The second decade of the 21st century has refused to leave without bringing the Arab region a new wave of the uprisings known in the Western media as the Arab Spring. A spring it may have been at the outset, but its fresh and gentle breezes quickly gave way to the hot and dust filled winds of civil war, failed states and quakes of regional and international making. To some extent, the first wave, which began in 2010 and 2011, is still with us in the form of the wars in Yemen, Syria and Libya.
Other countries were harshly buffeted by the storms but came out intact: Jordan and Morocco by means of constitutional and legal reforms, Egypt by means of the grassroots revolution of 2013 and the armed forces which steered the country to a sweeping development and reform process, and Tunisia by dint of the impetus of secularism and democracy. In the Gulf, Bahrain locked arms with fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members and weathered the storm by means of significant reforms.
As a whole, the first wave of “Arab Spring” generated a general immune deficiency in the Arab order. This was exploited by non-Arab regional powers such as Iran, Turkey, Israel and Ethiopia. The first carved out for itself a large and dynamic realm of influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen through proxy groups such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq, the Baath regime in Syria, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been active in all these countries.
Turkey schemed to intervene indirectly through and on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria. Then it intervened directly, militarily and politically, in Iraq and Syria. In its latest bid, it staged an outright invasion in order to overcome its Kurdish complex at home and in neighbouring countries. Israel exploited both the Arab immune deficiency and the arrival of Trump to power in the US to win recognition for Jerusalem as its capital, to annex the Golan and to expand its settlements in the West Bank. As for Ethiopia, it saw Egypt’s 25 January Revolution as an opportunity to lay the foundations for a dam on the Blue Nile and to impose a de facto reality in breach of international law and UN conventions governing transboundary watercourses.
With the second wave, which began in late 2018, a number of other countries joined the list of those rocked by mass uprisings: Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and, most recently, Lebanon. The common denominator between the two waves is the ability of the people to rally together in large throngs, called “milyoniyas”, or million-strong marches, either to pressure ruling elites into making reforms or to overthrow these elites.
The difference between the two waves is that the first fell prey to the Muslim Brotherhood and its kin which tried to come to power and, when it did, it proved a disastrous and alarming failure. The first wave also brought the proliferation of terrorist groups and movements that took advantage of the prevailing anarchy to recruit the young into their ranks. One of these — the Islamic State group (IS) — succeeded in establishing a “caliphate” that straddled the Iraqi-Syria border. The second wave, by contrast, dealt a major defeat to the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan. Egypt’s revolution of 30 June 2013, which overthrew Muslim Brotherhood rule, was essentially the prelude to the second wave. The Sudanese also managed to create a healthy relationship between the military council and the civilian revolutionary movement and, thereby, succeeded in laying the foundations for peaceful coexistence in Sudan.
However, the second wave is still at its height. If it succeeded in ousting the Bouteflika regime in Algeria, the tug-of-war between the authorities and the Algerian people persists. In Iraq and Lebanon, the need to build a modern state and the call for an end to Iranian political and military hegemony top the list of demands voiced by the huge crowds of demonstrators.
These millions yearn for a more comprehensive and deeper change in the nature of the system of government. They seek a shift from a system based on political sectarianism and denominational quotas to a system in which the fundamental entity is the individual citizen and in which all citizens are equal regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation. In all cases of the second wave, from Egypt to Lebanon, the national army has served as the refuge for peaceful change. Equally, if not more importantly, the army has also served as the bulwark of the civil state, of the state as the holder of the monopoly on legitimate recourse to force, and of the rejection of non-state militias such as the PMF and Hizbullah.
Another feature that the first and second waves have in common is their desire to change the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, but with no clear conception of what the alternative to the current status quo should be. The hopes and aspirations were always grand, ambitious and idealist. They sought to attain the ranks of developed nations, but without clearly defining what this meant and the price that it entailed. In most cases, the youth at the vanguard of Arab movements paid surprisingly little attention to the major experiences of change in the world since the last quarter of the 20th century.
This decade’s two waves of change in the Arab world came in the wake of momentous international transformations set into motion by technological revolutions and their repercussions. In the course of the last two decades, more than a billion people moved from poverty to middle class ease. The majority of these live in two countries, China and India. Contrary to what many people believe, human beings are better off than they were two decades ago and much, much better off than they were a couple of centuries ago.
Standards of living are higher almost everywhere and the rates of epidemics and famine have plunged. This would not have been possible were it not for the scientific and technological revolutions, the increased wealth of nations and, more importantly, and with the possible exception of the Middle East, the decline in international conflicts and civil wars. None of these would have been possible had not the majority of the countries in the world striven towards development and progress. This occurred when developing nations mobilised domestic and foreign investments to generate the capital accumulation they needed in order to spur higher rights of growth and steer their countries towards the ranks of developed nations.
In the Arab world, that shift did not come from revolutionary waves or violent upheavals but rather from the emergence of reform movements inspired by the actual processes of change in the world and the lessons gleaned from international organisations concerned with development. What was accomplished in the framework of the “2030 Vision” reform programmes in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia has made up for the shortcomings of revolutionary movements in which grand slogans prevailed as an alternative to the hard work that is needed to foster the kind of change that yields sustainable progress and development. Nevertheless, although this reform trend has begun to reap profound changes in Arab modes of production and thought, it is still in its early phases of persuading the turbulent Arab Spring waves to subside and, for many reasons, its message has so far failed to reach the rest of the Arab world.
Perhaps what is happening today in the Arab region is, in essence, not that different from what happened in Europe after the French Revolution and its turbulent waves. That was when economic and scientific reform became the driving force behind the progress that we see in Europe today.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.