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How hope is vanishing 10 years after the Arab Spring

Political and economic setbacks – and sheer fear among communities – continue to hamper the Middle East, writes Liz Sly

Sunday 31 January 2021 00:00 GMT
A man waves the Iraqi flag in Baghdad in January 2020 during a symbolic ‘funeral’ for a protester killed in clashes with security forces
A man waves the Iraqi flag in Baghdad in January 2020 during a symbolic ‘funeral’ for a protester killed in clashes with security forces (For The Washington Post)

Much of the Arab world erupted in jubilant revolt 10 years ago against the dictatorial regimes whose corruption, cruelty and mismanagement had mired the Middle East in poverty and backwardness for decades.

Now, the hopes awakened by the protests have vanished but the underlying conditions that drove the unrest are as acute as ever.

Autocrats rule with an even tighter grip. Wars unleashed by leaders whose control was threatened have killed hundreds of thousands of people. The rise of the Islamic State amid the resulting wreckage ravaged large parts of Syria and Iraq and drew the United States into another costly Middle East war.

Millions of people were driven from their homes to become refugees, many converging on the shores of Europe and beyond. The influx fuelled a tide of nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment that brought populist leaders to power in Europe and the US as fears of terrorism eclipsed concerns for human rights as a Western priority.

Even in those countries that did not descend into war, more Arabs are now living in poverty, more are unemployed and more are imprisoned for their political beliefs than a decade ago.

Only in Tunisia, where the protests began, did anything resembling a democracy emerge from the upheaval. The fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian President,  after a month of street protests in Tunis inspired demonstrations across the Middle East, including the mass protest on 25 January 2011 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that fixated world attention on what was prematurely labelled the Arab Spring.

On its face, the Arab Spring failed, and spectacularly so – not only by failing to deliver political freedom but by further entrenching the rule of corrupt leaders more intent on their own survival than delivering help.

“It's been a lost decade,” said Tarik Yousef, director of the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar, recalling the euphoria he initially felt when the fall of Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi in August 2011 enabled him to return home for the first time in years. “Now we have the return of fear and intimidation. The region has experienced setbacks at every turn.”

For many of those who participated in the uprisings, the costs have been immeasurable. Esraa Eltaweel, 28, was partially paralysed after a bullet fired by security forces sliced through her abdomen and chipped her spine during a protest in Cairo in 2014. Some of her friends were killed. Others were imprisoned, including her husband, who is still incarcerated. Ms Eltaweel, who spent seven months in detention, has struggled to find work because of the stigma attached to political prisoners.

“We didn't achieve anything we aimed for. Things got worse,” she said. “We believed we could change the system. But it is so rotten that it can't be changed.”

Yet as long as the conditions that provoked the original uprisings persist, the possibility of more unrest cannot be ruled out, analysts say.

A protester takes part in the occupation of a key intersection in Beirut during unrest in April last year (For The Washington Post)

For many in the region, the Arab Spring is seen less as a failure than a continuing process. Demonstrations that toppled the longstanding presidents of Algeria and Sudan in 2019 and subsequent protest movements in Iraq and Lebanon have been hailed as a second Arab Spring, a reminder that the momentum that drove the revolts of a decade ago has not gone away. Even in Tunisia, frustration over unemployment and a stagnant economy has prompted violent demonstrations in recent days, with young protesters and security forces clashing in cities across the country.

“Dictators have prevailed, mainly through coercion,” said Lina Khatib, who heads the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House in London. “However, coercion seeds further grievances that will ultimately force citizens to seek political change.”

Others fear worse instability and violence as the collapse of oil prices – the mainstay of economies across the region for decades – and the fallout from coronavirus shutdowns take a toll.

“We have failing states across the entire region,” said Bachar el-Halabi, a Lebanese political analyst and activist who relocated to Turkey last year because of anonymous threats to his safety. “We have a huge economic challenge coupled with a young generation rising and asking for a role. This puts us on the path to an explosion. The region is in a worse situation than ever before.”

Across the Arab world, countries are facing the same perilous dynamic: Their populations are rapidly expanding but their leadership is stifling economic growth.

Millions of young people are being propelled into the job market each year with little hope of finding work.

Even in Tunisia, where political changes have brought new freedoms, jobs are scarce, a source of continued frustration for the young 

The Middle East has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, as it has for decades. The population of the region has grown by 70 million since the Arab Spring, and it is expected to increase by an additional 120 million by 2030, before stabilising, according to World Bank figures and United Nations forecasts.

High population growth does not necessarily lead to growing impoverishment, economists note. In Southeast Asia at the end of the past century and in Europe a century before, rapid population growth fuelled unprecedented economic expansion.

But in the Middle East, jobs have not kept pace with the rising numbers of people. Youth unemployment has grown over the past 10 years from 32.9 per cent in 2012 to 36.5 per cent in 2020, according to the International Labour Organisation.

The private sector remains small, constrained by layers of bureaucracy, corruption and a lack of government incentives, said Mr Yousef at the Brookings Doha Centre. Foreign and domestic investors also are deterred by the political risks, according to surveys by the International Monetary Fund, trapping the region in a vicious cycle of decline and instability.

Jobs in the region’s bloated public sector – the world’s largest as a portion of total employment – have traditionally served as the main source of employment, particularly for educated people. But the public sector has not kept pace with the rising population and expanded access to higher education.

In the Seventies, a male Egyptian graduate had a 70 per cent chance of securing a government job. By 2016, that had fallen to less than 25 per cent, according to calculations by Ragui Assaad, a professor at the University of Minnesota and research fellow at the Economic Research Forum, Cairo.

Even in Tunisia, where political changes have brought new freedoms, jobs are scarce, a source of continued frustration for young Tunisians. “We gained democracy – that’s a very important thing. We can do anything we want now, without limitations,” said Mohammed Aissa, 25, who graduated with a degree in financial engineering two years ago but has since been unable to find work. “Democracy is a great gain for us. But unfortunately, the economic situation is very grave.”

Poverty has also increased over the past decade, making the Middle East the only region in the world where people have become poorer, both in terms of total numbers and as a proportion of the population.

In 2018, for the first time, the Middle East surpassed Latin America in terms of the number of people classified as poor, according to the World Bank.

King Abdullah Financial District, a development in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (For The Washington Post)

In 1960, the economies of Egypt and South Korea were roughly the same size, said Mr Yousef. Today, South Korea's economy is more than four times as large, and its population is half the size of that of Egypt.

In the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, immense oil wealth has funded the rise of glittering cities dotted with skyscrapers, shopping malls and art galleries. But these countries have been confronted with falling incomes, investment and employment since the price of oil began to decline in 2015.

The double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic and lower oil prices will accelerate the economic regression across a region where many Arab governments have relied on Gulf aid and many citizens on work in Gulf countries, economists say.

While the IMF projected an overall 4.1 per cent decline in 2020 for economies in the Middle East and Central Asia, in line with the rest of the world, the figures mask far deeper hits to some countries. These include Iraq, where falling oil revenue was expected to lead to a 9.5 per cent contraction of the economy, and Lebanon, where the setback due to coronavirus restrictions pales in comparison with that due to the collapse of the country's financial system. The Lebanese economy was projected by the IMF to shrink by at least 19.2 per cent in 2020, compounding the impact of a 9 per cent contraction in 2019.

In Lebanon, economic collapse and the trauma from last summer’s huge explosion at Beirut’s port have muted the enthusiasm of those who initially took to the streets

Both countries have experienced unrest over the past year, linked to the deteriorating conditions. In an echo of the first wave of Arab Spring protests almost a decade earlier, huge crowds took to the streets in Baghdad and Beirut in October 2019 to demand change to political systems that are ostensibly democratic but have entrenched the power of ruling elites.

Those protests have fizzled, in part because of the impact of coronavirus restrictions and the brutal tactics deployed by security forces, particularly in Iraq, where more than 500 protesters were shot dead and dozens of activists have been assassinated in recent months by shadowy militias.

Frustrations remain high in Iraq and the economy continues to deteriorate after a sharp depreciation of the currency in November. Yet there is little appetite for further action because fear is so high, said a Baghdad restaurant owner who joined in the protests and who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. He said: “What the security forces and militias did was horrific. We lost a lot of young people and nothing changed.”

In Lebanon, economic collapse and the trauma from last summer’s huge explosion at Beirut’s port have muted the enthusiasm of those who initially took to the streets. “They’re too broken to face what happened,” said Lama Jamaleddine, a student organiser, as she surveyed the several people at a recent protest in memory of victims of the explosion.

But she said she believes that younger Lebanese have become aware of the damage wrought upon their country by the ageing warlords who make up the ruling elite. In the fall, student union elections at Beirut’s major universities were swept by independents and activists, dealing a blow to the traditional sectarian political parties.

“The younger generation is breaking away,” Ms Jamaleddine said. “It’s quite difficult to break away from it but after the explosion they have seen for themselves how damaging the system is.”

If there is one overriding lesson from the Arab Spring, it is that tyranny can quell dissent as long as leaders exert enough force or offer enough incentives.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has survived the popular uprising against his rule with Russian and Iranian support and by bombarding towns and cities into submission.

Nations of the Arab Spring (For The Washington Post)

But his strategy has left a devastated, depopulated and impoverished country where conditions have continued to deteriorate even after it was clear that his forces had won militarily, according to Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Centre for Middle East Policy, Washington, who as a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department helped coordinate the Obama administration’s response to the Arab Spring uprisings.

In Egypt, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi – whose military coup in 2013 ousted the elected government that had emerged out of the Arab Spring – rules with a far tighter grip than longstanding autocrat Hosni Mubarak, whose rule ended with that uprising. Today, an estimated 60,000 people are imprisoned for their political views, compared with 5,000 to 10,000 in the last years of Mubarak’s tenure, according to human rights groups.

Egypt still suffers from high levels of unemployment and poverty but people are cowed into silence, said a 26-year-old photographer, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear. He said: “I lost many friends. I got injured many times. I became disillusioned and defeated.”

He predicted that an Arab Spring uprising would never happen again: “The first time was a kind of miracle. People were fearless, and the regime was weak. But now everyone has lost hope. Everyone sees the revolution as a failure that caused more economic problems and more oppression.”

Throughout the Middle East, authoritarianism is ascendant, noted Mr El-Halabi, the exiled Lebanese activist. The rise of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as de facto ruler has brought a campaign of repression against dissenters, ranging from women who campaigned for the right to drive to rival princes in the royal family. The United Arab Emirates has championed authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere.

And the chaos unleashed in Syria, Yemen and Libya has dampened the appetite for unrest in many parts of the region, while the short-lived success in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, seen as a threat to established elites, has prompted many Arab countries to curtail the space for political activity.

The Arab Spring also shattered a long-held myth that authoritarianism equals stability, said Ms Cofman Wittes. She recalled the scramble inside the Obama administration to adjust to the 2011 toppling of Mubarak, who had been seen as a bulwark of US policy aimed at securing stability in a volatile region.

Beirut’s port in October following the chemical explosion in a silo in August which caused severe damage across the Lebanese capital (AFP via Getty)

“No one saw the Arab Spring coming,” she said. “Repressive states always look stable, but when a government relies on coercion as a primary means of survival, it’s inherently unstable.”

A similar fate might await the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula, where hereditary monarchs quelled the stirrings of unrest in 2011 by distributing generous payoffs to citizens, said Prof Assaad at the University of Minnesota. Over the decades, the Gulf countries’ oil wealth has allowed these autocrats to offer their citizens generous services and government employment in return for political quiet.

“A crucial question is what happens in the oil-rich countries,” he said. “They really are powder kegs in terms of the potential instability if oil prices are unable to grow and to drive the population to acquiescence, as they did in the Arab Spring.”

The ripple effect of falling oil prices is already being felt well beyond the Gulf. Countries such as Egypt and Jordan are seeing less aid from their richer allies, which had in the past helped shore up their governments, as well as a reduction in remittances from citizens who work in gulf economies but are now being sent home as a recession bites.

Further instability seems inevitable, said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. He says the upheaval of the past 10 years represents the start of a long process of change that will eventually lead to a transformation of the Middle East.

“I don’t think we're going to see any stability as long as dictators and military intelligence agencies continue to suffocate society,” he said.

He also fears that the unrest could be more violent than it was a decade ago.

“The status quo is untenable, and the next explosion will be catastrophic,” he predicts. “We’re talking about starvation, we’re talking about state collapse, we’re talking about civil strife.”

The Washington Post’s Claire Parker in Tunis contributed to this report

© The Washington Post

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