x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

After two years, the Arab struggle for freedom is far from over

As the Arab uprisings enter their third year, the region will continue to witness profound change, and some of it may be catastrophic.

Two years after Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation sparked a wave of uprisings in the Arab world, many countries remain in turmoil. With the region in the midst of fundamental transformation, there is little indication of when or how stability will again be established.

Given the transitional nature of developments, the temptation to proclaim winners and losers needs to be resisted. If 2012 put paid to the notion that youth movements were displacing sclerotic elites and would soon reign supreme, 2013 may well see the subsequent orthodoxy that the Muslim Brotherhood will rule from Morocco to Yemen challenged by a new reality.

While analyses about the causes of Arab uprisings can already be crafted, forecasts about the consequences and outcome of what remain works in progress are largely an exercise in informed speculation. With this caveat in mind, the following themes appear to be salient in understanding recent and future regional developments:

First, elections have not promoted pluralism and democracy, but rather served to undermine them. By rushing to the ballot box, ambitions for new hegemonies have been empowered rather than tempered. Elections have also served to set such polities on a path of gradual and limited reform rather than real, revolutionary change.

Ancien régimes have never been voted out of power. Like bad teeth, they need to be surgically extracted and removed. In Tunisia and Egypt, the "deep state" has in fact successfully used and manipulated the electoral process to retain relevance and at times serve as an arbiter of transition.

When an autocrat is cast out by a coalition of forces rather than a revolutionary movement or self-selected vanguard, a successful transition requires consensus among such forces on how to neutralise and defeat the pre-existing power structure. Only after this objective has been achieved, and the space for pluralism acquired, do elections begin to make sense. Voting does not, in and of itself, promote an infrastructure of democracy. That infrastructure must first be allowed to emerge and develop lest the ballot box serve as midwife for a new hegemony.

Second, Egypt is once again the region's fulcrum. The fate of its revolution, its Muslim Brotherhood, its military and much else will have a profound effect on counterparts across the region. So too, its policies towards external actors like the IMF, Israel and the United States will shape the region. Cairo has the capacity to set the tone even without trying to do so. Tunisia is, in this respect, much less relevant.

Third, while the Muslim Brotherhood may yet emerge victorious in Egypt, the increasingly widespread opposition signals not so much a disillusionment with Islamism as it does a revulsion for any attempt to establish and practise unfettered power.

These uprisings are first and foremost about establishing the rights and rites of citizenship as inalienable and indeed inviolable. Any attempt to once again make citizens into servants rather than masters of the state will require massive force and subterfuge to succeed. This holds true even with respect to a movement that is perceived as having played an important part in the initial uprising's success.

Fourth, there appears to be a reason why some Arab states have largely peaceful transitions while others are mired in violence. The ferocity of dictatorship is not the main factor, at least not directly so. Rather, it seems that those societies with a tradition of civil society - by which is meant political, labour and other associations independent of the state rather than foreign-funded NGOs - are in a better position to sustain mass protest.

The opposition in Yemen was able to weather the challenge of state violence much more effectively than in Syria or Libya. If the explanation is correct, it is good news for countries like Morocco and Jordan, and less so for others like Saudi Arabia.

Fifth, foreign intervention is an unmitigated disaster. Syrians who in their desperation to terminate a regime sustained by murder and mayhem perhaps understandably seek salvation from foreign powers, would do well to take a second look at Libya and Iraq.

Sixth, the drama of political struggles masks the reality that the most important challenges facing any new leadership are socio-economic. It seems quite probable that Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi will get his constitution and further consolidate power, but subsequently be undone by a failure to effectively tackle the basic needs of Egyptian society. It's not just freedom, but bread and land too. And these are not going to be delivered by the World Bank, the United States or Qatar.

As the Arab uprisings enter their third year, the region will continue to witness profound change, and some of it may be catastrophic. Such processes of change are never exclusively for the good, and struggles for power can be particularly nasty when regional rivalries, sectarian agitation and a determination to hang onto power irrespective of the cost are thrown into the mix. Yet in the larger scheme of things, this process of change will go down in history as the best thing to have happened to the peoples of the region since decolonisation.


Mouin Rabbani is an independent analyst based in Amman, co-editor of Jadaliyya and a contributing editor of Middle East Report