Why you should care
Keep your eye on four critical countries: Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
It was a time of hope, excitement, change. There were peaceful gatherings and widespread protests, social media came to the forefront as a resistance technique, and leaders toppled in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. For a time, it seemed as if revolution might be sweeping the entire Middle East, with unknown consequences. So whatever happened to the so-called Arab Spring? The biggest beneficiary may surprise you. And looking ahead, what other Arab countries are ripe for revolution? As with all things Middle Eastern, it’s complicated.
When the Arab revolutions were in their early stages – primarily in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya – hope ran high that a wave of democratic reform would wash across the region. Events kicked off with the Tunisian revolt in late 2010 and crested in Egypt’s Tahrir Square with the overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship in early 2011. These revolutions were unique in modern Arab history for two reasons: first, they were internally and spontaneously generated and second, they were about universal values and aspirations – a desire for freedom, democratic representation, educational opportunity and decent jobs.
At the time, many people opined that this was very bad news for Al Qaeda and other extremists because the change had come about without the resort to violence that they had long urged.
But as Henry Kissinger presciently remarked in 2011, this was “only Act One of Scene One of a Five Act drama.” I’m not sure what act or scene we are now witnessing, but it is a far cry from the 2010 curtain raiser. The key event since then has been the collapse of the Egyptian revolution – or one might say its reversal, given that the democratically elected government of Islamist Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup in July, Morsi is now in jail and Mubarak out, and the country appears headed for a new government headed by the Armed Forces chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.
Al Qaeda is now in “I told you so” mode – pushing its narrative that Islamic parties are wasting their time trying to gain power peacefully and democratically.
This turn of events is a gift to Al Qaeda, which is now in “I told you so” mode – pushing its narrative that Islamic parties are wasting their time trying to gain power peacefully and democratically. There will doubtless be other twists and turns in this drama, but for now, the heady early days of the Arab Spring are unlikely to be recaptured. To be sure, the government that replaced Ben Ali in Tunisia survives but is dealing with deep disenchantment and fighting an extremist insurgency in parts of the country. Libya is now ruled by a weak central government that controls little territory and competes for influence with dozens of armed militias. And Syria of course is mired in sectarian war.
So what does all of this mean for Arab countries that managed to avoid revolutionary turmoil – specifically Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia? Given that most Middle East certainties have been blown away in the last two years, predictions are perilous, but let’s take a stab at it.
First, all of these governments have been sobered by what they’ve seen elsewhere and they have taken steps to head off or blunt similar demands. Second, many of the discontented groups in these societies are probably off balance and divided over strategy in light of what’s happened in Egypt.
Morocco is the country least likely to experience an upheaval like those we’ve seen. King Muhammed VI has been introducing reforms gradually for a decade, including substantial new rights for women, and in 2011 unveiled a new constitution featuring a democratic parliament and separation of powers – essentially a constitutional monarchy. There are still some protest groups, but they seem unable to gain traction against the backdrop the King has created.
Algeria is tougher to assess. Arguably the most authoritarian of Arab countries, and the largest geographically, it has many of the conditions that sparked revolution elsewhere, including high unemployment in a population that is 70 percent under the age of 30. It is also led by rulers who are aged, and in the case of President Boutefika, ill. This said, it has an internal security service that has a proven record of detecting and stamping out dissent. Algeria benefits from sizeable oil and natural gas revenues, and since 2011 the government has spent large sums on improved public services and price supports in an effort to counter dissatisfaction. The bottom line is that Algeria bears close watching because of this finely balanced mix of factors.
What is clear is that most of our earlier assumptions about the Middle East have been turned on their head.
Jordan is led by a progressive monarch, King Abdullah, who has largely been a modernizing force for his country. He remains broadly popular, and enjoys substantial support from the United States. But his government is under more direct pressure and has fewer resources than most other countries in the region. There is frustration with the slow pace of political reform and with the austerity essential in hard times for Jordan’s resource-poor economy. Added to this are enormous pressures coming from Jordan’s demographics and geography – spillover of both refugees and fighters from the Syrian conflict next door and a teeming Palestinian population disgruntled by its marginal influence in Jordanian politics and lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. There is no doubt the King and his government are walking a perilous tightrope but if I had to bet, I’d say that with ingenuity, a little luck, and continued support from the United States he can navigate through this period.
4. Saudi Arabia
On the surface, oil-rich Saudi Arabia would seem to be a good candidate for revolution given its highly conservative policies, restrictions on women’s rights, aging royal family and the same sort of “youth bulge” demographics that contributed to rising and frustrated expectations elsewhere in the Arab world. But the 89 year-old King Abdullah has been sensitive to these pressures, appointing a number of competent younger princes to government posts and spreading around literally billions of dollars in projects designed to ease tribal pressures, soothe public concerns and discourage a coalescence of discontent. It’s impossible to rule out a surprise, but the royal family has been defying predictions of its demise for years, and chances are they will do so yet again.
Keeping in mind Kissinger’s caution, it is probably too soon to say the Arab Spring has run its course. But what is clear is that most of our earlier assumptions about the Middle East have been turned on their head. And this virtually guarantees there will be more surprises ahead.