The Political Transformation of the Middle East and North Africa
“The size and contagious overspill of the Arab Spring has distinguished the civil uprisings from other expressions of discontent, and demonstrated the magnitude of the socio-economic and political challenges facing the region.”
Beginning in January 2011, a wave of popular protest has swept through the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). What developed into the ‘Arab Spring’ led to the rapid demise of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and intensifying mass opposition to the regimes in Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. Its size and contagious overspill has distinguished the civil uprisings from other expressions of discontent, and demonstrated the magnitude of the socio-economic and political challenges facing the region. They also revealed the narrow social base of support underpinning longstanding authoritarian rulers, and their reliance on the use of coercion or the threat of force.
The protests that sparked the 2011 civil uprisings originated in North Africa following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2010. His plight resonated heavily among people across the Arab world. It tapped into powerful feelings of helplessness and a perceived lack of prospects for a better future among youthful populations lacking sufficient opportunities for employment or advancement. Moreover, it exposed the elderly, authoritarian regimes’ manifest failure to manage or meet the demands of this younger generation in a rapidly changing global economy. These foster the perception among young people that no meaningful change, or even hope, is possible within existing political systems. It is this intergenerational clash that has caught regional leaders in the crosshairs of global processes and pressures.
“This article analyses the roots and trajectory of the recent unrest in the context of the global transformations that have redefined the politics of protest in the region.”
This article analyses the roots and trajectory of the recent unrest in the context of the global transformations that have redefined the politics of protest in the region. It argues that accelerating forces of global change played a significant role in intensifying and channelling the underlying drivers of discontent. An opening section analyses how advances in information exchange and communication facilitated the spread of ideas across national boundaries. These largely bypassed state controls and made possible new forms of coordination, discussion and mobilisation, and a second section demonstrates how these played out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. A final section focuses on the impact of globalising processes on the future of political, economic and social structures in the region.
New forms of interconnectedness
Globalisation and the acceleration of global interconnectedness is dramatically transforming the global order and reconfiguring notions of state power and political authority. It involves the re-conceptualisation of the concept of political community into a distinctive form of ‘global politics’ that operates beyond the sphere of the individual nation-state.1 These broader linkages are mirrored by the revolution in information and communication technologies (ICT). This has created new forms of private, public and increasingly virtual spaces in which to mobilise, organise and channel societal demand.2 Political bloggers played active discussant roles during the parliamentary elections in Bahrain in 2006 and Kuwait in 2008 and 2009, while online youth networks also played a key organisational role in the ‘Orange movement’ that secured important changes to the electoral process in Kuwait in 2006.3 Meanwhile, social networking sites such as Facebook were embraced by a younger generation of activists who use them for debate and the coordination of activities. In addition, they serve as sites for meeting members of the opposite gender in places such as Saudi Arabia where this would otherwise be circumscribed.
“Social networking sites such as Facebook were embraced by a younger generation of activists who use them for debate and the coordination of activities.”
New forms of communication and mobilisation impacted most strongly with the youth bulge in MENA countries. 65% of the regional population is under the age of 30 and, like young people elsewhere, are highly technology-savvy and adept at bypassing state controls to mobilise around common issues or grievances. This synthesis of new media and younger populations has eroded the system of controls and filters carefully constructed and maintained by ministries of information and official government media outlets. The danger for authoritarian regimes arose in part when young peoples’ greater exposure to alternative pathways and points of view converged with perceptions of exclusion from economic opportunities by corruption, high levels of un- and under-employment, and other barriers to meritocracy.4
Throughout the broader region, a fault-line has opened up between young populations exposed to modernising forces through the internet and satellite television and ossified, oppressive regimes unable to provide opportunities or the reality of a better life. New media and advances in communications technologies have transformed the terms of the debates between rulers and ruled and rapidly eroded regimes’ control over the flow of information. The Internet, satellite television and social networking sites opened up profound new spaces for discussions about the widening gap between social classes and the disparities in wealth and incomes between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ Blogging, and the availability of encrypted communications technologies such as Skype and BlackBerry likewise enabled suppressed and marginalised voices to make themselves heard to wide audiences both locally and around the world. Significantly, they have become social as well as technological phenomena as they emerged as powerful agents of social change and political empowerment.5
In Egypt and Tunisia, the hyper-modernising forces of the internet and satellite television hit the tired gerontocracies at their weakest point, and underscored the intense vulnerability of authoritarian governments to new methods of publicly holding them to account. Elsewhere, mobile and online communications connected greater numbers of people with each other and provided a potent platform for spreading messages of impending demonstrations. Moreover, changing patterns of mass communication also transformed the ways people receive and consume news and opinion, both directly and, subsequently, through online discussion and debate. Thus, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera has provided comprehensive (if sometimes uneven) coverage of the uprisings in most (though not all) Arab countries. Its no-holds-barred reporting contrasts sharply with the state-owned television stations that often delivered sanitised news reports or ignored them altogether, instead showing images of apparent normality.
Trajectories of protest
The trajectories of protest in four country studies – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain – demonstrate how the processes described above interacted at individual and societal levels. As coverage of Bouazizi’s plight gathered momentum, his death acted as a fuse for the pent-up frustrations and deep discontent across the region. Moments of revolutionary change often occur when specific triggers interact with slower but no less significant changes gradually taking place. Just as the assassin’s bullet that felled Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 set in motion the train of events that led to the outbreak of the First World War, the mushrooming anger following Bouazizi’s death engineered the convergence of socio-economic hardship with political grievances. The result is that while discontent in these authoritarian regimes is not new, it is the speed with which they have brought several of them to the brink of collapse that is qualitatively different.6
“While discontent in these authoritarian regimes is not new, it is the speed with which they have brought several of them to the brink of collapse that is qualitatively different.”
Demonstrations in Tunisia began in conservative and rural regions and gradually spread to the cities where they intersected with rising social tensions and anger at the escalating cost of food and basic services. New media and social networking websites acted as powerful transmitters enabling activists, bloggers and journalists to bypass the security services’ repressive crackdown. The gradual convergence of socio-economic and political dissent widened the scope of the protestors’ demands to include the tackling of corruption and granting of political freedoms. Ben Ali responded with incremental concessions that culminated in a pledge not to seek re-election as President in 2014. When the Tunisian military refused to intervene and suppress the protests, Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia on 14 January, and was replaced by a transitional unity government ahead of planned elections.7
Protestors in Egypt derived inspiration from the success of the Tunisian protests. Ben Ali’s ousting had a clearly discernible demonstration effect that encouraged individuals in Egypt to try to emulate its non-violent revolutionary tactics, with great success. As in Tunisia, socio-economic tensions intersected with deep political discontent among almost all sectors of the population, notably including the military. Social networking and online communications played an important mobilising and coordinating role in the early stages of the uprising. In particular, they helped to set up the opposition networks that took to the streets in cities and towns across Egypt. From that point on, the availability of satellite television channels and websites that showed footage of demonstrations – and of the repressive counter-measures – kept up the momentum for change as it approached a tipping-point. New media platforms critically undermined the Mubarak regime’s attempts to control both the flow and the narrative of information.8
In Bahrain, the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt had a galvanising effect on oppositional politics in the Kingdom, which has a long history of political contestation. The inspirational sight of largely peaceful demonstrations defying political suppression and refusing to submit to the security regimes that had kept authoritarian leaders in power for decades was transformative. Bahraini cafes that usually showed Lebanese music videos instead aired non-stop Al Jazeera coverage of the enormous demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.9 Emboldened protestors voiced demands ahead of the 14 February day of protest for greater political freedom and equality for all Bahrainis. These targeted the regime’s policies of fomenting sectarian division to inhibit the emergence of any popular cross-community opposition movement. Moreover, they facilitated the expansion of an already-existing social movement of young Bahrainis desiring change. Recognition of this popular uprising against them prompted the Al-Khalifa ruling family to violently crush the dissenters, ultimately through the use of Gulf Cooperation Council Saudi-led forces.10
Developments in Libya most starkly revealed the transformative effects of globalising processes on political discussion. Muammar Gaddafi’s repressive and idiosyncratic caricature of ‘direct democracy’ amounted in practice to depoliticising society and centralising all power in the hands of a very small circle of elites. In this context, the appearance of protests, initially in Benghazi, was significant in itself, as was their subsequent spread across Libya. The rapidity with which opposition took root caught the regime completely by surprise. Its incomprehension at this sudden new manifestation of political gathering was revealed in Gaddafi’s rambling dismissal of the demonstrators as ‘a small group of young people who have taken drugs.’11 The ability of protestors to capture images of the brutal acts of state repression and circulate them to the outside world was another new development in a hitherto-largely closed polity. No longer could the regime commit massacres on the scale of the 1996 Abu Slim prison incident (in which up to 1200 inmates died but which was only uncovered in 2004) without publicly being held to account for its actions.
The examples above concern countries where significant unrest has broken out. They reflect the breadth and depth of discontent at faltering political and economic structures, and frustration at the (in)ability of existing governing classes to address them. These constituted the proximate causes of the civil uprisings and will influence the next (and transition) phases of the unrest. However, the role of the Internet and new communicative and information-spreading platforms was also critical in enhancing awareness of alternative pathways to reform. The convergence of these meta-trends has hammered a nail into regimes’ outdated attempts to control the flow and content of information. Globalising pressures thus intersected with local conditions in ways that transformed the terms of debate and opened up radical new spaces for discussion and dissent. Furthermore, the trajectory and pace of change is such that it challenges all authoritarian states in the region. This includes countries that have been spared the 2011 unrest, as they grapple with the emergence of a self-empowered citizenry with more outspoken demands magnified by hard-to-censor Internet and encrypted communications.12
The challenge of transition
What are the longer-term impacts of these transformative developments on the political, economic and societal structures in the MENA region? It is important to note that technological advances have not merely been unidirectional in their impact. Rather, they have also assisted state-led capabilities of surveillance and – if need be – repression. Centralised Internet infrastructure has facilitated the tracking of online activities and enabled regimes to block or even cut off access as required.13 This last tactic was deployed in Egypt and Bahrain as the authorities attempted to limit the spread of revolutionary messages and the flow of information to the outside world. Officials in Bahrain went further by monitoring mobile telephone conversations and SMS activity to block protestors’ efforts to march to the epicentre of the demonstrations at the iconic Pearl Roundabout. Government attempts to limit publicity also appeared to have succeeded as there was far less Twitter, YouTube and television coverage of its mid-March crackdown compared to the mid-February one.14
Yet these initiatives to maximise the repressive capabilities of new media and the Internet will only ‘succeed’ in the short-term as they inflict greater lasting damage to states’ reputations. In part this hits state-led ‘branding’ efforts at their most vulnerable by eroding investor confidence in state-business relations. MENA countries’ economic diversification strategies have been centred around making their economies more attractive to foreign direct investment and strengthening private sector-led growth. Actions that disrupt or prevent globalising means of communication directly contradict and undermine these attempts to reformulate regional economies and wean them off overbearing public sectors. The shredding of the ‘Business-Friendly Bahrain’ strategy that formed the cornerstone of the Bahrain Economic Vision 2030 is the most high-profile ‘collateral damage’ of the civil uprisings of 2011.15
This places authoritarian regimes in a difficult position as they seek to balance globalising forces with the maintenance of their domestic bases of support and power. The awkward paradox facing regional policy makers is that discontent at faltering political economies will likely be worsened by attempts to hold back or dilute the processes of greater global engagement. Yet it is these same global pressures that have given the civil uprisings their sharpness by bringing into clearer focus the possibility of alternatives to the status quo. Their empowering effect on youth groups and activists will not be settled by regime attempts to minimise their influence through greater levels of surveillance or control. They also reflect officials’ misplaced belief that they can separate technological advances from societal changes. To the contrary, evidence from the first three months of the uprisings indicates that efforts to operate according to old rules of censorship and control will quickly be exposed, and instead contribute to an atmosphere of mutual distrust between regimes and their citizenry.
“The next phase of the Arab Spring will be significant as an indication of whether local political and economic structures can meet, accommodate, adapt or even refract globalising processes and flows.”
Throughout the Middle East and North Africa regimes – both existing and post-uprising transitional – must adapt to new realities. No longer can they wish away the Twitter generation that is now politically active and more interconnected than ever before. It is this crunch – between communications-savvy young people and their conviction that their interests are not best served by current systems – that frames the political and economic transitions that lie ahead. MENA countries also face the challenge of better managing the interaction of global processes with internal patterns of change and resistance. How this is resolved will inject new dynamics into debates on the loci of local and global transformations and the manner in which each plays off the other. Caught in the meeting-point of local and global developments, the next phase of the Arab Spring will be significant as an indication of whether local political and economic structures can meet, accommodate, adapt or even refract globalising processes and flows.
About the author
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is Deputy Director of the Kuwait Research Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Research Fellow at LSE Global Governance. His research focuses on the changing political economy of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. He is the author of Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era (Hurst & Co. 2011) and his forthcoming book, co-edited with David Held, is entitled The Transformation of the Gulf: Politics, Economics and the Global Order, will be published in summer 2011 by Routledge.
1. David Held and Anthony McGrew (eds.), The Global Transformations Reader: An Introduction to the Globalization Debate (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), p.11.
2. Emma Murphy, ‘ICT and the Gulf Arab States: A Force for Democracy?’ In Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Steven Wright (eds.), Reform in the Middle East Oil Monarchies (Reading: Ithaca Press, 2008), p.183.
3. Michael Herb, ‘Kuwait: The Obstacle of Parliamentary Politics,’ in Joshua Teitelbaum (ed.), Political Liberalization in the Persian Gulf (London: Hurst & Co., 2009), p.153.
4. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, David Held & Alia Brahimi, ‘The Arab 1989?’ Open Democracy, February 11, 2011.
5. Ng Sue Chia, ‘Social Media’s Role in Revolt: A Technological Or Social Phenomenon? – Analysis,’ Eurasia Review News & Analysis, March 22, 2011.
6. Coates Ulrichsen et al, Arab 1989.
7. Ethan Zuckerman, ‘The First Twitter Revolution?’ Foreign Policy, January 14, 2011.
8. Judith S. Yaphe, ‘Post-Revolutionary Transitions: A Conference Report,’ Institute for National Strategic Studies, March 31, 2011.
9. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, ‘Bahrain: Evolution or Revolution?’ Open Democracy, March 1, 2011.
10. Jean-Francois Seznec, ‘Saudi Arabia Strikes Back,’ Foreign Policy, March 14, 2011.
11. ‘Gaddafi’s speech,’ New Statesman, February 23, 2011.
12. Joshua Teitelbaum, ‘Saudi Arabia Contends with the Social Media Challenge,’ Hoover Institution, Stanford University, February 9, 2011.
13. Joshua Teitelbaum, ‘Saudi Arabia Contends with the Social Media Challenge,’ Hoover Institution, Stanford University, February 9, 2011.
14. ‘Peninsula Shield Force Moves to Bahrain’s Defence,’ Gulf States Newsletter, Volume 35, Issue 897, March 25, 2011, pp.8-9.
15. Details of the strategy prepared by the Economic Development Board are available at http://www.bahrainedb.com/EDBInBahrain.aspx?id=2224 (accessed April 14, 2011).