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Viewpoint: Middle East struggles with the legacy of the Arab Spring

Published on Wednesday, 8th of July 2015

As yet another year passes, the Middle East and North Africa face difficult and uncertain times, believes CMI’s analyst Mikko Patokallio.

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Although the Arab Spring may seem quite distant, the region’s politics continue to be shaped by the legacy of the transitions. At the same time, this legacy is overshadowed and redefined by the violence that has occurred since.

In addition to multiple concurrent violent conflicts, there is a sense of regional turmoil, which also affects countries not directly impacted by the spillover. Most recently, the rise of the violent and dogmatic Islamic State – more commonly known as ISIS – has become a disturbing symbol of regional chaos.

ISIS IS A SYMPTOM, NOT THE SOURCE, OF THE WIDER REGIONAL ILLS.

The emergence of ISIS is alarming and merits attention, but it is important to bear in mind that ISIS is a symptom, not the source, of wider regional ills. The most critical challenge has been the inability of states to satisfactorily address ongoing economic and societal changes, and manage popular expectations.

Most Middle Eastern and North African states rely on external rents, which distances elites from the wider population. This disconnect between the state and society is aggravated by authoritarian, mostly closed political systems.

When faced with serious challenges like persistent and growing societal inequality, elites prefer to avoid substantial reform, lest they end up undermining the system. The previous dynamic was inherently unstable, and paved the way for the Arab Spring protests.

The past order cannot be rebuilt

Four years later, the results of the popular movements are distinctly mixed. With the happy exception of Tunisia, other transitions have fallen off track, either into violence (Libya) or resurgent authoritarianism (Egypt). Those regimes, which nervously held their breath to see whether their popular protests would reach critical mass (Morocco), have now been able to re-exert their control. Nonetheless, the protests and the brief political openings they forged have had a lasting impact on the region.

The societal dialogue has been vibrant but also chaotic and difficult to direct.

What makes a political order legitimate has been one of the central questions raised by the Arab Spring. Countless proposals have been made – democratic, populist, nationalist, Islamist, royalist – but no definitive answers have been reached. This societal dialogue has been vibrant but also chaotic and difficult to direct.

Egypt’s errant political process reflects how established political actors have reacted at times both recklessly and cautiously. It is an environment where the political game is the same, but the rulebook is still being written.

One thing is clear, however; it is not possible to reconstruct the past order, which has been successfully challenged or overthrown. To skirt around the complicated issue of what should replace the past order, regional politics are increasingly defined through negation – being anti-regime, anti-opposition, sectarian, or anti-Islamist. This translates into both reactive and reactionary politics that suppresses alternative paths without presenting a way forward.

Rights and recognition at the core

Closely linked to the debates of what constitutes legitimate political order comes the proliferation and strengthening of sub- or non-state identities – tribal, sectarian, social. Sectarian identities have grown particularly prominent as transnational factors, linking different political spheres in new ways.

To a large extent this awakening is organic, taking advantage of the newfound space for alternative identities. It is also driven by the desire of political actors to mobilise support around these identities.

At the same time they cannot fully control the forces they seek to harness. Current sectarian narratives overstate the role of religion, as the core issue is over identity and politics – rights and recognition – not theology.

THE RESULTS OF THE ARAB SPRING UPRISINGS ARE DISTINCTLY MIXED.

These fundamental questions of political identity and order have left regional politics unbalanced, as states and societies grapple with these issues. The obvious breakdown of the grand national narratives of the past have opened up a necessary space for these issues to be discussed, but it is still a thoroughly confusing experience.

The Middle East and North Africa will continue to be shaped by this difficult, but ultimately necessary, debate.

Mikko Patokallio works as an analyst at CMI, developing conflict analysis methods, tools and practices. He has worked and published extensively on Middle East policy analysis.

This story was first published as part of CMI’s annual report in May 2015. You can find the complete annual report here (pdf) or here (web version).