In 2011, the political trajectories of many Arab states appeared to converge as protesters across the region revolted against corruption and authoritarianism, demanding dignity and acknowledgement of their basic rights. Yet since that time five years ago, not only has the optimism of the moment faded, but post-revolutionary Arab states have proceeded along diverse paths. This has brought—in varying forms—chaos, unpredictability, stagnation, and perhaps progress. These divergences present challenges for governments, political parties, the private sector, and civil society in the Middle East, as well as for policymakers in the West. With few common themes across the region and little predictability, analytical insights can become outdated quickly and even short-term planning risks being irrelevant.
With this in mind, rather than trying to produce an analysis of how regional events are a part of a coherent narrative, it is perhaps more useful to focus on the individual circumstances of post-2011 Arab states. To that end, Sada’s first eBook, The Middle East Unbalanced, draws on the extensive research and fieldwork of young authors with connections to the region to provide unique insights into a breadth of challenges and issues in an array of Arab countries.
Looking at Tunisia, Fadil Aliriza argues that the shadow of the police state looms over efforts to transition to a more pluralistic and democratic system. Mohammed El-Shewy explains how Egypt's steady transformation into an actor-driven political model is weakening the state. Myriam Benraad analyzes the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq as a product of Sunni dissatisfaction. Looking at some of the deeper challenges within the conflicts in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, Hadi Fathallah explores the negative impact fighting has had on food security, which in turn further compounds political, economic, and social challenges. Mahmoud Jaraba and Lihi Ben Shitrit argue the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is losing its regional significance in favor of narrower local and, paradoxically, wider international significance. In the book’s final essay, Suliman Al-Atiqi argues new threats facing the region have drawn Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries closer.
This series of articles is an attempt to capture the Middle East’s current moment, pointing to some key dynamics and challenges. Other countries deserve equal attention, and their particular political developments are covered in depth by Sada contributors regularly. For instance, Algeria, though it escaped the tumult of 2011, stands at a crossroads, with an uncertain leadership transition ahead amid sharply declining government revenues due to lower oil prices. Morocco’s tentative reforms and the rise of popular politics show clear signs of influence from the same trends that grew out of 2011. Similarly, Jordan is attempting to balance reforms and stability while government after government falls short of addressing pressing social and economic needs. Libya has continued to see central authority and state capacity fracture as multilayered conflicts continue in the wake of the initial 2011 war. Lebanon has struggled to inoculate itself from the extreme warfare and explosive politics that have ravaged neighboring Syria.
Increasingly, the “Arab Spring” is becoming shorthand for failure, disappointment, disillusionment, or fear in policy circles. But rather than allowing the last five years to become a cohesive, historical footnote in our broader understanding of the region and where it is heading, now more than ever there is a need for granular analyses that reject simplification and embrace painful complexity. Continuing to trace the threads of shared political phenomena across the region may indeed yield little clarity from a macro-level, geopolitical lens, but doing so is not purely an academic exercise. The broad principles that once guided policymaking in the region are no longer so dependable, and the creative solutions needed to address new priorities demand greater curiosity, patience, and willingness to listen to the voices from 2011 that still echo.