How will history judge the uprisings that started in many parts of the Arab world in 2011? The label “Arab Spring” proved too simplistic from the beginning. Transformational processes defy black-and-white expectations, but in the end, will the awakenings be more reminiscent of what happened in Europe in 1848, when several uprisings took place within a few weeks only to be followed by counterrevolutions and renewed authoritarian rule? Or will they more closely resemble the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, after which some countries swiftly democratized while others remained in thrall to dictatorship?
Whatever the case, it is clear that the process of Arab transformation will need decades to mature and that its success is by no means guaranteed. The movements driving it are more unanimous about what they are against than about what they are for. But the debate to define this awakening has begun.
Transforming the movements sweeping the Middle East into coherent and effective forces of change will take time. In all of history, no such process has taken only two or three years to mature, evolve, and stabilize. The question over the long term is whether the present changes, however uncertain and difficult, will lead to democratic societies. The coming year will offer signs that indicate whether countries of the Arab world are heading toward democracy and pluralism or away from them.
2014 will see the countries of the Middle East moving in different directions, with some making strides toward genuine democratic transitions while other governments perpetuate timeworn policies that allow them to avoid addressing the very real social, political, and economic challenges they face.
Dynamics at play
There are three key dynamics shaping the evolution of the Arab Awakening. The first and perhaps most important consequence of the Arab uprisings is the transformation of Islamist movements – mostly offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood – from opposition groups into major political forces in most countries undergoing transitions. This shift is most evident in Tunisia, Morocco, and, to a lesser extent, Libya and Yemen. It was also true of Egypt until the military overthrew the elected Islamist government last summer.
“[I]n the end, 2014 will be only one page in the first chapter of what will prove to be a long book in Arab history.” – Marwan Muasher, Carnegie Endowment
And political Islam will continue to be a driving factor during the next year of the Arab Awakening, albeit in a different way. There has been a significant drop in public support for Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia. This development has seriously challenged the notion of the “Islamist threat” – the idea, widely held in some circles and often used by secular parties to discourage the election of Islamists, that political Islamist forces would never leave power once they acquired it. The same Egyptians who voted Islamists in demonstrated in unprecedented numbers against them in the short course of one year, confirming what many polls have already suggested: no matter how conservative or religious the Arab street is, it judges the forces in power by their performance, not their ideology.
In Egypt, the fact that then president Mohamed Morsi was removed by the military rather than by voters may well negate any lesson that might have been learned about the consequences for leaders who fail to deliver results. But in Tunisia, the ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, has been steadily losing support to a coalition of secular forces. And unlike in Egypt, the Tunisian army has not mitigated this process by intervening. Meanwhile, the largest Salafi political force in Egypt has aligned itself not with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist Freedom and Justice Party but with the military. These developments suggest that Islamists, even radical Islamists, are open to compromise once they become part of the political process.
Over the past few years, Islamists have lost their “holiness” in the Arab world. Their once-popular slogan, “Islam is the solution,” is no longer attractive to wide sectors of the population. Three years after the Arab uprisings, youthful and pragmatic populations are starting to embrace the triumph of performance over ideology in the region. Faced with such pressure, Islamists will have to reinvent themselves, offering practical solutions to economic challenges facing Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and other countries if they are to retain what once appeared to be their invincible popularity.
The second factor influencing the Arab transitions arises from the two internal battles political Islam appears to be fighting – one between the offshoot movements of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups and the other between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The first might determine to a great extent the future course of political Islam – whether it will be inclusionary or fundamentalist, peaceful or radical, reactionary or modern, or less clearly delineated.
The second fight is especially worrisome. The tension between Sunnis and Shia is rising to an alarming degree in countries like Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and most horrifically in Syria. And political demands in all these countries are turning sectarian. In many cases, particularly in the Gulf, this “sectarianization” of politics is being aggravated by government policies of exclusion and discrimination.
The Sunni-Shia divide underscores the region’s lack of respect for diversity in any form – religious, political, or cultural. This division is not only religious but also often political and cultural. It is true that the Sykes-Picot Agreement between the United Kingdom and France created artificial entities when it divided up the Ottoman Empire and drew the boundaries of the modern Middle Eastern nations in 1916. But it is also true that most Arab governments have not developed in their countries a sense of true citizenship in which national identity trumps any other allegiances to religious, ethnic, or tribal identities. This is particularly evident in the Mashreq region, where it is clearly manifested in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. The grievances of the Shia in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait are more political than religious and largely stem from being treated as less than full citizens. The problem is less severe in the Maghreb, where Egyptians and Tunisians, for example, thought of themselves as such long before the modern states of Egypt and Tunisia were created.
The last factor shaping the Arab Awakening is the secular forces, which have not easily accepted the rise of political Islam. These forces have behaved in a way that seems to suggest that they are fine with democracy only as long as it brings them to power. In other words, secular forces are engaging in the very antidemocratic practices they accuse the Islamists of following, as demonstrated by their support for the Egyptian military’s removal of Morsi (granted, that action was a result of millions of Egyptians taking to the street to oppose the president).
The year ahead
In Egypt, 2014 will witness a referendum on a new constitution in addition to presidential and parliamentary elections. But the country will not have set itself on a solid track toward democratic transition. The new constitution will appear to alienate Islamic elements in society. Moreover, it will enshrine enhanced political powers for the military, including freedom from presidential control and broad rights to try civilians in military courts.
General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, commander of Egypt’s armed forces, will probably run for president and win by a landslide. That will not assure Egypt’s stability, however. The military is behaving in a very heavy-handed way, as militaries are wont to do, and has begun to alienate even those sectors of society that have stood behind it so far. 2014 will see increased tensions between military and security forces and Islamist actors. It will also see worsening relations between the military and the secular opposition, especially the youth. Continuing demonstrations and escalating Islamist attacks on military and security targets in the Sinai and elsewhere will make it difficult, perhaps impossible, to address the country’s economic challenges. Egypt is not out of the woods yet.
In Tunisia, the process is more promising but still under threat. 2014 will most likely see the approval of a new constitution and the holding of parliamentary elections. The ruling Islamists face a real danger of losing to a secular coalition in those elections. If that comes to pass, it will set a precedent of Islamist forces assuming political power, then giving it up according to popular will. This precedent will have repercussions throughout the region, robbing many secular Arab governments of the chance to use the so-called Islamist threat as a scare tactic to forestall any real reforms. But the political consensus among Islamists and secularists that has allowed the transition to move forward, albeit fitfully, will continue to be vulnerable to terrorism by Salafi groups.
For Libya, 2014 could be a pivotal year in which the country begins a slow recovery toward greater stability and cohesion. Libya will hold elections for a Constituent Assembly that will draft the country’s constitution, and it will convene a much-anticipated national dialogue under the auspices of the United Nations and the prime minister’s office. Both events hold the promise of political reconciliation and represent opportunities to resolve fierce disputes about the balance between central and municipal authorities.
2014 could also see a potential boost to Libya’s army, police, and border guards as a result of training and material support from the United States, the European Union, and other members of NATO. For these efforts to have a lasting and positive effect, they must be accompanied by a parallel track of dialogue and a systematic program to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate the country’s numerous militias into society.
Syria will continue to dominate the news in 2014 with the persistence of a devastating war of attrition that neither side can win or lose given the current state of affairs. If convened, the planned peace conference known as Geneva II will not result in agreement over a transitional government able to guide Syria into a new phase. And regional and internal dynamics will continue to shift in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor as international concern builds over the growing role of Islamic extremist groups in the opposition. One huge challenge will be an increasingly unsustainable refugee problem, not only on the humanitarian level – over a third of the Syrian population is already internally or externally displaced – but also in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan that are hosting refugee populations equivalent to more than 20 percent of their own populations.
The monarchies of the Arab world – both rich and poor – are not immune to the challenges facing the rest of the region. But they have mostly not experienced the same turmoil that the republics have. The rich monarchies of the Gulf have attempted to stem the tide of uprisings through financial means (and in the case of Bahrain, through security measures). The poor countries of Morocco and Jordan have used the legitimacy of their leaders to attempt a largely cosmetic “reform from above” process to keep the governments ahead of the street.
These measures have so far been successful in sparing the Arab monarchies the turmoil and uprisings that took place in many countries around the region. But they have not succeeded in tackling the underlying political, economic, and social challenges these nations face—and they are thus unsustainable. There are no signs, however, that the leaders in these countries have internalized the need to seriously address the problems at hand.
Saudi Arabia has attempted to insulate itself and the Gulf Arab states from the region’s transformative forces through the timeworn policies of subsidies, cosmetic reforms, and, in the case of Bahrain, military intervention. Beyond the Gulf, Riyadh has sought to check the regional rise of both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian influence, pursuing an increasingly assertive foreign policy that is simultaneously counterrevolutionary (such as offering financial aid to the military-backed government in Egypt) and pro-revolutionary (such as providing military support to anti-Assad rebels in Syria). Its position on both countries opened up a widening chasm in its relations with the United States over regional order that was crystallized when Washington and other world powers concluded an interim deal with Tehran that would temporarily freeze key parts of the Iranian nuclear program. Saudi Arabia claimed that the United States had betrayed it by keeping it in the dark regarding the Iranian deal and threatened to pursue a more unilateral foreign policy. In reality, however, Riyadh has few options but to follow in the broad wake of U.S. policy in the Middle East and is unlikely to follow through on its threats.
Jordan will continue to feel that it has successfully ridden the wave of Arab transitions without seriously addressing some of the key economic and political challenges facing the country. And it will probably get away with it, at least for now.
2014 could prove to be a decisive year for Iran, both internally and with regard to its relations with the outside world. While the interim nuclear agreement was groundbreaking, the United States and Iran appear to have a fundamental mismatch in expectations regarding a comprehensive deal. Both the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress expect Tehran to make even greater nuclear compromises, while Iran’s hardliners feel they have already gone far enough and expect Congress to lift all sanctions imposed on the country.
It also remains to be seen whether a nuclear détente with Tehran can foster significant U.S.-Iran cooperation on regional issues. As of yet, there are few tangible signs that Tehran is preparing to modify long-standing revolutionary principles, such as resistance to the United States and rejection of Israel’s existence. In this context, a fundamental shift in those Iranian policies that are problematic to both regional countries and the United States, such as support for the Assad regime in Syria or for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, is unlikely.
An important development in Iran internally is the seeming reemergence of the country’s civil society and middle class. The election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has resuscitated these groups, which are putting grassroots pressure on the government to respect civil liberties at home and carry out a rapprochement with the outside world. But very powerful factions in Iran have much to lose by such an opening, and it remains to be seen whether Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei will ultimately throw his weight behind the pragmatists or the hardliners.
2014 will almost certainly witness the failure of negotiations seeking a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Five months into a nine-month negotiating process, there are no indications that the two parties have even started to untangle the difficult issues separating them. The failure of this latest high-profile U.S. effort will clarify what many have known for some time—that traditional approaches to this issue are bankrupt.
Many analysts expected the Palestinian street, inspired by the Arab uprisings, to explode yet again. But a third intifada has not taken place, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Some attribute it to the Palestinians’ fatigue with two very costly uprisings that did not bring independence. It is doubtful that 2014 will witness another intifada, although the situation will become increasingly unsustainable once current talks fail to produce an outcome. Diplomatic progress on the Iran nuclear front, if it continues, could begin to shift dynamics on the ground and open the door for new multilateral diplomacy on the Palestinian issue.
The fourth year of the Arab Awakening will shed light on important trends, including the future of political Islam, the widening Sunni-Shia divide, the role of secular parties, and the responses of countries that have not undergone transitions. But in the end, 2014 will be only one page in the first chapter of what will prove to be a long book in Arab history.
This post was originally published on CarnegieEndowment.org.
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Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees the Endowment’s research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East.