As a moment in time, the Arab Spring produced breakdown, repression and violence, with Tunisia the only notable exception. Yet, seen over the subsequent decade, these uprisings were merely the first manifestation of popular rejection of a deep malaise that no attempt to quell them could remedy or even frustrate, but only magnify. In hindsight, we may think of revolutions as short, dramatic outbursts that overturn the reigning order, seemingly overnight. In reality, they may take years to unfold before they radically restructure society and the rules that govern it. In the Middle East, such fundamental change has likely only just begun.
One sign is that the regimes that survived (Syria) or reconstituted themselves (Egypt) were compelled to resort to even more repressive violence than their autocratic predecessors used to employ. This sharpens the sense of their illegitimacy, especially in the face of their growing inability to provide for their population’s basic needs, be it essential services such as electricity and clean water or adequate health care during a global pandemic. Poverty is on the rise; high-level corruption is rampant; young people’s horizons are narrowing due to slumping economies.
Another sign is the eruption of new uprisings very recently in countries left untouched in 2011: Algeria, Iraq, Sudan and Lebanon. The grievances are the same, as are the demands: better governance or, failing this, systemic change. Unable to accommodate these demands, the sitting regimes can only double down on violence and pray for time, as popular sentiments bubble and seethe.
This entry by Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program Director Joost Hiltermann was originally published in Politica Exterior as part of a feature on the ten-year anniversary of the Arab Spring.