The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a webinar discussion on December 17, 2020 on the impact of the Arab uprisings of 2011 and projections moving forward. The discussion included factors that explain the success of some countries in democratizing as opposed to others, the transforming political economy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel consisted of a group of distinguished scholars and experts, including: Joseph Bahout, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs; Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Chatham House; and Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Nader Kabbani, director of research at the BDC, moderated the event.
Joseph Bahout began the discussion, noting three factors that help explain why the first wave of uprisings proved more successful in certain countries. The first factor is the nature of the state beforehand. In countries like Tunisia and Egypt there was a tradition of republicanism, and the state was not fully patrimonial or regime focused. The second factor is the nature of society and the last is geopolitics. On this note, Bahout contended that a transformation in Tunisia’s power structure would not have altered the geopolitics of the Maghreb. Syria on the other hand presented strategic importance and this has invited meddling from both regional and international actors. Furthermore, Bahout stated the process of regime change in the Arab world will be long, violent, and non-linear. Finally, he contended that the model whereby the economic growth generated by the oil boom in the Gulf absorbs the deficit in job creation in Palestine, Algeria, Syria, and others will be gone forever. Moving forward, the MENA region must focus on creating jobs through productive sectors of agriculture, manufacturing, and technology. However, currently educational systems are ill-prepared to support this change.
Lina Khatib added to the list of factors that explain Tunisia’s relative success in opening up. One such is the fact that political figures realized that they must prioritize pragmatism over ideology to make progress. The second factor is that civil society has been strong and active, not just in the country but also in the diaspora. The third factor is that women played a vocal and important role and the fourth is the presence of labor unions who have acted as watchdogs through the whole process. The final factor is the lack of meddling by external actors. Furthermore, Khatib spoke on a survey by the Guardian that found most civilians across the MENA region, except in certain countries, believe things are more or less the same since the Arab uprisings and do not regret their occurrence. Most who answered positively were of the youth and they demonstrated optimism for the future. Unfortunately, as Khatib noted, the youth do not possess the power to drive change and transform entrenched political systems. Even so, they will be able to lead the region after 10 or 20 years and will perhaps then turn the Arab Spring into a success.
Michele Dunne concluded the discussion noting that one reason Tunisia also proved to be the most successful is because the military did not meddle in political affairs. She continued that there is a massive change currently taking place in the region that has to do with the end of the oil and gas era. Such natural resources have informed much of the political happenings of the region yet projections show that their demand will peak and then begin to decline. Many countries of the Arab world will struggle as they have failed to build diverse productive economies that are based on human capital. Furthermore, she noted that the pandemic has shone a harsh light on economic inequity and mal-distribution of income in the region. Yet elites do not acknowledge their privilege and the pandemic will not encourage them to share their economic opportunity more willingly. However, Dunne is optimistic because the youth are expressing their frustration more loudly and believes that things change when societies press for it. Finally, she noted that it is difficult to open up the economy without also opening up the political system.
In the subsequent question and answer session, panelists considered the current social contract, and the role of social media and Western actors. Firstly, Bahout noted that the former social contract of the Arab world must be reimagined and that the youth have no choice but to get involved in politics as they cannot escape economic duress. He expressed fear that the youth are engaging in ‘slacktivism’ and that social media activism is not enough to bring down current regimes. Khatib noted that many believe the region is destined to authoritarianism but fail to account for the role of the West. For instance, Syria descended into chaos in part because of former President Barack Obama’s lack of political will. Dunne concluded by claiming the West must ask itself whether it is actively working to enable and build a regional environment that favors democracy and human rights in the Arab world. Finally, she noted optimism that president-elect Joe Biden will again cement liberal values as a core component of U.S. foreign policy.
Director at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs - American University of Beirut
Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme - Chatham House
Director of the Middle East Program - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
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