Arab uprisings: Ten years on

Şafak Göktürk writes: It has been a full decade since a young and hapless street vendor in Tunisia self-immolated, sparking the Arab uprising. The process set in motion by the upheaval in Tunisia had proven irreversible for the entire Arab geography once it sprang onto Egypt. Support for these democratic aspirations will, in the longer run, be the most effective means to push back those external powers which thrive on bigotry and division.

Şafak Göktürk 

It has been a full decade since a young and hapless street vendor in Tunisia self-immolated, sparking the Arab uprising. The process set in motion by the upheaval in Tunisia had proven irreversible for the entire Arab geography once it sprang onto Egypt. For Egypt often guided the trends in the region owing to its central position, seizable population, two hundred years of experience in modern statehood and, to no lesser measure, by originating major political currents which subsequently held sway far beyond its borders. Against this background came the shattering event. Egypt’s ruler for thirty years was forced out of office merely after two weeks of sustained demonstrations. This created a strong impulse for change across the region. 

We know what followed. State violence, turmoil, reversals, terror, civil wars as well as regional and major power struggles tangled and degenerated into one colossal and tragic mess. The impact of the regionwide violence and devastation on the immediate neighbors and Europe has been profound. Their major cities were shaken by terrorist attacks. They encountered the greatest refugee flow after the Second World War. The instability in the southern neighborhood caused these societies to raise mental as well as physical walls against the ‘other’. Yet, it was the fundamental dynamic, that is the peoples’ call for dignity, freedom and better bread, which suffered the strongest blow.

So, is this the end of it? Scarcely.  

In effect, only the initial two rounds of a long fight are behind us. For neither what occurred in 2011 was “Arab Spring”, nor what came in its wake was “Arab Winter”. The uprisings were not seasonal or incidental. Nor were they a great power conspiracy designed to destabilize Arab regimes. Those courageous people who packed the squares were acting with the same motive which can drive any one of us when our rights and freedoms are trampled upon. I would rather term the events in 2011 as the “Citizenship Revolt”.

Currently, Tunisia stands out as the only country where a fairly steady progress towards the objectives pronounced during the uprising has been achieved. Conversely, in most other countries through which the wind of change blew, either the dictatorships have turned even more brutal or the state authority has collapsed, plunging them into chaos and civil war, where foreign powers have also found roles for themselves.

It is nonetheless clear that the revolts did indeed pose an existential threat to the regimes. Their agitated and violent backlash corroborates this.  

The Arab status quo established in the twentieth century rested on a standard, a priori, acceptance according to which the authority transferred from the imperial power belonged to those who received or wielded it “on behalf of the people”. This premise was no different for the kingdoms or the republics. The rulers would simply feel reassured as they saw the same facade of legitimacy in fellow Arab states. The anti-imperialist agenda or the Arab-Israeli conflict concomitantly constituted a context nurturing the perception that the Arab peoples’ interests and aspirations were indeed being looked after, while it carried the unmistakable message that no trouble on the home turf would be tolerated. 

However, the economic growth and the social development policies pursued by these regimes through the twentieth century led to the emergence of new urban dynamics outgrowing the established templates for pliant consent. By the turn of the century, the Arab metropolises had already transformed into centers for legions of professionals with interrogative minds, but more importantly, for swelling young, well-informed generations, braving unemployment and poverty. This was the backdrop of the uprisings, which had proven more acute with the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis.

In this process, the question of Palestine too ceased to serve as a rallying stage for the imperious rulers. Its protracted deadlock was now being seen by their fellow countrymen as yet another proof of their actual impotence.   

The initial response of the Arab regimes to the mass demonstrations was, as expected, to unleash their entire “security state” mechanisms.  Still, with Egypt’s “Tahrir Revolution”, the rulers quickly came to the realization of a totally new state of affairs.  The era of unquestioned legitimacy was melting away despite their frantic efforts to quell unrest.
In most of the countries which witnessed the wind of change, merciless force against slogans saved the day for the rulers. Yet this was an exceedingly flimsy victory for them. The agreed regionwide status quo of legitimacy had already imploded.

This collapse expanded the scope of the developments to regional scale. It was no longer a challenge simply for individual states. The regimes rightly determined that the upheavals in others posed a direct threat also to themselves. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain represents the first regional, forward response to this assessed threat. This is how the transition from 2011 uprisings to regional crises and wars was set in motion.

This violent phase is well known to all. However, why events turned out the way we saw begs closer scrutiny.

Suffocating the popular momentum for change where it blossomed, or -should this prove unattainable- distorting its course became the common maxim for the surviving regimes and for those external powers which riled at the prospect of democratic transformation in the region. The ongoing hostilities in Syria, Libya and Yemen are, at their root, mainly practices of this shared view.  And, today’s regional rivalries bring nothing to negate this ominous consensus. Each rival simply seeks its own autocratic role in the fractured countries.     

Moreover, throughout this process, the Islamist and Salafist movements have, either directly or indirectly, been the foremost partners of intent for the Arab regimes. This may sound paradoxical to some.  To explain it is not, let us first go back to Egypt, the initial focus of events.
The Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan) movement won the first free elections in the transition process which was being midwifed by the military. Yet, in the relatively short span of time in office, its leadership revealed their ideologically driven autocratic tendencies.

For a moment, one may even be tempted to give credit to President Mubarak, deposed in 2011, for his exhortations during his thirty years in power, to the domestic and foreign audiences alike, that if he goes, his replacement will be these Islamists. The matter is not as simple, however.
The Ikhwan came to life as an Arab ownership movement predicated on Islam. They saw religion as the only powerful and broad native denominator in facing Europe’s reigning, physical and intellectual superiority. This was a time when all Arab lands came under the mandate of Western imperial powers, and the Caliphate was abolished in Turkey. The Islamist ideology’s political reference is the rejection of “the imitator” ruler, deemed sanctioned by the West, and which is “alien to the values and interests of the Muslim Ummah”. This ideology differs from the sociological concept of piety which is generally characterized as strict religious conduct. It instead instrumentalizes religious tenets and narrative by adapting them to the roles of contemporary actors.  Consequently, the very survival and the strength of Ikhwan, and for that matter Islamism, is contingent on the existence of its “alien” rival. The movement itself becomes irrelevant once that opposite disappears from the equation. This is one essential reason why Islamists constantly pick domestic and foreign targets to demonize so that they can still feel relevant.

As the demonstrations in Tahrir Square were swelling through January and February 2011, the Muslim Brothers took their time to decide, what role, if any, they would have there. Their wait was more than tactical. The demonstrators’ calls resonating across the country were not the kind of their construct. And later, when Ikhwan achieved relative success in the first free elections, it was mainly due to their singular advantage of having been able to maintain local networks (this was in turn the result of the State’s longstanding policy to co-opt, rather than destroy, the Brothers’ social network, so that they could make up for the shortcomings of the official social assistance to the needy). This grassroots organizational capacity enabled them to easily mobilize voters across the country.

The 2013 military takeover took place in a setting where the mainstream groups of the uprising grew increasingly worried over the partisanship of the Morsi Presidency, and as large sections of the population yearned for even a modicum of order, a natural state of mind under constant turmoil. Viewed in a wider perspective though, it becomes evident that the stakeholders of the old regime and the Muslim Brothers in fact took turns in stifling change.  It seems the mutual poles of reference -or should we say the strange bedfellows- of the old era have performed well to keep themselves relevant for some more time.

As for the Salafist movements in the context of the ongoing crises, these can be grouped as elements that evolved into Al Qaeda in Iraq in the years that followed the US invasion, numerous jihadist groups in Syria and finally the blending of these groups as well as the congeneric ones in Iraq, which consolidated under the banner of ISIS. The geopolitics of the Arabian Peninsula certainly helped this process. Its central desert expanses, which in the north encompass Iraq’s west and Syria’s east, were never fully controlled by any central power in history. After 2011, as the Syrian Government’s hold on its territory weakened, this central belt, along with its tribal population, fell into the hands of the Salafists. The ISIS or the “Islamic State”, was the consequence of this power vacuum. The elusive nature of this land grab also explains why the ISIS resistance to the military operations backed by the international coalition was relatively short lived.

Nonetheless, the main intended objective sought by the jihadist onslaught was achieved. Saudi Arabia which, together with its allies in the Gulf, began by supporting various groups in Syria, hence found a full-time job for those Salafists who would otherwise cause headache at home during these distressful times, helped transform the Syrian crisis into an inter-totalitarian war, and by showcasing the carnage in Syria, let its own public know that innocent demands had no chance to materialize.
In an environment where shared life practice was obliterated, divisions along religious and ethnic lines deepened further. Iran became a party to the confrontations, through its proxies or directly, in Syria and Yemen, in addition to Iraq and Lebanon. Russia meanwhile recovered the ground it had lost in the region following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Yet, this mayhem is also approaching its end. Its finale will be due to an array of factors, namely; exhaustion, the emergence of relative winners, the fact that most of those involved have already tapped their full capacity to influence the battleground, and that their involvement carries risks also for themselves. Syria and Libya are now being steered towards a point where the belligerents’ range of territorial control and their backers’ interests will be matched.  In Yemen, on the other hand, the long shadow of the enormous humanitarian crisis is cast over the ongoing hostilities. The space for the external parties to maneuver has shrunk considerably.

The region is now shifting towards its third phase. This new stage promises to be tougher for the surviving regimes. They have already exhausted much of their ability to shield their domestic rule by manipulating events outside. Yet, all the political, social and economic factors that had caused people to take to the streets in 2011 are still in place and have in fact become more acute. And, the bloody conflicts elsewhere seem to have had little effect to subdue people. The sustained demonstrations held in scores of Arab cities in recent years show that the people can no longer be put up with rotten and incompetent governments, whose pitiful condition has been further exposed by the current pandemic.

It is also another world for the oil-rich countries. The shale oil and gas revolution led by the United States, the global climate agenda and the rapid rise in the renewable energy as well as electric vehicle technologies and investments are changing the fossil fuel market in a fundamental way. Arab countries endowed with these resources will continue to benefit from their proceeds both economically and politically for some time to come. But this asset will not be as generous as in older times. Gone is the era when oil wealth was perceived synonymous with the regimes’ durability.

The unraveling of the common Arab fate can also be observed in the declarations by an increasing number of Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. The League of Arab States’ bargain to normalize these relations in exchange for a viable two-state solution between Israel and Palestine now appears consigned to history archives. Yet, the broader separation of ways among them will likely become increasingly recognizable along the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean pivots.  Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states will increasingly set sail toward East Asia and the Pacific, and the states of the Levant and North Africa will align themselves closer with the European and Atlantic dynamics. These orientations will influence both the fortunes of the current regimes and the prospects for change.

The track record of the U.S. and Europe in handling the Arab upheaval has not been impressive. They could neither display an honest stance regarding the uprisings, nor would they devise coherent policies that were necessary to effectively deal with the multiple consequences of the region-wide crisis. Theirs was a reactive and piecemeal approach, prioritizing only the ISIS terror and the refugee fallout. Pressing down the lid on a boiling kettle has never been a sensible method. They would do well to recognize the precedence of the uprisings’ popular demands over what ensued, not the other way around. Call for dignified, free, equal citizenship and accountable government represents a common denominator which transcends the populist constructs of totalitarianism as well as discrimination on confessional or ethnic grounds. Support for these democratic aspirations will, in the longer run, be the most effective means to push back those external powers which thrive on bigotry and division.


Şafak Göktürk is a retired Turkish diplomat and is 63 years old. During his career (1979-2019), he held numerous positions including those of First Secretary in Athens, Deputy Chief of Mission in Tehran, Consul General in Frankfurt, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Deputy Director General for the Middle East, Director General for Policy Planning and Ambassador to Egypt, Singapore and Norway. He is married with two children and lives in Ankara.