As the world continues to consider and understand recent events in the Arab world, some have used the words “revolution” and “tsunami” to describe what has happened. The term “Arab Spring” has also become popular. This last definition is certainly an elegant turn of phrase, but is rather conditional in nature. After all, if this is the “Arab Spring,” will the “Arab Summer” not soon arrive, followed by the “Arab Autumn,” when the fruits sown in the first half of 2011 finally mature?
The events in the Arab world are far from over. Surprises could still be in store, and attempts to reflect on what has happened and correct and revise assessments will take a long time. Without drawing any final conclusions, it is worth examining these events as they are and asking why it is that they are happening now and how long will it take to actually bring to fruition the revolutionary gains made—or, on the contrary, to realize just how fragile they are or even confirm their failure. The Arab revolutions took place for plenty of obvious reasons, but nonetheless, no one saw them coming. No one saw the last straw that broke the back of the stability on which Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and other countries balanced.
Politicians and analysts certainly did not see the “Arab Spring” coming, just as they failed to see the Islamic revolution coming in Iran in 1978. In both cases, stereotyped thinking was to blame. In other words, they preferred to keep to the familiar vision of the situation.
My colleague, Alexey Vasilyev, lists six reasons for the flurry of developments in the Arab world: “rampant corruption, the gap between rich and poor, high unemployment, lack of prospects for young people to realize their potential, lack of democratic rights and freedoms, and rising food prices.” 1 He is absolutely right on all counts, but these problems are not new.
Additionally, Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, noted in an interview, “Arab Spring: View From Within the Region” (Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, June 1, 2011), the important role played by youth groups, which “were really the vanguard” and “were really the ones who started the ball rolling.” He is right. Perhaps the active role played by these youth groups was the last straw. So far, however, this organized youth activity has been evident in full only in Tunisia and Egypt, but not in Yemen, Syria, Jordan, and Libya. Indeed, do such groups even exist in these countries? Salem himself says that looking for one common key for the whole region is impossible, or almost impossible.
The “almost” here refers to the fact that there are some common circumstances that have provoked an “explosion” in the Arab world. The first of these is the “risky” demographic makeup of these countries’ populations, which are dominated by a high proportion of young people. This trend is holding steady: there are no shortage of 20-to-25-year-olds to replace those now already in the 25-to-35-year-old group, and plenty of even younger people are behind them. These countries’ “youth potential” is growing constantly, and all of this youthful energy needs an outlet. Tunisia and Egypt perhaps crossed the critical threshold this year. What’s more, these are the countries where a new type of youth had emerged—one who is better educated, more technologically savvy, and more ambitious.
The second circumstance is the regimes’ stagnation and their inability to form an adequate understanding of the real state of affairs in their countries instead of living in narcissistic complacency. “Stagnating regimes” start to live in a time and space that they themselves create, one that is unchanging. They identify their own prosperity with that of the nation as they see it. Such regimes lose the ability to develop and exhaust their potential. This can be a drawn-out process, but, sooner or later, the end always comes.
Finally, there is a third circumstance—people become tired of the regime, and above all, tired of a particular leader. This tiredness swells into discontent, eventually pushing people from various quarters of society into the streets—and the most discontented of all are the young people.
Tiredness with the regime gives rise not just to discontent, but also to indifference and frustration—thus, not everyone takes part in revolutions. Most people sit at home and watch events from their windows. Add to this the fear of change and what it might bring, and it becomes clearer why Algeria, say, has not been swept by unrest, why President Bashar al-Assad is still holding on in Syria, and why nothing has happened in Jordan and other Arab countries.
It’s worth noting that looking for the explanations of why something that could have happened did not happen is just as interesting as analyzing events that have happened.
The next question is when the “second round” in the revolutionary cycle is likely to start. The main social and economic reasons that have already caused uprisings and could potentially cause more remain in place in the Arab countries today, after all.
The new authorities in Egypt and Tunisia, and, clearly, in Libya and Yemen—as well as the old authorities in Syria, Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, and elsewhere—will have to carry out the major reforms they have promised. There is no doubting the sincerity of their promises: whoever does not carry out reforms is doomed. But they are running out of time to act, and real far-reaching reforms always come at a social cost, at least temporarily. Finally, reforms will inevitably weaken their control over society. All of this makes it highly likely that imminent or actual revolutionary situations will either continue or emerge in these countries.
Thus, both carrying out reforms and not carrying out reforms will make the internal political situation more tense and less stable, which will make a “second round” of upheavals inevitable.
Salem notes that Tunisia and Egypt “have a good chance of a real transformation toward a functioning democracy.” The chance is certainly there, but the question is, who will give it real substance and turn today’s formal democratic institutions into real and effective ones, and how? And who will guarantee honest elections—the army or outside forces?
The Islamic radicals whose political activity is on the rise could take advantage of the new democratization. That democratic procedures open the door to Islamists has been amply demonstrated by the success of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and radical groups in Pakistan. Honest elections in Afghanistan could bring success for the Taliban. Islamic parties and movements in such countries as Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood) and perhaps Syria and the Persian Gulf countries—not to mention al-Qaeda supporters in Yemen, who number in the tens of thousands—are all likely to make use of a good opportunity.
The “second round” could bring the reconstruction of new authoritarian regimes with charismatic leaders at their head. This would be no surprise, as people tend to look for and place their hopes in such leaders during critical situations. A hypothetical new “father of the nation” would make ready use of religious slogans, in particular calling for justice in the name of Islam. Authoritarian government is still the norm in most Muslim countries, and so observers should not hope too much for rapid change in their political culture and public awareness.
One more question worth reflecting on is whether something like the “Arab Spring” could happen in the Persian Gulf countries? Yes, the monarchies there are stable, and have learned how to use their oil resources for their economic development. The common view is that a social explosion in the region is very unlikely. But these countries also have a large number of young people. Social networks exist there, and the share of people with Internet access is similar or even exceeds the numbers in the unstable countries. Finally, these monarchies are engaged in a constant fight with local Islamic radicals. Consequently, the chances that the region’s regimes can keep ruling interminably are more debatable than they might look.
Finally, there is the influence of the “Arab Spring” on the Middle East conflict. There has not been much impact so far. Arab countries are caught up in their own internal affairs, and some regimes exploit Palestinian-Israeli relations more as a means of resolving their own internal difficulties than out of pressing concern for the Palestinian people. The “ebb and flow” of Middle East passions and periodic flare-ups bring to mind the well-known words of Yasser Arafat, who said that “Arab women’s wombs”—demography, in other words—would ultimately decide the conflict. Perhaps this matter of growing Arab and Muslim demographic pressure—like an approaching asteroid—is an indirect and tacit but understandable reason nudging the United States to rethink its policy in the Middle East.
The situation in the Middle East will most likely heat up during the “second round” of the “Arab Spring” for two reasons. First, because the radical Islamists, for whom the Arab-Israeli confrontation is a particularly sensitive issue, will become more active, and second, because political regimes under threat could try to divert attention toward Israel and Palestine instead.
Of course, many other important issues will determine the path the Arab world takes, such as Turkey’s new course in the Middle East, the attempts by some Arab countries to make use of Turkey’s experience, Iran’s position, and the influence the Arab revolutions could have on the rest of the Muslim world, in particular Central Asia. But then again, serious discussion on the present and future of the Arabs and the Muslims in general, the depth of changes taking place, and also the possible consequences and reversals, is only now beginning.
1. Vasilyev, Alexey. Tsunami revolyutsii: noviye geopoliticheskiye realii (The “Tsunami” of Revolutions: New Geopolitical Realities). Presentation at XII conference of African studies scholars (in Moscow, on May 24-26, 2011). Moscow, 2011. P1.