Brookings Doha Center Public Event and Book Launch:
North Africa Six Years After the Arab Uprisings: Reflections and Prospects
“Egyptians in Revolt: The Political Economy of Labor and Student Mobilizations 1919–2011” by Adel Abdel Ghafar
The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on January 16, 2017, reflecting on the political situation in North Africa six years after the Arab uprisings. The panelists were Adel Abdel Ghafar, visiting fellow at the BDC; Larbi Sadiqi, professor of international affairs at Qatar University; and Samer Shehata, associate professor of politics and international relations at the Doha Institute. Tarik Yousef, director of the BDC, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
Yousef opened the discussion by asking the panelists to offer their opinions on what the 2011 uprisings accomplished in North Africa, but also to comment on some of the setbacks that have since occurred. He also asked them to discuss the prospects for the future, taking into consideration that most North African countries that underwent political change are currently experiencing a retrenchment of authoritarianism.
Sadiqi remarked that six years later, researchers still face the challenge of understanding the type of activism exhibited during the uprisings and how protestors utilized these methods to participate in the process of democratization. The representational differences—moral, religious, political, social, and the margins between them—alerted academics to the gaps in the research of how to make sense of what happened in North Africa. One explanation for this, Saidiqi claimed, derives from academia’s obsession with the state, not the region. He concluded his opening statement by calling for more research on “democratic learning” in the region, because the “dynamics and triggers” of the Arab Spring still prevail.
Shehata began his statement by agreeing with Sadiqi’s assertion that academia’s analysis of the Arab Spring did not end, noting that the research requires more nuance. The underlying causes of the uprisings continue today with a resurgence of authoritarian politics, high youth unemployment, corruption, and poor governance—and the situation in some countries has become significantly worse. Shehata gave the example of Egypt, which exhibits a reinforcement of authoritarian policies, including the expansion of the role of the security services, unfair trials, and a clampdown on civil society. The persistence of these dynamics in the region has invited greater political and social polarization, which makes it difficult to create political systems that can overcome such differences. Furthermore, regime breakdown and the pervasiveness of fragile states has inspired a desire among external actors to support the status quo, marking a return to previous policies of supporting authoritarian regimes for the sake of political stability.
Yousef then turned to Abdel Ghafar, who posited that in 2010-2011, the perfect storm of youth unemployment, a growing youth population, increasing urbanization, and an undercurrent of authoritarianism combined to galvanize the protest movement. He argued that at present “these conditions have actually worsened, in terms of youth unemployment and growing demographics,” which will likely bring about a new wave of destabilization to the region.
On a positive note, Abdel Ghafar explained that individuals in North Africa underwent a dramatic social change. Throughout the uprisings, the region witnessed “a breakdown in the barrier of fear.” The people who participated in the protests, especially the youth, now expect more from their governments, and they exhibit higher aspirations. Unfortunately, he continued, after the youth led and participated in the uprisings, they did not translate street protests into political action. Political elites in the region sidelined the youth, as many of the activists at the forefront of the protests were jailed. These political developments engendered a sense of pessimism in some segments of society, which now look to leave their respective countries and migrate elsewhere.
Yousef went on to ask the panelists what they thought undermined the political transitions after the protests. Sadiqi noted that the emergence of new political elites—specifically Islamists and leftists—inhibited popular protest movements from transitioning into successful political action. In Tunisia, the polarization between these new elites reinvigorated an ideological battle that had previously taken place in the 1980s. This resulted in an attempt by the leftists to reduce the revolution to an electoral game, with the purpose of restoring the status quo. As the polarization in Tunisia grew, a gap in the distribution of government goods and services widened, with the north being favored and the south and interior parts of the country being left behind.
Shehata argued that the power struggles in Tunisia were not unique, but also appeared elsewhere in the region. In conflict, he explained, to the winner go the spoils, and in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, the bulk of power and resources went to the victors. With regard to Tunisia, electoral democracy brought incredible inequality, as the elites co-opted the political system. As for Egypt, the security forces there manufactured fear and insecurity by not policing after the revolution, blackmailing the public into feeling unsafe, so that they would yearn for stricter security measures.
Abdel Ghafar suggested that in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists took advantage of a political opening. At first, it seemed that these “new” political elites would build a coalition with the youth, but the elites soon reneged on this promise. Instead, the Islamists opted for complacency, not challenging the power structure, only to settle for limited participation in the politics of the state. Abdel Ghafar identified a pattern emerging from the region’s political developments: the elites co-opted the popular movements, absorbing them into the state structure so that the people advocating for change could not upset the status quo.
In closing the discussion, Yousef asked the panelists to comment on how these movements can evolve in the future. Sadiqi asserted that future movements should find a way to depose the elites. He conceded, however, that such a process would prove difficult, as the region is facing a period of democracy demotion. Abdel Ghafar observed how the authoritarian bargain in the region collapsed during the Arab Spring. As a result, publics will no longer tolerate the inability of regimes to address their concerns. Shehata echoed Abdel Ghafar’s assessment, explaining that authoritarian regimes are inherently unstable. He concluded by highlighting the ongoing process of political change in the region, and warned that if authoritarian regimes cannot resolve basic conflicts or agree on how to distribute resources, it could lead to their collapse and serve as a catalyst for change.