During spring 2011 the streets in Cairo, Tunis, Rabat, Sanaa and across the capitals in the Arab world where filled with people putting off decades of fearful obedience, raising their voice to express their grievances demanding change. The uprisings that swept across the Arab world in 2011 were remarkable in many ways.
The protests broke with the oriental and paternalistic perception of “respected” authoritarian leaders. They also told us that demography matters. It was the disenfranchised youth that initiated the protests in most places, a faction of society that never before appeared on the stage as a relevant political actor. The youth across the region felt united in their demand for change. ”We felt we had the same struggle and we were in the same situation as the people in Egypt or Tunisia with the same demands”, an activist of the 20th February movement in Morocco said.
Revival of authoritarianism
Despite the unprecedented protests throughout the region the bottom line prevails rather grim. Four years later – except Tunisia – we are left with consolidated dictatorship, outright civil war or failed states. Recently illustrated by the coup of the Houthi militia in Yemen and the violent fourth anniversary of the revolution in Egypt.
The revival of authoritarianism after popular uprisings against these regimes can partly be explained by the failure to consolidate post-revolutionary stability in Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Consequently, fellow despots in the neighborhood justified their brutal crack down of protests with the increasing instability in the neighboring countries and deteriorating security situation. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) added further fuel to the fire of repressive authoritarian reestablishment throughout the region. In Casablanca a human rights analyst stated “looking at the developments in Egypt and Libya people here were afraid.”
Thus beyond specific domestic drivers the restoration of authoritarian rule can be seen as a response to increasing uncertainty about the outcomes of the Arab revolutions. Popular support for mass protests throughout the region dramatically declined over the course of 2011. In some instances, this was due to the coercive response by the regimes (as in Syria or Bahrain). In others this can partly be explained by fear of instability (Morocco, Jordan, Algeria). As an activist from the protest movement in Morocco summed up: “The aftermath of the popular uprisings in Syria, Libya and Egypt scared the people from the street. They preferred stability over the possibility of chaos.”
Many regimes credibly established the importance of security and stability as an effective counter narrative to the expression of grievances under authoritarian rule. The former general and new Egyptian president Al-Sisi drew on the longing for security and stability in parts of the population setting out his candidacy for the presidential office, by saying: “We are threatened by the terrorist […] who seek the destruction of our life, safety and security.”
Such rhetoric can increasingly be found in speeches of autocrats across the region from Bashar Al Assad to Mohammed VI of Morocco: “There are no degrees of patriotism or of treason. For either one is a patriot, or one is a traitor.” The construction of a threat in the face of a popular uprising is not a new strategy and has proven effective for those states that were able to avoid the fall f the regime.
Even in Tunisia –the lighthouse of the Arab Uprisings– threat scenarios are constantly used by parts of the old elite to prevent substantial reform of the interior ministry and the related security forces. Amine Khali a Tunisian researcher working on transitional justice said: “The window for security sector reform is closing. The interior ministry successfully pacted with old and new elites in the face of growing security concerns in order to avoid substantial reform and accountability.” Similar patterns could be observed in Morocco.
But what is so worrying about this development? The answer boils down to the fact that the authoritarian elements have prevented change by successfully creating a threat and imposing themselves as the only alternative. They have instrumentalized fear in their favor and ultimately securitized the regimes themselves.
Predominant fear of instability
However there is as much violence at the heart of authoritarian regimes as might be triggered by the uncertainty and turmoil of revolutionary moments. We know that many revolutions fail and lead to no change at all or new authoritarian regimes. Nonetheless mass mobilizations always carry the possibility of substantial change towards more democratic politics with them. Ultimately the predominant fear of instability cannot be a reason to oppose change that entails the possibility of enduring freedom from oppression.
As mentioned at the beginning, an entire generation – that constitutes the majority of the population– has risen up against tyranny. Although they might be disillusioned and largely fallen back into political apathy, their grievances will not fade as long as despotism reigns in the region. The next time the young generation makes their voices heard the West should be prepared to stand by their side. To help them overcome the fear of chaos and anarchy.
Read more in this column Ilyas Saliba: Picking up the pieces