Five years later, lessons of the uprisings in North Africa

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Five years after the Arab uprisings, optimism has faded to cynicism as ongoing conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen cast a shadow on the prospects for a sustainable democratic transition in the region. Despite the bleak outlook, there is some hope for the ongoing transition in Tunisia, and in neighboring Morocco, where a controlled political opening within an authoritarian system continues to unfold.

Revolutions take time, and years could pass until we write the final score for the so-called Arab Spring. Nevertheless, after five years, the main participants—the Islamists, the Arab youth, and the regimes themselves—should process several lessons. Occasionally, the regimes and the Islamists have cooperated; at other times, they engaged in conflict. Both consistently attempted to co-opt and contain the youth, who were the catalyst of the uprisings. The continued interplay between the three forces and how they absorb the lessons of the past five years can offer insight into the ongoing transitions unfolding in the Arab world.

The Islamists 

Depending on the country, Islamists across the region displayed the biggest disparity between gain and loss from the political upheaval since 2011. In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) has made solid gains. Processing lessons from neighboring Algeria, which saw the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and the Algerian regime fight a protracted and devastating civil war during the 1990s, the PJD continued its cautious, gradualist approach. Since 1997, it has fielded candidates in parliament, but never sought to dominate; deliberately limiting the number of candidates they put forward to dispel any threat. 

Described as “the party that did not want to win,” the PJD’s gradualist approach over the years bore fruit in the sense that it did not alienate it from the populace or the king. Constitutional reforms and elections in 2011 allowed the PJD to form the new government. In the historic September 2015 regional council elections—when Moroccans voted for the first time to choose local and regional representatives directly—the party won 25 percent of seats and was able to secure a majority in important cities such as Casablanca, Rabat, Sale, Marrakesh, Fez, Meknes, Tanger, Kenitra, and Agadir. 

Despite initial fears of the PJD imposing a conservative social agenda, its predominant focus in government has been improving the Moroccan economy. When asked if he had set aside his Islamist ideology, the PJD-affiliated Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane replied: “I have not come to change religious beliefs, but to solve their problems.” One of the main problems that Morocco faces is corruption. Benkirane vowed to tackle this issue, but so far has focused on lower-level corruption, rather than at the level of the king and his entourage (known to Moroccans as the “Makhzen”). The question remains as to whether the PJD can reduce corruption at the highest level. 

In Tunisia, the Arab Spring created openings for the Islamist Party Ennahda, which made electoral gains in parliamentary and presidential elections. In 2013—when the Salafist Ansar al-Sharia was prohibited from carrying out party congresses, leading to clashes—Ennahda worked with political powers to put the transition back on track. It also collaborated with opponents to pass a constitution that received popular support, and was lauded as a model for constitutional reform regionally. Despite losing the 2014 presidential election, Ennahda won a modicum of trust from Tunisians in recognition of its ability to compromise and relinquish power

In Egypt, despite winning parliamentary and presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood lost overall. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood had won the lion’s share of seats with 37.5 percent of the vote, and promised not to field a presidential candidate.

[I]nflexibility and lack of pragmatism in politics will likely backfire.

Forgetting its own adage “participation not domination,” the Brotherhood wavered and decided to field a candidate: its financier and organizational mastermind, Khairat al Shater. After his disqualification, the well-intentioned but hapless Mohammed Morsi became the candidate. After winning the presidential elections by a slim margin, Morsi performed abysmally. His government had under-delivered economically, failed to undertake any of the promised security sector reform, and issued presidential decrees rather than build consensus. With these missteps and more, Morsi and the Brotherhood alienated themselves from many segments of the Egyptian population; paving the way for a popularly backed coup by the military. 

Here lies the main lesson that Islamists need to process: inflexibility and lack of pragmatism in politics will likely backfire. Islamists in Morocco and Tunisia have exhibited pragmatism and have worked with the established (if changing) political order. This gradually allowed them to use the opening space within a constrained political system. Should the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt ever return to the political arena, they should first process and apply this lesson.

The youth

Overall, the youth—initially the main drivers of the uprising—have lost on several fronts. Youth unemployment continues to climb. Even the success story, Tunisia, saw youth unemployment reach almost 40 percent in 2015. In Morocco, it reached 20 percent in 2014 and in Egypt it climbed to 26 percent in 2015. Even in Algeria, a resource-rich country that was relatively untouched by the uprisings, youth unemployment reached 25 percent in 2014

Despite leading much of the uprisings, youth struggled to reach positions of power due to their inexperience, lack of organizational structures, and low access to resources. It is sadly ironic and telling that after the uprising in Tunisia was sparked by the 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi, the country is now led by octogenarian Beji Caid Essebsi. In Algeria, 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, yet the country is led by the ailing 78-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika. 

Furthermore, established political actors, exemplified by the Islamists or the existing regimes, continuously co-opt or sideline Arab youth. In the Tunisian National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), which was tasked with drafting the county’s first constitution after the revolution, only 4 percent of its members were under 30, while the vast majority (76 percent) were over 50. In Morocco, the cooperation between the king and the PJD had sidelined the 20th of February youth movement, which had lead the protests in 2011. In Egypt, youth politicians close to the regime and funded by its allies are encouraged to participate in the political process, while thousands of Egyptian youth— including many at the forefront of the revolution—remain in jail. In a report last year, Amnesty International said that Egypt’s 2011 “Generation Protest” has become 2015’s “Generation Jail.” 

So far, in all elections held in North Africa since the Arab uprisings, the main contenders have either been the Islamists or elements of the ancien régime. In Morocco, the rivalry is between the PJD and the palace-backed Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM). The competitors in Tunisia include Ennahda and Nida Tunis, a party which includes many Ben Ali- and Bourgiba-era politicians. In Egypt, the historical rivalry continues between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, but at a diminished level after the latter has had its ranks decimated through jail, exile, or death. Irrelevancy infected many of the parties formed soon after the uprisings. 

The lesson for the youth: protests need to be followed by building and/or joining sustainable political organizational structures which capitalize on street movement. The chant “eesh, hurriya, a’dala ijtima‘iya,” (bread, freedom and social justice) remains as a potent and admirable rallying call, but it needs a policy platform to elicit popular support and enact meaningful policy changes. If a new political option does not crystalize, then the Arab uprisings will remain forever stuck between the generals and the sheikhs.

Several recent studies continue to highlight the correlation between economic marginalization and terrorism.

The regimes

Hyper-nationalist discourse can only take regimes so far. In Egypt, youth unemployment coupled with high inflation, a weakening currency, and dwindling foreign currency reserves can potentially incite further protests. The current protests against unemployment in Tunisia provide an early indication of more to come there and across North Africa, should the regimes fail to take youth unemployment seriously. The Tunisian protests show that even with a relatively successfully political transition, it means nothing if not matched by an equally successful economic transition. Even resource-rich Algeria is exposed: demographic pressures, paired with rising unemployment and lower oil prices, can potentially impact the stability in the country

Street protests can also have security consequences, with potential radicalization of the youth. Thus, it comes as no surprise that unemployment-plagued Tunisia now provides the most ISIS fighters per capita in the world. Several recent studies continue to highlight the correlation between economic marginalization and terrorism. In Egypt, this problem is compounded further: Politically disenfranchised youth, lacking in economic opportunity, provide the perfect fodder for the ISIS-inspired insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. 

[T]he growth and stability of North Africa will hinge on the youth of the region.

The lesson for the regimes: the growth and stability of North Africa will hinge on the youth of the region. Arab millennials—whose numbers continue to increase exponentially—find themselves in an environment very different from previous generations: more connected to the world than ever before, as well as more educated and aspirational. They have lived through and participated in the uprisings, and understand that political outcomes are no longer pre-ordained. Regimes in the region must ensure that youth are fully integrated into economic and political structures, so they don’t become a longstanding source of instability.