Last update: 2022-01-25 16:27:01
Ten years on from their outbreak, the verdict on the Arab Revolutions would appear to be un-appealable: they were asking for democracy and have generated violence and chaos. So far, there’s not much up for debate. Establishing the causes of this outcome and, above all, the possible long-term effects of the 2011 events is a more controversial matter, however. Are we looking at a by now definitively closed parenthesis? Or are we facing the jolt of a historical cycle that is anything but over? These questions do not only concern the Arab world but are also involving the West directly. Indeed, as Hamit Bozarslan has written, “thinking the Middle East of the 2000s means thinking our own [European] world, starting with its ‘elsewheres’ that, in reality, we have no reason simply to label as ‘elsewheres’”.1] Even just the news in the last few years, with the refugee crisis and the explosion of jihadism in Europe, should be enough to prove how well-founded these words are.
The hypothesis underpinning this edition of our journal, as well as a wider-ranging research project in which Oasis is engaged for the two-year period 2020-2021, is that the 2011 revolutions have not failed completely but, rather, remain “unfinished.” A first element to support this thesis is the fact of the 2019 protests in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq; protests that, in the first two cases, culminated in the removal of long-ruling dictators. But the issue is more profound than the simple factual observation of this second wave might suggest.
Indeed, in the convulsions gripping the Mediterranean’s southern shores at least two big structural factors have converged. The first is represented by the inherent contradictions in the post-colonial Arab states and the republican ones, in particular. Many of these regimes have placed the people at the centre of their rhetoric but have prevented them from actively participating in political life; they have implemented a marked modernization of the political and economic structures but have mostly limited this to technical and material aspects; they have promised redemption from underdevelopment but have imposed a patrimonial management of the economy. To that, one may add, in the case of the Arab East, the paradox of systems that, from heralds of Arab identity and unity, have turned into merciless manipulators of denominational affiliations. Islamist dissent took root in the soil of these contradictions but, instead of resolving them, has only continued to feed them. Pretty much everywhere in the Sunni world, slogans such as “Islam is the solution” or “the Qur’an is our Constitution” have been as powerful in catalysing discontent as they have been incapable of constituting a true alternative form of government.
The second aspect that should be taken into consideration concerns social change, most notably in family structures. From the 1970s onwards, decreasing fertility rates and rising literacy levels have produced in Arab societies, too, that demographic transition that normally goes hand in hand with the creation of a middle class and the demand for a democratization of the political system. It is not by chance that it was primarily educated young people who drove the 2010-2011 protests; young people whose aspirations were being suffocated by the dysfunctional nature of the existing regimes. It is from the short-circuit produced by this modernized youth’s expectations and the stillborn attempt to change the political systems that the drama of the unfinished revolutions was born. The nature of the demonstrators’ mobilization is not extraneous to this outcome, however: they clearly stated against whom (despotic and corrupt regimes) and in the name of what (dignity, freedom and justice) they had taken to the streets but they failed to translate these values into an alternative project, entrusting the existing forces with the improbable task of realizing them.
From this point of view, it is the very notion of revolution that need to be problematized. During the 1950s and 1960s, the revolutionary impetus of Arab socialism brought about popular mobilization and political change (with all the limitations mercilessly emphasized by Sādiq al-‘Azm in the pages we have reproduced in the “Classics” section). For its part and if one excludes the case of Shia Iran and the Algerian tragedy, the Islamist revolution has primarily operated at the cultural level, imposing its agenda on systems that were secularized to a greater or lesser degree. With the partial exception of Tunisia, the pro-democracy revolutions in 2011 have generated neither a new culture nor a new political order, even where they have succeeded in overturning the autocrat in office. And yet it is unlikely that the Arab world can continue to ignore the demands that the streets have allowed to emerge, even if the current context is no more promising than it was ten years ago. The drop in oil revenue will deprive regimes of a resource that proved fundamental for halting the pro-democracy turmoil in 2011 but, combined with the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it will also aggravate the impoverishment of whole societies. This will produce further discontent and thus new protests but it also risks obstructing the political maturation of populations that are increasingly being forced to concentrate on their own survival.
To be sure, these assessments are simply outlining a trend and cannot be applied generally to the Arab world as a whole. If the situation in contexts such as Syria and Libya is by now compromised after years of violence and no way out of a systemic crisis can be seen in Lebanon, more encouraging signals are arising from other countries. This is the case with Algeria, for example, where the regime does not have many more cards to play with a demonstrating crowd that stepped back only in the face of the health emergency.
Looking beyond the differences between states, it is nevertheless unlikely that an awakening movement will be able to succeed without any alteration to some parts of the unresolved equation that the revolutions have brought to the fore. The religious dimension could constitute one of these.
Surprised by essentially secular protests, Islamist parties and official Islamic institutions returned to centre stage during the post-revolutionary phase. The former—after years spent in opposition or underground—took the reins of the post-revolutionary transitions. The latter found a new importance when they were called by the state in various countries to respond to the jihadist challenge. The Islamist forces have demonstrated that they were able to adapt to the change but did not know how to lead it. The official Islamic institutions have insisted on inter-religious co-existence as opposed to the atrocities committed by ISIS but they have, at the same time, encouraged passivity towards the existing regimes.
In societies strongly permeated by religion, change will have to pass through a renewal of this dimension, too, and one that may enable it to shoulder the expectations that the revolutionary protests have brought to light but not satisfied.
To cite this article
Michele Brignone, “The Missing Parts of the Equation”, Oasis, year 16, no. 31, pp. 7-9.
Michele Brignone, “The Missing Parts of the Equation”, Oasis [online], published on December 2020, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/the-missing-part-of-the-equation