Oliver Walton is a research fellow in the International Development Department’s Governance and Social Development Resource Centre. His areas of interest include NGO legitimacy, civil society peacebuilding, conflict prevention, war-to-peace transitions, and Sri Lankan politics.
The Arab Spring has been widely seen as a watershed event which has irrevocably changed the region and the global political landscape and led to a seismic shift in the social contract governing the relationship between Arab ruling elites and their populations. The Spring has demonstrated a strong regional dynamic: protests have spread within the Arab world because of the cultural affinity felt by Arabs, and have not been matched in other parts of the world facing similar problems. The impacts of the Arab Spring on countries across the Middle East and North Africa (the “MENA region”) have been varied. The revolutions that occurred in Tunisia and Egypt have not been easily replicated in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
There is considerable uncertainty about the extent to which the Arab Spring is likely to spread or be sustained. While many commentators argue that the fall of incumbent regimes in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen is inevitable in the long term, most agree that oil-rich Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia will remain resistant to major political change, using a combination of repression with handouts to maintain their grip on power. In a recent report, the Economist Intelligence Unit argues that the fate of the uprisings is still in the balance and that there are three main possible scenarios, with the outcome of limited democratic reform being the most likely. It rates the chances of a return to the status quo at around 20%, while a genuine democratic breakthrough is seen as equally probable.
Islamist movements are likely to become major players in the post-uprising political landscape of the Arab world, despite the fact that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt and al-Nahda in Tunisia played minimal roles in the initial uprisings. Islamist movements formed under authoritarian regimes will face internal challenges, and tensions may emerge from younger activists, some of whom may support greater pluralism and openness. There is some debate surrounding the extent to which Islamist parties will seek to compromise their agendas to meet rising demands for democratisation. While some argue that the MB can be reconciled with secular democracy, others question its commitment to democracy.
Although social media savvy youth played an important role in driving the protests in most countries, their role is likely to diminish as political transitions play out in the region. Youth movements generally lack the organisation, leadership and policy platforms to continue to press their agenda.
While the Arab Spring has had a profound impact on the political settlement in many countries of the MENA region, some commentators have argued that it has failed to bring about any major change in regional power structures. While many commentators have made comparisons with the third wave of democratisation in Eastern Europe in 1989, US influence in the region is not crumbling in the same way that the Soviet Union’s influence over Eastern Europe fell apart during that region’s democratic transition.
Several commentators argue that developments in Egypt will have a significant impact on the wider region, either providing a blueprint for reform in other regions if the transition is successful, or encouraging anti-democratic opposition if the transition stalls. While there are signs that the military are consolidating their position in Egypt, the decision of the government to detain the former President demonstrates the continued power of protest.
The protests have ratcheted up regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the latter becoming increasingly fearful of the threat posed by Shia rebellions in Bahrain and Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s recent moves to invite Morocco and Jordan to join the Gulf Cooperation Council have been seen as an attempt to constrain Iran’s influence. Turkey’s role may also grow more important as a consequence of recent events, as it provides a critical model for democratic transition for other countries in the region. Turkish officials are becoming more strident in support of transition in Syria, where they fear a sectarian war. Western intervention in Libya may have a significant impact on the wider region. If the civil war is resolved relatively quickly, perhaps with the support of an African Union intervention, the damage to the West’s credibility in the region may diminish. If not, the damage is likely to grow.
Saudi Arabia has seen its position in the Arab world weaken as a result of the Arab Spring, losing its most important regional ally – Hosni Mubarak. Saudi Arabia’s primary goal remains maintaining the status quo and ensuring continued stability and as a result it has maintained a pragmatic stance towards its neighbours. It backed President Saleh in Yemen until his position became untenable and a threat to stability. It is now likely to try to limit the emergence of a united and more independent Yemen by provoking internal divisions within Yemeni elites.
The Arab Spring sparked dramatic protests on Israel’s northern borders, in Gaza and in the West Bank. Protests encouraged a reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the two main political parties in the Palestinian Territories, by exposing both parties to growing popular pressure for change. The agreement makes an immediate resumption of the peace process unlikely since Israel has stated unequivocally that it will not negotiate with a government that includes Hamas. The agreement does, however, put the Palestinians in a stronger position to push for a United Nations vote on statehood in September, if they can agree on who should lead a new government.
The protests have raised a number of new security challenges for the region. Although sectarian motivations have been largely absent from most of the recent uprisings, the threat of sectarian conflict looms large over a number of countries, particularly those such as Bahrain and Syria which are ruled by an ethnic minority group. The Arab Spring exposed Al-Qaeda’s ineffectiveness as an agent for political change. Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have been driven by young people motivated by freedom and non-violent action, rather than defending Muslim lands from Western aggression. Nevertheless, if the protests stall, Al-Qaeda could yet take advantage of the ensuing frustration.
In the short term, the economic consequences of the Arab Spring favour the oil-producing countries that have experienced the least instability. Egypt and Tunisia, by contrast, have seen sharp reductions in production, trade and services that have created fragile fiscal positions. Over the long term, some commentators predict that democratisation will generate significant economic benefits. Having said this, the task of economic reform in the region is likely to be extremely difficult. Most countries in the region are also blighted by kleptocratic monopolies, heavy regulation and massive state subsidies. Vested interests are also likely to resist change and may require further protest and violence to be changed. Tackling corruption will be one of the central challenges facing the region during the next phase of the transition.
Several commentators argue that a lack of economic reform may threaten the radical political changes that have swept the region, particularly in Egypt where there is already talk of the need for a ‘second revolution’ to address economic issues. New governments in Egypt and Tunisia will need to pursue a delicate balance between tackling vested interests and corruption on the one hand, and the need to avoid capital flight and the to ensure some degree of political stability on the other. The issue of bread and fuel subsidies is particularly sensitive. Although these subsidies can yield immediate political benefits to the governments that distribute them, they have negative long-term impacts on public finances and may be unfairly distributed because of corruption. One of the key challenges facing policymakers in the region will be the question of how to design new policies that reach targeted groups more efficiently.
For more on the Arab Spring, see the GSDRC Helpdesk research report “Effects of the ‘Arab Spring’ on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region“