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2011-2020: The Arab World - A decade of trial

Ten years after the Arab Spring much has changed in the Middle East, but a painful era of transition still resonates in the region

Salah Nasrawi , Monday 28 Dec 2020
A decade on trial
photo: AFP
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Next month will mark a decade since the 2011 uprisings that rocked several Arab countries and lead to the collapse of four regimes. But the fallout from the chaos they gave rise to and that rippled through the region has lasted for years after the momentous events and is still lingering on today.

The Arabs arrive at the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring toggling between confidence and exasperation, bravado and grievance, and marinating in a frustration that has cast many parts of their region as tottering on the brink of state failure. 

Historians will remain free to write the impartial account of the revolutions that has yet to be produced, but in terms of symbolism 2011 is the year that probably shocked the Arab world the most and shaped many subsequent events that have made the region a different place.

Today, the uneasy truth about the Arab Spring is that it went terribly wrong. The fact that the uprisings that swept across the region in 2011 turned out to be disappointing is self-evident.

Instead of their dreams coming true, the uprisings were followed by the tedium of political change. Indeed, the uprisings did not only take off in unexpected directions, but they also finished in dead ends.

A second wave of massive street protests in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan in 2019 showed that the people of the region still harbour strong hopes and demands for change and reform, but these protests were also disappointing in their results.

While some uprisings have failed to break the status quo and others have produced catastrophic results, only a few Arab countries such as Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco have fared much better and succeeded in weathering the storm with their nation-states continuing to stand firm. 

Meanwhile, the hydrocarbon-rich monarchies in the Gulf have managed to bypass the dramatic consequences of the Arab Spring thanks to their rentier economies and their outmaneuvering of their societies owing to a traditionally submissive culture.

To a large extent, the pessimists who believed in Arab exceptionalism seem to have won the argument as the Arab Spring failed to create a revolutionary dynamism for change that could meet the hopes of those seeking to escape from stagnation.

The great legacy of the weeks and months that shook the Arab world in 2011, however, is the uncertainty that has redefined the political landscape and the impact it has left on the future of the regional order.

Regardless of the success of some Arab countries in maintaining their nation-state, the health of the Arab world’s geopolitics will not soon recover. Over the past decade, a slew of destabilising repercussions have turned the region upside down, and they continue to pose challenges. 

The turmoil sparked by the uprisings in Libya, Syria and Yemen, countries afflicted by ethno-sectarian conflicts, threatened to lead to the collapse of their fragile state structures and plunged them into bloody civil wars.  

The scale and depth of these unforeseen events accelerated the regional geopolitical shifts that arose after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and triggered unexpectedly momentous changes in the region’s political landscape.

Among the major consequences of the destruction or weakening of key Arab states has been the rise of a new regional structure in which countries considered to be rivals to the Arabs, such as Iran and Turkey, have emerged as regional powers.

Despite their historical rivalry and competition and disagreements, the two countries have exploited the turmoil in the region, sometimes even working in tandem together, to expand their influence at the expense of the Arab countries and their interests.

In the shadow of the chaos, Ethiopia, another regional rival, started building its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which threatens the water security of Sudan and Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation.

The year 2011 and the decade that followed, an era of profound and painful geopolitical transition, also showed Israel’s consolidation of its occupation of the Palestinian Territories and Syria’s Golan Heights.

Israel’s advancing of its de facto annexation of the West Bank following the release of outgoing US president Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” plan in January 2020 marked the termination of peace with the Arabs and an end to a future independent Palestinian state.

For more than 70 years, modern Arab history had largely revolved around the struggle with Israel, looking for a fair and lasting settlement that would end the pivotal “Palestinian cause” and with it the start of a new era of peace, stability and prosperity in the region.

With its new fait accompli, and with demographic and territorial changes expected to follow, Israel’s actions have created greater dangers that could trigger a new shake-up in an already turbulent region.

The strategic regional instability and the Arab states’ volatility, created by the new dynamics caused by the decade-long turmoil, have helped Israel to define the contours of a unilateral settlement on its own terms.

A major consequence of this on-going change in the strategic environment has been the normalisation of relations between several Arab states and Israel, undercutting the Palestinians and ending prospects of a sustainable and just Middle East peace.

The Arab world has also seen a new trend in the diffusion of power and the emergence of new powers that have defied the historical geographies that have shaped the region for decades and set the rules for its order.

In the Arab Gulf, smaller but energy-rich countries are now asserting themselves more vigorously, distancing themselves from the historical Arab centres of Egypt, Iraq and Syria and seeking changes in regional influence, prestige and power.

The UAE and Qatar have been expanding their regional roles through political alliances, aid, investment, military agreements and the building of massive media empires, often with the aim of taking centre-stage in regional relations.

If these rising powers continue to undercut the traditional Arab powerhouses by building on their preoccupation with warding off the Arab Spring’s implications, the regional geopolitical situation in the next few years or decades could be even more challenging.

Despite major strides in combatting terrorism and extremism, including curtailing Islamic State (IS) group advances in Iraq and Syria, religious fundamentalism and radicalism remain a structural challenge in the post-Arab Spring period.

The last decade has again demonstrated the clash between nationalism and Islamism that shaped the region in the 20th century and centred around the nation-state, its position and its power. The next decade will most likely witness a renewed preoccupation with this struggle.

The geopolitical, economic and societal challenges posed by the events of 2011 to the Arab world and by their aftermath have been daunting. They often moved fast, making it hard to match the pace and power of the consequent changes.

Opinions remain split on the Arab Spring and its consequences, but a realistic judgement will likely say that it was another transitional milestone for the Arab world, culminating in some of the most important scenes in its recent history.

Many pessimists have concluded that the Arab world has lost its way and that the next decade could even be worse for the region. Yet, a closer look might reveal that the events of the last decade could be “a temporary settlement” in the Arabs’ long struggle to gain control.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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