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Origins and Responses to the Arab Awakening

When the Arab awakening started, no one would have predicted that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak would be behind bars and asked to give account for abusing his power. It is a new Middle East, and despite chaos and confusion at the moment, it is clear that the age of unchallenged dictators is over. Liberal democracy are not born in a day, but are the result of a long struggle and reform.  Some analysts’ expectations of the Middle East turning into a democracy overnight is nothing but wishful thinking. On the other hand those who believe that Arab countries cannot have liberal democracies are letting their prejudice and shortsightedness guide their judgment. The struggle for freedom and democracy in the Middle East has begun. It may be a long road but it is a journey worth taking.

The series of Arab protests that started in Tunisia caught governments around the world by surprise. Western powers were confident that Arab leaders would quickly restore calm, and Arab leaders trusted they would be able to crush the protests. Western leaders in particular were so sure of the status quo that on January 11th, three days before Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, the French foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie suggested that French police help restore order in Tunisia because they were skilled in “security situations of this type.” Similarly, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden defended Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a PBS News Hour‬ interview on January 27th 2011, claiming that the Egyptian President was an ally and not a dictator. This confidence in the power of Arab dictatorships angered many Arab protestors, who pointed to the West’s repeated calls for Arab democracy and the amount of money spent by the West promoting democracy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and cried: “hypocrisy!” Such critique leads to an important question: what factors did the West miss in the lead up to the “Arab Spring” that are now clearly visible in hindsight?

Listening to Khaled Said's mother speak at Tahrir Square, Friday 1 April (photo: Lisa Goldman)

THE ORIGINS OF THE ARAB AWAKENING

A number of factors contributed to the simultaneously rising Arab protests, beginning with the world financial crisis that hit in late 2008. It was accompanied by a substantial rise in food prices, which recovered briefly in 2009 before climbing again in 2010. Historically there is a strong correlation between revolutions and the price of bread, and although food prices are not the causal variable for revolutions, they do often serve as an important trigger for unrest. For example, in the 18th century the average worker in France spent approximately 50 percent of his salary on bread. By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, the same worker gave 88 percent of his wages to buy bread, and the resulting bread riots contributed to the collapse of the French monarchy. Bread riots also preceded the Russian Revolution, with the price of bread rising 15 percent and the price of potatoes rising 25 percent in the two months leading up to February 1917.

In a similar fashion, food prices in 2010 contributed to unrest in the Middle East in the first half of 2011. According to the World Bank’s Food Price Watch, the cost of most food items increased an average of 15 percent between October and December 2010. The rise in food prices particularly affected Egypt, which is one of the world’s largest importers of wheat. Robert Zoellick, head of the World Bank, commented on this situation in early 2011, saying that global food prices had reached “dangerous levels” that could impact fragile political and social conditions in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Youth unemployment was another destabilizing factor fueling Arab protests. A 2009 survey of Egyptian youth found that 90 percent of the unemployed were youth and 30 percent of youth under 25 years old wanted to emigrate to search for jobs. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the then head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), told CNBC on 01 February 2011 that youth unemployment in Egypt in particular was a “time bomb.” Considering that 60 percent of the population of the Arab world is less than 30 years old, any signs of youth dissatisfaction in an Arab country should be considered a warning. These signs were clear in the months leading up to the Arab revolutions: in fact, as early as 2008, Richard Cincotta, Director of Long Range Demographic and Social Science Programs for the National Intelligence Council, predicted that Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt’s youth demographic trends would lead to an increased likelihood of establishing liberal democracies before 2020.

Corruption also played an important role in increasing popular frustration with Arab governments. Most of the Arab countries facing uprisings had a low ranking in the 2010 Corruption Perception Index (CPI). Out of 178 countries, Yemen ranked 146th, Syria 127th, Egypt 98th. Tunisia and Bahrain ranked higher in the CPI, but the Ben Ali family was running a large corruption scheme, and Bahrain suffers from government nepotism, as half of the cabinet ministers in Bahrain are from the royal family and very few Shiites hold high-level positions.

RESPONSES TO UNREST: ARAB LEADERS AND ARAB PROTESTERS

While some governments may have predicted unrest, few anticipated that the protests would succeed in producing real change in entrenched Arab regimes. In fact, responses to unrest were instrumental in deciding the outcome of many of the revolutions. First, Arab leaders in Tunisia and Egypt responded to protestors with intimidation and violence. These regimes also targeted media, particularly focusing on limiting internet access and social networking tools. In both instances these efforts exacerbated conflict, forcing Ben Ali and Mubarak to make concessions that have been “too little too late.” Yemen and Syria are currently repeating the mistakes of Tunisia and Egypt, making it increasingly likely that the fate of their regimes will follow those of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

So far, only two nations have managed to escape the escalating cycle of violence that has brought down other Arab regimes this year. Bahrain has gained the dubious distinction of being the only nation that has successfully used violence to crush its protests, a feat it achieved by employing foreign troops to help reestablish order. However, it is highly doubtful that Bahrain’s strategy will be successful: the state’s minority Sunnis cannot expect to rule a country of Shias without substantial government reforms. In the last month protesters have returned to the streets, and calls for additional protests and mobilizations are underway. At the other end of the spectrum, King Abdullah II of Jordan avoided revolution by quickly announcing reforms and firing his government. He was also the only Arab leader that avoided extreme violence, having the Jordanian police distribute juice and water to protestors. This strategy won the respect of protestors, and unrest has largely died down. Only time will tell if King Abdullah can maintain the calm: there is still tension between Jordan’s Bedouin and Palestinian citizens, and the situation will likely remain volatile until reforms are implemented and a reconciliation program put in place to help unify the nation’s Jordanian and Palestinian communities.

In response to state violence, Arab protestors have primarily used nonviolent tactics to achieve their goals. In both Tunisia and Egypt, protestors utilized mostly nonviolent techniques, despite the excessive use of violence by police. To support a nonviolent stance, protest leaders cited an Islamic tradition from Al-Nasai, which quotes the Prophet Muhammad as saying “the greatest Jihad is a word of truth in front of an oppressive ruler.”  In Tunisia and Egypt, nonviolent protest gained the support of the army, which refused to intervene. This ultimately forced presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak to resign. Protestors also remained nonviolent in Bahrain, but were unable to win over the police because it is controlled by the Sunni minority. Yemen and Libya provide an exception to the mostly nonviolent Arab protests. Both Yemeni and Libyan protestors started with nonviolent tactics, but internal divisions quickly divided protesters, turning these revolutions into civil wars. This is partly because both Yemen and Libya remain tribal communities, whose tribal loyalties are more important than national identities.

All in all, the Arab Awakening is not over yet. Successful regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt are only the first steps in creating strong liberal democracies, and Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain are still in the throes of revolution and civil war. In addition, the domino effect continues to spark new protests in the region. Demonstrations in Morocco are picking up speed, and Algerians have also been protesting and even Israel is joining the fray. Although it is difficult to predict the outcome of these movements, one thing is certain: government responses will continue to have a large impact on future protests.

This article was originally published in George Mason University’s Global Studies Review Summer Issue Vol. 7, No. 2. (available at http://www.globality-gmu.net/)

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