It’s tempting to put the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War in separate boxes, but like other forms of compartmentalization, that only hides but doesn’t resolve the underlying problems. The dynamics that helped the Syrian War erupt into one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes since World War II are the same dynamics that filled the streets with jubilant activists demanding access to closed political systems. Looking at the two together does a better job of highlighting the global changes that are affecting not just the Middle East, but the world we all live in.
Looking Past the Arab Spring to the Years of Discontent
In 2011 Americans watched spellbound as the streets in Middle Eastern capitals filled with young demonstrators demanding political change, and who, we should admit, reminded us of our younger selves with their marches, sit-ins, and impassioned, impromptu speeches before euphoric crowds. In the U.S. we focused on the “Facebook activists” at the center of the evening news videos and told ourselves a comforting story of the spread of Western values. We cheered the young, tech-savvy protesters with their English-language signs and interpreted the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere as a vote for the American Way and a testimonial to our role in bringing democracy to the region. We wanted to place them, and ourselves, on the winning side of history and wipe out the stain of Abu Ghreib.
If we hadn’t been so invested in seeing the protests as a flattering endorsement of ourselves we might have been better prepared to understand the enormity of the challenges of 2011 and less likely to dismiss the sorry sequel of wars, crackdowns, and terrorism as a detour on the path to democracy. The current condition of the post-Arab Spring region certainly is not one in which humans can pursue their lives, liberty and happiness, but it is perhaps a logical outcome to the forces that drove the Arab Spring protesters into the streets in the first place. Looking back at the context of the Arab Spring helps to explain the regional strife we see today.
There were a lot of people discontented with Middle Eastern regimes in 2011, and they had been for a long time. In the previous decades growing populations and shrinking state budgets had been causing a drop in services like education, health, and food subsidies, services that had once bought the region’s states needed legitimacy. The end of the Cold War accentuated the problem, as development aid was redirected from the region to Eastern Europe and Russia, and neoliberal convictions tied remaining aid to privatization and budget cuts. Outside investors loved the restructured economies, but within the Middle East normal people saw a corrupt sell-off that benefited only the well-connected. The Cold War was no picnic for the Middle East, but the post-Cold War was a free market free-for-all. Then came 9-11, and the ensuing War on Terror provided a new name for Western support for unsavory allies. The West made a little noise about promoting democracy, but what drove military and financial support for regimes was their cooperation with U.S. goals, not their treatment of their own citizens. The War on Terror provided a handy excuse for governments across the region to imprison, threaten, or even eradicate citizens and organizations that dissented from the official story.
2011 was the year the world noticed Middle Eastern anger, but long before the marchers filled the streets of Tunis there were other protests, such as the waves of wildcat strikes in the Egyptian industrial sector in 2006-2008. In one strike in 2008 at Mahalla in the Nile Delta, 27,000 Egyptian textile workers swarmed into the streets to demand increased pay. In Morocco, Jordan and other countries the reduction of subsidies for bread led to violent confrontations with the State in 2004, 2007 and 2008, even before the Global Economic Crisis of 2008 hit the Middle East and worsened state budgets. Perhaps the saddest protest movement of all, however, is the unseen refugee crisis of the modern age–impoverished migration (both within and between countries), which multiplied when the drought of the early 2000s came like a biblical punishment. According to the D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security, the 2006-2010 drought in Syria caused 75% of farmers to suffer total crop failure and wiped out 80% of livestock. People who cannot feed their children in their home towns have little reason left to support the state.
The 2005 “Kefaya” movement in Egypt said it all—“Enough”
Among the urban middle class of the Middle East tension was brewing as well over the gap between the international rhetoric of rights and the reality of governments that operated shadowy interior ministries. Election workers were beaten or disappeared. Bloggers were tortured. Everyone suffered the indignities of whimsical and arbitrary decisions about the lines that could not be crossed in speech, justice or association. And the anger at governments which acquiesced to a violent U.S. occupation of Iraq and seemed more responsive to international investors than its own people became untenable. The 2005 “Kefaya” movement in Egypt said it all—“Enough.”
The rural migrants, the strikers, the hungry, the civil rights protesters, were all there long before 2011, but local governments were largely successful at controlling media coverage and even internet access until recently. And then the iPhone, YouTube, and Facebook tipped the balance. In the Spring of 2011 protesters shared stories and videos of police brutality as readily as maps of police blockades and methods for washing tear gas out of one’s eyes. The new opportunities for publicity also provided some protection from state retaliation, and the English-language signs of the protesters revealed that they knew the drama was playing out for international audiences as well as local and regional eyes. Middle Eastern regimes were caught in an unflattering spotlight as the older methods of controlling dissent failed. The protests went viral on social media and on the street, and the region was suddenly deafened by cries for change.
The Arab Spring was no sudden political awakening, it was discontent made visible to the rest of the world
It’s not surprising that the international media sought out interviews with English-speaking participants in the marches, or even that journalists clustered in capitals and filmed the English-language signs for their English-speaking audiences, but in limiting ourselves to watching one fragment of the ways in which the state-citizen bargain was falling apart we in the West largely ignored the many other ways in which humans had lost faith in the ability of the state to meet the needs of its residents. This both blinds us to the enormity of the challenges facing the region, but also to the complexity of the issues. These are not problems that are the fault of any single state – drought and food security, globalized labor and capital markets, unfettered technologies of communication, and even the limiting parameters of the War on Terror…and yet we prefer to see the failures of the Arab Spring as separate national stories that fit a familiar narrative of underdeveloped state bureaucracies and inconveniently-drawn borders imposed by outsiders. Even given perfection in these areas — brand new rule-of-law governments, transparent policymaking and organic borders (not that there are such things) — it would be impossible to quickly address the causes that led so many to take to the streets in the past years. This isn’t really a story about tinkering with the state for improved efficiency; it’s a story about the state, and the state-centered world system, coming apart. The Arab Spring was no sudden political awakening, it was discontent made visible to the rest of the world.
First in a series
Janice Lee Jayes, Ph.D. teaches Modern Middle East history at Illinois State University. She has worked in Morocco, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, and was a Fulbright scholar in Egypt.
[Caption 1: Queuing for limited supplies of subsidized bread in Cairo
[Caption 2: Egyptian Textile Workers Strike in el-Mahalla, 2008]
[Caption 3: Sefrou, Morocco, 2007]
[Caption 4: The Other Refugees: Immigrant Workers in the Gulf]