[Prefatory Note: The post below is an introduction to a series of articles on the theme of assessing the Arab Spring jointly written with the prominent Turkish scholar, Bülent Aras, whose bio-sketch appears below. It was published in the Third World Quarterly, 37 (No. 12): 2258-2334 (2016).]
Five Years after the Arab Spring: A Critical Evaluation
Bülent Aras and Richard Falk
a Professor of International Relations, Sabancı University, Turkey bRichard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University, United States.
[Abstract: A new political geography has emerged in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) after the Arab Spring. The transformative impact of the popular upheavals appeared to put an end to long-term authoritarian regimes. Today, the region is far from stable since authoritarian resilience violently pushed back popular demands for good governance and is pushing to restore former state structures. However, the collective consciousness of the popular revolts endures, and a transformative prospect may emerge on the horizon. The chaotic situation is the result of an ongoing struggle between those who seek change and transformation and others in favor of the status quo ante. A critical evaluation of the Arab Spring after five years indicates a continuous process of recalculation and recalibration of policies and strategies. There are alternative routes for an eventual settlement in the MENA region, which are in competition against both regional and transregional quests for a favorable order.]
The transformative impact of the Arab Spring on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) symbolizes a turning point in the recent history of the region. The change is obviously visible, although five years is not long enough to see the full effects of a popular movement with the transformative goals of the Arab Spring. The protests and the immediate aftershocks remain confined within regional boundaries, which affect only Arab countries, although the anti-authority discourse has reached a wider resonance. In this sense, one obvious dimension of this novel political development has been the “Arabness” of its core mobilization.
In more specific terms, the MENA region faces transformations on a range of fronts, from state-society relations to resilience of authoritarian regimes, from state failures to shifting alliances in the region. This complex picture is the result of interaction and socialization of new and old actors in the domestic to regional and regional to global flows. The domestic environments in the regional contagion range from failed transitions to civil wars, while regional order as a whole is almost a perfect example of “the anarchical society” without the existence of any overarching authority and institution capable of enforcing rules and establishing order.
On the domestic fronts, the Arab Spring brought the analyses of democratization and robustness of authoritarianism to the fore with a rich variety of cases for discussion. We put forward the idea that the Arab Spring represents a search of the masses under authoritarian regimes for honor, dignity, liberty, good governance, and accountability of rulers. These uprisings created a new collective consciousness or subjectivity strongly influenced by the transnational diffusion of international norms of governance, freedom, and equality. The uprisings in various authoritarian states thus made sense beyond the geography of immediate impact and created a strong transnational impetus for change in a series of countries outside the Arab World. The demands for change, search for representation, and struggle for honor created a new collective consciousness that provides motivation, solidarity, belief, and strategy in various national contexts to engage in similar struggles against rulers. Societal groups enjoy the empowerment of sub-state actors and benefit from state vulnerabilities in undertaking political initiatives within authoritarian settings. The opposition to authoritarian rule also finds its expression in a relatively democratized context, giving rise to further political demands, especially for stronger societal participation. Throughout the different phases of the Arab Spring, the masses have faced several challenges and difficulties associated with imposing their new collective consciousness on rule and transforming authoritarian regimes in desired directions.
The first challenge was the robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East and the differential ability of rulers to learn and recalibrate policies to preserve their hold on power. Second has been the lack of support from the international community in the struggle for freedom and liberties despite the fact that these ideas have been promoted with “universal” validity. The third challenge has been the fragility and fracturing of the societal consensus that has unleashed the uprisings, which underscores the vitality of sustainable coalitions that could have functioned as a social glue for realizing the transformative goals in its aftermath. The original consensus that gave rise to the new collective consciousness was severely challenged and even broken in some cases when it came to reforming the governing process along more democratic lines. When the popular expectations accompanying the uprising were dashed, active social forces backing the revolution became divided and certain elements indeed turned against the revolution to settle for what has been a reversal of the uprisings in the form of a counterrevolutionary backlash. This was actually what happened in Egypt after the election and overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The reactions of the ruling regimes vary according to their receptivity and resistance to the transformative claims set forth by the new collective consciousness. The Arab Spring has also been a learning process for all sides in terms of new calculations, recalibration of policies, and the development of effective strategies to cope with the new political atmosphere. The rulers and establishment elites as well as the popular movements also face fundamental challenges. Above all is the challenge of meeting societal demands for change in the domestic political order and the governing process. A second challenge concerns the transnational nature of the Arab Spring. This makes countries vulnerable to the potentially subversive transnational diffusion of the new collective consciousness. Inside/outside differences in policy-making have been more fluid than ever during this period. A third challenge has arisen when Arab rulers have found themselves with a capacity and incentive to exert an influence for or against the transformation of other states while at the same time facing a similar situation at home. Attitudes toward transformation of neighbors usually conform to the positions adopted at home. Rulers tend to support resistance to change outside if they adopt status quo policies at home: Most leaders seek outcomes that resemble as much as possible their domestic policies and are in conformity with their interests.
The fourth set of challenges may be the most confusing. The new transnational web of regional and international relations occurs within an atmosphere of flexible alliances and shifting alignments and priorities. Yesterday’s enemy may selectively become today’s friend. The contradictions and multiple dimensions of conflict that have risen to the surface in Syria during the last five years highlight this concern. A number of countries in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, have reacted to the situation elsewhere in the region to raise firewalls to protect their hold on power at home. A fifth set of challenges follows from the involvement of global political actors, mainly Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States. The aspirations of these actors are not always clear, and may alter under pressure and in response to national shifts in the balance of forces. This further complicates an assessment of internal strife, exhibiting both mixed signals coming from some of these actors and rigid attitudes from others. The relations of Middle Eastern countries with these external actors have often become strained by the shifts and turns in response to the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring is now at a critical phase as both popular forces and the ruling elites are recalculating their policies and reshaping attitudes toward change and the option of resistance. This is a distinctive moment in history that is showing the limits of creativity to meet the challenges of the Arab Spring, which ranges from the particularistic such as determining the future of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to broader issues of the role of Islamism such as the legitimacy and role of the pro-democracy Ennahda movement in Tunisia. The mobilization of new political movements in Iraqi Kurdistan and Northern Syria, or the Saudi attempts to empower the administration in Bahrain and shape an anti-Houthi outcome in Yemen also undermine the political order of the region in different ways. It is possible to analyze the Arab Spring within four subsystems, categorizing their adaptability and resistance to the diffusion of transnational values. The four categories that we set forth are the Arab I and Arab II, Turkish-Iranian complex, and Kurdish de facto autonomy systems.
The Arab System I refers to those Arab states that share the commonalities of high population and low natural resources. These countries have been vulnerable to popular revolts and possess a limited ability to address societal challenges through peaceful means. The Arab System II consists of Arab states having a small population and a strong resource base. They exert more control over societal demands and also enjoy surplus financial capacity to influence political outcomes in other countries. The societal demands are more basic in terms of democratization and appropriation of civil rights and liberties. The state-society tension, in general, has risen to unstable levels and in some cases has led to the outbreak of civil war. One could depict several sub-regions within these subsystems. Furthermore, these two Arab configurations of states are not mutually exclusive. There occur complex and multiple interactions with each other that are further complicated by extra-regional involvements. The “Syriraq” crisis, the rise of Daesh, and the Saudi-led coalition’s air war against Yemen, among others, are issues concentrated in the Arab System I, although these events are also of clear relevance to the Gulf Kingdoms of the Arab System II that are preoccupied with maximizing authoritarian survival beyond their own borders, and devote resources to ensuring the persistence of an authoritarian neighborhood.
The Turkish-Iranian system is different than the Arab systems in reference to political institutions and societal demands. The 1979 revolution put an end to the authoritarian monarchy in power, replacing it with Islamic rule. Iran has regular elections, a diverse civil society, and a functioning parliament. Despite these moderating features of the governing process, the Iranian opposition seeks greater democratization, protection of human rights and basic freedoms. Thus the fundamental questions in Iranian politics are how to secure free and fair elections, political liberalization, the empowerment of civil society and politicians, and normalization of relations with the West against the stronghold of the establishment. In 2009, people protested against the presidential elections with the slogan “Where is my vote?”, yet were suppressed in the name of raison d’etat. The Iran nuclear deal seems to be a game changer since it carries the potential to put an end to Iran’s international isolation and turn Iran into a legitimate actor in regional politics. Iran’s new status helped it to have a psychological upper hand in the course of the scaling down of the U.S. presence in the Middle East, which lessens the likelihood of any new hegemonic order in the region for the foreseeable future. The region will now become even more prone to rivalries, conflicts, and protracting crises as regional actors pursue contradictory goals. This is what has happened during the five years after the Arab Spring. The geopolitics of the Middle East is now being manipulated predominantly within a framework of sectarian conflict and the overall rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence.
The Turkish situation is more about the enhancement of democracy, fine-tuning, and active participation in decision-making processes and a fundamental emphasis on economic development.. The societal demands are centered on the call for transparency, accountability, freedom of expression, and further civil rights. There is also an issue of cultural and language rights sought by Kurdish political forces. The Gezi Park protests in 2013 are exemplary in this sense of Turkish unrest. Young people resisted the building of a shopping mall in one of the few green parks in the urban center of Istanbul. The Turkish subsystem, compared to the others, despite its shortcomings, comes closest in the region to institute a democratic order. Turkey has taken strides in good governance and economic development, but has ever since been haunted by the quest for sustaining a democratic transition. In that sense, societal demands for better representation, checks on the political leadership, and the desire to control and limit political excesses fits into the general spirit of the new collective consciousness that has already been in motion within the dynamics of the Turkish system. The challenging issues for Turkey are responding demands for wider representation, addressing growing societal polarization and consolidating democratic institutions against a counterproductive trend in favor of reaching political goals through violence in the Kurdish problem and an undefined social call for security in the face of terrorist attacks launched by the extremists including Daesh.
The failed attempted coup of July 15, 2016 in Turkey can be connected to the Arab Spring experience, including the aftermath, in several significant ways. The most obvious reverberation of 2011 was the degree to which the leader was able to summon the people of Turkey to exhibit historical agency by displaying their support for the existing government and sacrificing their bodies to uphold the elected political leaders of the country. At first glance, the contrasts with Egypt are most striking. In 2011, the Egyptian masses in their revolt against Mubarak’s rule proved themselves and to the world their historical agency by opposing an unelected authoritarian government, and following the overthrow of the regime in Tunisia, catalyzed uprisings throughout the region. Then in 2013, disappointed by the failures of the elected leadership to perform, the Egyptian people were again mobilized effectively, this time to support a military coup against the elected leadership. In these fundamental respects, what happened in Turkey on July 15th is the exact opposite of the second Egyptian uprising that brought General Sisi to power, an outcome later ratified by elections conducted unreliably in a post-coup atmosphere of repression focused on crushing the Muslim Brotherhood that had won the prior nationwide elections held in 2012.
The situation in Turkey remains uncertain as the aftermath of failed coup has created contradictory signals about what to expect from the perspective of stability, human rights and democracy. In the early post-coup atmosphere in Turkey was dominated by a problem unique to the region, the deep penetration of all governmental institutions by the Gulenists, the followers of Fethullah Gülen who resides in the U.S. This left the Turkish government led by its president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with the formidable task of rebuilding the Turkish state without destroying Turkish democracy. On the one side, there are encouraging signals suggesting a new and welcome willingness of the main political parties to work together to preserve constitutional democracy in the country while restoring confidence in the security apparatus of the state. On the other side, there is challenging task of dealing with the detentions of Gülenist suspects from the various branches of government including the armed forces along with mass dismissals from educational institutions and an array of interferences with journalists and writers in a situation of state of emergency.
How these dramatic developments will play out in the region remains to be seen. Even before the coup, Turkey was engaged in a foreign policy reset, featuring successful efforts to renew normal diplomatic relations with Russia and Israel, which had become antagonistic in the prior five years. The Turkish relationship with the United States is also under unprecedented pressure due to the coup as its accused leader, Fethullah Gülen, resides in the United States. The Turkish government has formally requested extradition in accordance with a bilateral treaty, and whether it is granted or denied could affect the future of U.S./Turkish relations, as well as the coherence of NATO.
The Kurdish system is the most problematic challenge confronting Turkey. Although the Kurds do not have a state of their own, they have been empowered in their respective geographies during the Arab Spring, which has raised their expectations. Kurds are a minority group in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. There are three Kurdish sub-systems emerging within the atmosphere of change and transformation in the Middle East. First is the Syrian-Iranian sub-system, which seems best characterized by war and survival. Second is the Iraqi subsystem, which is a quasi-state structure that faces the challenges of securing the autonomy and consolidation of political and economic order, which may require an opening up of its political structure to satisfy societal demands. Third is the Turkish subsystem, which oscillates between war against the PKK and a peace process with Kurdish political representatives in an environment of a relatively advanced political structure. In the last year or so there has been a definite move away from peace and diplomacy and a firm embrace of armed struggle tactics.by both sides
Against this backdrop, Emirhan Yorulmazlar and Bülent Aras deal with the geopolitics of the Arab Spring and develop a framework to combine the factors that brought the previous regional order to an end. The domestic to regional and regional to global flows are examined in detail as the authors analyze and assess the regional disorder that emerged in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Ever since the regional political landscape appears to have been completely altered. The article identifies the emerging subregional systems in the Middle East, which could pinpoint the basis for further changes and evolve to constitute the prospective regional order.
Fuat Keyman deals with the regional crisis and explains how this contributes to global turmoil. In this regional to global flow, regional problems are elevated to matters of international security. Keyman analyzes Turkey’s dilemma specifically, facing both the rise of Daesh and the refugee problem. He rejects the idea that Turkey is a buffer zone and encourages a more constructive and integrative dialogue between both Turkey and EU and Turkey and the U.S. with the objective of addressing these issues.
Pınar Akpınar focuses on the limits of mediation with respect to conflict resolution in the five years of Arab Spring. Akpınar’s focus on the effects of the multi-actor environment, the results of various trials of mediation, and a particular consideration of the mediation attempts in Syria underlines the necessity to rethink the means, nature, and capability of mediators as an alternative to chaos and armed struggle.
Halil Ibrahim Yenigün explores the repercussions of the purported failure of Islamist experimentations with democracy during the Arab Spring in terms of the inclusion-moderation hypotheses with a specific focus on the Egyptian case. He puts forward that moderation can only go so far because of the relevance and limits of Islamists’ political theology and further democratization may be dependent on a more viable Islamist political theology that accords better with rights and freedoms than a simplistic understanding of majority principle.
Richard Falk evaluates the aftermath of the Arab Spring through the dual optic of a regional phenomenon and a series of country narratives. These narratives are categorized by reference first to the secular states that found a path to stability after experiencing strong uprisings that drove rulers from power , second to the states in which the uprisings generated prolonged resistance and continuing acute instability, and third to the monarchies that neutralized the uprisings at their inception and restored stability. When other dimensions of conflict are taken into account it seems likely that the Middle East will continue to experience chaos, intervention, and counterrevolution for years to come, and possibly even a second cycle of uprisings directed at the evolving order.
Notes on Contributors
Bülent Aras is Senior Scholar and Coordinator of the Conflict Resolution and Mediation stream at Istanbul Policy Center, Professor of International Relations in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabancı University and Global Fellow at Wilson Center. He is Academic Coordinator of POMEAS (Project on the Middle East and Arab Spring). His current research interests include geopolitics of Arab Spring, non-state actors in peacebuilding and bridging the gap between theory and practice in foreign policy. Recent work has been published in Middle East Policy, International Peacekeeping, Political Science Quarterly, International Journal, Journal of Balkans and Near Eastern Studies, Journal of Third World Studies, Third World Quarterly.
Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus at Princeton University where he was a member of the faculty for forty years (1961-2001). He is Chair of International Board of Advisers of POMEAS. Between 2002 and 2013 he has been associated with Global & International Studies at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California, and is continuing to direct a research project on ‘Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy’ in his role as Fellow of the Orfalea Center. Professor Falk has been the Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine for the United Nations Human Rights Council between 2008 and 2014. He served as Chair of the Board, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2004-2012, and is now its Senior Vice President. In 2008-2009 he was appointed expert advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly. Over the years, Falk has published more than 50 books. The most recent one is Power Shift: On the New Global Order (2016).
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