the streets. Jordan, which has mostly stayed aloof from the Arab Spring, has noted a marked increase in labor protests.

The new revolutionary states are not immune to the second spring. In Egypt, labor protests and strikes proliferated after Mubarak’s ouster, with workers blocking ports and railways and threatening to cut power lines from the Aswan Dam. The Egyptian parliament went so far as to enact an “anti-strike law "—which was met with further protests and strikes. These protests hardly exist in a political vacuum. Activists are once again calling for protests in response to the an Egyptian court decision announced last Thursday to dissolve Egypt’s democratically elected parliament. Just one day before the ruling, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces reasserted itself, reinstituting some of the legal controls associated with the dreaded emergency law, which was lifted this past May after three decades in force. How protesters respond to these new developments will build on fears that Hosni Mubarak will be acquitted on appeal and frustrations with what many consider a lesser-of-two-evils choice in the presidential election that filled Tahrir Square just earlier this month.

Egypt is hardly unique in this regard. The musical chairs being played with Yemen’s leadership is only half of a larger story there; there they call the trend of protests that has shut down everything from factories to the nation’s air force the “parallel revolution.” And in the economically depressed town of Sidi Bouzid, where the Arab Spring began, protests are still occurring as residents of Tunisia’s underdeveloped interior grow impatient for the reforms they overthrew the Ben Ali regime in hopes of achieving.

The second spring has lacked the singular purpose and photogenic allure of the 2011 revolutions. These are not protests filling urban squares with chants against one man; these are protests in rural towns, of small groups shuttering factories for days. They are illustrations of the fact that the Arab Spring was never solely about regime change but rather was what Jack Shenker, writing about Egypt, identified as a “powerful and existential challenge to present systems of political and economic control.” These protests, though of a different scale, are the logical, and maybe inevitable, successors of Tahrir Square. They are manifestations of newly empowered publics, of people who have seen demonstrations of the effectiveness of protest and are now applying the same strategies locally.

The increase in smaller-scale protests is a double-edged sword. It places renewed pressure on stubborn governments to enact reforms that actually address the concerns of their publics, but it also can hinder the good-faith efforts of governments to try to alleviate strain on their economies. As the dialogue in Morocco shifts toward issues of economic policy, El Amrani observes, “there might be much less room for negotiation and clever manoeuvre for the regime, particularly as the wealth of the royal family and its entourage—the king’s personal fortune is said to have at least doubled since he came to power, making him one of the richest monarchs in the world—has become a symbolic issue for what’s wrong with the way the country is governed.” Indeed, it will be impossible for autocrats to separate national economic challenges like GDP growth and employment from the skewed distribution of wealth—and their inordinate wealth—in their countries. Even as protests shift toward economic issues, there remains an inextricable political component. That pressure is being felt by the leadership in Jordan, where Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh stepped down in April amid tensions with King Abdullah II over the pace of the country’s reforms. Meanwhile, protests have continued, despite half-hearted electoral reforms that have been “too little, too late.” In Algeria, accusations of electoral fraud and price manipulation to influence voters began weeks in advance of the country’s May 10 parliamentary elections prompting Islamist parliamentarians to walk out in protest during the first day of the legislature’s new session.

Continued popular pressure applied to governments may be appropriate in countries where reforms have not been forthcoming, but it can be destructive in countries that are genuinely trying to address economic concerns. The grievances that prompted protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen last year will not be solved overnight by elections. Rather, these are long-term trends of widening inequality, deepening unemployment, rampant corruption, lagging innovation and the denial of basic rights to women—what the Arab Human Development Report has called the “ominous dynamics of marginalization.” This is on top of the flight of foreign investors. Each country faces a deep financial hole to climb out of, and while international financial institutions seem unconcerned by the threat of default in these countries, the consequences of devaluation-induced inflation for their already struggling lower classes could be devastating.

Certainly some pressure is good, if for no other reason than to keep these newly accountable governments focused on addressing economic threats instead of culture-war issues like bikinis and the movie Persepolis. But if protests, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, shift toward antigovernment instead of antipoverty issues, the result could be further destabilization. As Rob Prince, writing about Tunisia, points out, “There have been other political mass movements that toppled dictators and secured new political rights but ultimately fizzled.” Governments will be hard-pressed to manage public expectations in the midst of revolutions that have consistently generated new protests for not making reforms quickly enough. It is unclear whether the people of the revolutionary countries will give the governments they have empowered the time and space to act on their manifold economic challenges; it is equally uncertain that governments will address the large gulf that divides a wealthy few from the disenfranchised many—an issue that goes far beyond the already-complicated problems of corruption and cronyism.

These challenges have and will continue to reinforce political instability throughout the Middle East, with little regard for which countries have overthrown their governments and which have not. The concept of stability, though, is flawed; for decades, “stability” (at least from a Western perspective) has been more a matter of superficial appearances than the underlying currents affecting populations. When those currents of economic deprivation and political disaffection finally broke the surface and swept across the Middle East last year, it demonstrated how fundamentally unstable autocratic governments are. Upheaval—protests, economic fluctuations, political unpredictability, all the elements of instability that have been mostly suppressed for generations—is and will be the new normal in both revolutionary and nonrevolutionary countries alike for the foreseeable future.

As my colleagues and I observe in a new CNAS report, reform is the only way to resolve the tensions that have fueled the protests of the past eighteen months—the only way to achieve true stability and not just the appearance thereof.

For better and worse, the Arab Spring continues; it may be changing, but it is still very much in season.