The Battle for the Arab Spring is a new book from Yale that explains the explosive events of the Arab Spring, assesses each country’s accomplishments and identifies the challenges Arab countries face in forging their own democracies. Here the book’s authors Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren give an overview of the pivotal movement, highlighting its broader role within the political development of the Arab region.
Article by Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren
It is always dangerous to achieve something previously thought impossible. That is what Tunisians managed on 14 January 2011, when their president of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country after only weeks of popular protests. An Arab regime had been toppled without foreign intervention, a military coup, or a civil war. The effect across the region was immediate. Demonstrations that were already simmering in Egypt, Libya or Yemen acquired new meaning and momentum as people realised that taking to the streets could, in fact, shake governments and rulers that had appeared invincible only weeks earlier. A new horizon of possibilities opened up.
In the turmoil of January and February 2011, with seething crowds on the streets of Cairo, Tunis, Benghazi, Casablanca and even Amman, it seemed as if every Arab regime was under threat. The protesters were successful by dint of what they did not have – a clear programme, a hierarchical organization with figureheads and followers – and by what they did not want – a specific ruler, his party, his family, his policies. The struggle appeared to be epitomized in what had already become the slogan of the Arab Spring: al-sha’ab yurid isqat al-nizam, or ‘the people want the fall of the regime’.
But it was never going to be that simple. The youthful demonstrators on the streets were not the only ones to receive, and understand, the message that Tunis had dispatched so powerfully. The flash of that first revolutionary moment blinded many observers, and many of the protesters themselves, to the more ruthless battles that would now burst into the open as the barriers of fear and apathy were stripped away. At a local, regional and international level, the realisation that things could change incredibly quickly had powerful implications.
We began writing this book in the summer of 2011, when Muammar Gaddafi was still in control of Tripoli, when elections had yet to take place in Tunisia or Egypt, and when the Syrian uprising had yet to reach the intensity of early 2012. The Arab Spring per se was over, but it was already clear that those heady first ten weeks of 2011 – themselves a result of years of pent-up political, social, religious and economic tensions – would release a series of overlapping battles for what would come next, pitting people against people, states against states, ideas against ideas.
Some of those battles are being fought peacefully at the ballot box. From liberals to nationalists to Islamists, old parties have recalibrated their positions and are trying to shape new constitutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Here the tussle is often over the role of religion in state and society, a role previously suppressed by secular governments who adroitly harnessed the Islamist threat to help maintain their own power. It is also being played out in the region’s media, some enjoying new-found freedoms after years of state censorship, others more tightly controlled than ever.
Other battles will be fought and won by the gun. In Syria, an increasingly armed uprising is likely to rumble on for years, and even then no clear winner may emerge. In Libya, much hard power lies with armed groups who are jostling for influence or perks in the fragile post-Gaddafi era. In Yemen, Al Qaeda-linked groups are intensifying their attacks on government targets. And while three of the region’s leaders may have gone by the end of 2011 – with another having stepped aside on paper – the majority who remain will strive ever-harder to hold on to power.
Many more conflicts, simmering below the surface for decades before 2011, have also been unleashed. Policies that favoured cities over provinces, one region over another, wealthy business elites over ambitious but jobless graduates, are coming home to roost. Unions and pressure groups have been emboldened to extract greater concessions. Across the region, many who set aside differences to overthrow the old order have since retreated to the cosseted protection and comfort of tribe, family, religion or sect as the turbulent struggle for power unfolds.
Meanwhile, policymakers are at odds over how best to tackle crippling economic problems, which if left unaddressed, will only trigger more revolts. Can a new Tunisian government, led by moderate Islamists, provide the jobs that young people so desperately need? Should Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, facing a crisis of state finances, take on additional debt from the International Monetary Fund? Should Libya maintain a notoriously bloated public sector in order to preserve stability and provide jobs, or implement painful measures that would make their economy more competitive in the long-term? In every case, there are difficult choices to be made and heated debates to be had.
At a much broader level, the battle for the Arab Spring is about the identity and role of a region that has been buffeted through the past century by the rise and fall of European empires, by Cold War rivalry and by the encroachment of a triumphant US superpower that was not afraid to press its interests in the region, whether it was oil, Israel or the threat of Islamic extremism. Yet with the US and its Western allies in retreat, the stage is set for regional power-brokers to play a greater role and for home-grown political and economic structures to spring up.
After decades of suppressed volatility disguised as stability, the Arab Spring has kick-started a more prolonged period of change and instability in many countries. But only by allowing that volatility to be played out, rather than bottled up, can all these conflicts ultimately be resolved. Suppressing Islamists served only to breed extremism. Ignoring demands for better living standards, genuine elections or freedoms of speech only led to the angry youth explosion of 2011. Giving one set of people preference over another only cultivated rage.
This new era will not be peaceful or pretty. There will be winners and losers, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, bloodshed and truces. There may be war and another round of revolts before the dust settles in some countries, and some will privately wish that 2011 had never happened at all. New uncertainties have replaced the certainties of old, even in those places that apparently emerged unscathed from the Arab Spring. Yet for many people, forced for so long to live out a pretence at stability, hopeless that they could affect their world or shape its future, that is a price worth paying.
Lin Noueihed has spent 10 years as a Reuters correspondent in the Middle East, covering politics, economy and conflict. She holds dual Lebanese/British nationality and speaks fluent Arabic and English. Alex Warren is a director and co-founder of Frontier, a Middle East and North Africa consultancy. Since 2009 he has specialised mainly in Libya, and edits a weekly economic and business publication, The Week in Review: Libya.
The Battle for the Arab Spring is available to order now from Yale.