Center for Strategic Communication

Stagnation in Egypt. Grinding insurgency in Syria. Unpunished repression in Bahrain. Frustration in Jordan. Parliamentary crisis in Kuwait. Fizzling protests in Sudan. Humanitarian woes in Yemen. Creeping authoritarianism and renewed bloodshed in Iraq. This summer has not been kind to the Arab uprisings. With the shining exception of Libya, which today celebrates its handover to an elected civilian government, almost every Arab country has sunk back into the bog of political stagnation, frustrated citizens, and in the worst cases grinding violence. Many observers have begun to give up on the hopes for change in the Arab world, and are now dismissing the Arab uprisings as a "fizzle," a mirage, or a false flag for Islamist takeovers.  

It is far too soon to accept such a verdict. A frustrating as it has been to live through, this regression to repression is neither surprising nor cause for despair. In my book The Arab Uprising, I warned that there would be such reversals of momentum, unsatisfying political outcomes, activist frustrations, and competitive interventions by powerful states in newly opened political arenas like Syria and Libya. The forces driving the Arab uprisings are deep, structural, and generational. They don’t guarantee happy endings, nor do they automatically privilege any one kind of political challenger, whether liberal, sectarian, counter-revolutionary, or Islamist. But persistent, creative, and unpredictable challenges to the Arab status quo will continue to manifest in new forms, undermining every effort to restore the authoritarian status quo ante. Don’t be fooled by the current sense of stagnation — but do be worried by the regional fallout of the new struggle for Syria.  [[BREAK]]

The reversal of the momentum of the Arab uprisings began within months of their outbreak, of course. Saudi Arabia, after locking down its own home front, helped to prop up friendly monarchies across the region with financial and political aid. Morocco’s canny limited constitutional reforms and a burst of mob violence against Jordanian protesters set back reform movements there. Yemen’s horrifying descent into violence and failed government and Libya’s long military stalemate eroded the non-violent nature of the uprisings. The crushing of Bahrain’s protest movement and the sweeping, sectarian repression which followed inflicted perhaps the deepest wound on the Arab uprisings — not only its unaccountable repression, but the hard-edged sectarianism which had for the first months of the uprisings been suppressed. Politics across the region has been caught ever since between the hopeful efforts of empowered citizens and the determined resistance of entrenched regimes. 

This summer has been dominated by a narrative in which protest movements struggle, dictators retrench, the Arab agenda fragments, and the Syrian war dominates the news. Arab states seem to some to be back in control, and to others perched back on the tenuous equilibrium of the days before the Arab uprisings — ongoing political crisis with no signs of serious reform, economic struggles taking an ever harsher toll, and sectarian and ethnic cleavages taking ever deeper hold. Jordan’s deeply disappointing new election law has done nothing to restore the legitimacy of the monarchy or to break the trend of tribal dissent and societal fragmentation. Kuwait’s political crisis has accelerated dramatically, with the dismissal of parliament followed and the refusal of its replacement to vote in a new prime minister likely leading to yet another new election in a few months. Bahrain simmers with sectarian rage, almost all hope in peaceful reform crushed by a hardline regime more concerned with public relations than with serious political outreach. Countries that largely avoided mobilization during the height of the Arab uprisings, such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria, seem unable to confront their persistent political deadlocks. Saudi Arabia faces a growing, potent protest movement in its Eastern Province which it shows few signs of being willing to accommodate. 

Not everything is grim, of course, even within this generally depressing regional environment. Libya has consistently confounded the skeptics. Despite its many remaining problems, most notably the continuing presence of armed militias only tenuously connected to the emerging political order, Libya’s successful elections have produced a transition to a democratic, civilian government which few thought possible. Yemen has slightly outperformed (very low) expectations, as its new president has tentatively pushed to restructure the military and assert his authority. Tunisia continues to amaze, despite its crushing economic problems and the emergence of some worrying polarization around religious issues. Even Sudan saw glimmers of popular protest.  

But those signs of hope have been overwhelmed by the two largest and most consequential of the Arab arenas: Egypt and Syria. The seating of Mohamed Morsi as the elected president of Egypt broke the fever which had kept Egyptians in a state of political frenzy for many long months. The air had largely gone out of Egyptian politics, even before the latest crisis in the Sinai. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Egypt’s constant state of crisis and daily reversals of fortune over the first half of 2012 brought us all close to the brink of complete nervous breakdown, and a timeout to regroup was badly needed. Unfortunately, that "strategic pause" seems to have been largely wasted, and the transition to civilian rule which seemed so important seems to be failing to deliver constitutional legitimacy. 

Egypt’s "pause" should have been an opportunity to get state institutions working again, start dealing with economic disaster, reassure international investors, and rebuild the lost political consensus around the revolution. Instead, it has been frittered away in nervous jockeying between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. Politics has become ever more polarized between Islamists and their rivals, with virtually any move on either side viewed with suspicion and the worst intentions ascribed (was the Muslim Brotherhood’s effort to clean the streets really a nefarious scheme, rather than a smart move to try to actually do something positive?). Revolutionary movements grow every more alienated from the emerging political order, but have done little to build an alternative political movement. The technocratic government which Morsi finally appointed has failed to spark new political energies (though, to be fair, had he appointed an Islamist-dominated government instead the reaction would have been far worse).  Indeed, in almost every way the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to seek the presidency is proving to be the strategic disaster that it appeared at the time — alienating other political forces without gaining any real power. Egypt may not be in the midst of crisis right now, but it is deep in the political doldrums and looking ever more like the latter-day Mubarak period which the revolution erupted in order to change. 

And then, of course, there is Syria. The worst fears about Syria have now largely materialized. With international diplomacy having failed, the conflict has now turned nearly completely into an armed insurgency against a rotting but still capable military regime. The insurgency, fueled by Syrian outrage against Assad’s brutality and backed by foreign cash, arms, media, and political aid, can sustain itself indefinitely and has little reason to compromise. Assad’s regime has little incentive not to fight to the death, and still retains not inconsiderable domestic support and external Russian and Iranian backing. The chances for a political solution were never great, but the unfolding civil war is showing exactly why diplomacy was worth the effort. 

The emerging Syrian insurgency is nothing to celebrate. I still believe that Assad is ultimately doomed, as his brutality and political clumsiness has wiped away any hope of restoring legitimate rule over the country. Certainly, the responsibility for political failure and the turn to violence lies with the regime. But the fighting, bloodshed, and spreading sectarianism will leave scars and undermine hopes for political reconciliation in whatever follows Assad. So will the proliferation of weaponry into the hands of armed groups which still lack any real leadership or cohesion, to say nothing of a clear political agenda. The role of al Qaeda may be exaggerated in some of the reporting, but jihadist fighters are now clearly present and playing an active role, and they will not be easily dimissed when the fighting ends.  

The effects are not only internal to Syria, of course. Like Iraq in the previous decade, Syria is increasingly the battleground for regional proxy war, the breeding ground for regional sectarianism and jihadist extremism, and a potent cautionary tale for autocrats seeking to frighten their discontented populations against further revolts. The Syrian war overshadows almost all other issues in today’s Arab media, driving out many of the political and social and intellectual issues brought to the fore by the early days of the Arab uprisings. The idea that things would be better in Syria now had the United States intervened militarily is a fanciful one — more likely, such an intervention would only have destroyed hopes for a political solution more quickly, accelerated the violence, and now found American forces caught in the quagmire. The Obama administration has been wise to resist pressures to intervene militarily in Syria, and I fear that its emerging moves to support the insurgency, which it likely sees as now politically necessary even if unlikely to actually produce desirable outcomes, will come back to haunt it in the coming years. But the reality is that there are now no good options.  

This is a grim regional picture — and I haven’t even mentioned the beating drums for war against Iran or the complete absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It’s been a cruel summer. But it should not be taken as reason to despair or to question either the reality or the value of the Arab uprisings. The core structural driving force behind the Arab uprisings remains the generational rise of a new public sphere of frustrated citizens in a radically new information environment. There was never going to be a straight line from popular uprising to liberal democracy in these countries. Islamists were always going to perform well in elections, autocrats were always going to defend their power, and the beneficiaries of the status quo were always going to resist change. But autocrats are on the defensive, Islamists are internally divided and struggling with the demands of power, and expectations of democratic participation and open, contentious public life taking ever deeper root. Taking a longer view allows us to see the reality of how much has changed in the texture of Arab politics, and perhaps despair less at setbacks and reversals. 

In The Arab Uprising I wrote that we were only seeing the early manifestations of a generational change in Arab politics, and that long view remains important. That’s why I remain cautiously optimistic on Egypt and on many of the other Arab countries which currently seem so stagnant. But I do continue to fear the regional effects of Syria’s relentless shift from political uprising to externally-backed armed insurgency and sectarian rhetoric. As in the 1950s, the region’s politics are increasingly shaped by this struggle for Syria, in which, as Patrick  Seale famously put it, "each [regional power] sought to control it or, failing that, to deny its control to others." This regional context may not be all-determinative, but it cannot help but affect the domestic struggles across the region. Can the domestic struggles for political change gain traction in this environment? Can regional media such as Al Jazeera now obsessed with Syrian war again unify these local struggles into a common demand for Arab change as they did in the early days of 2011? Can protest movements unify around demands for change and resist the insidious spread of sectarian and ethnic conflicts? Those will be the defining questions for the next stage of the unfolding Arab transformations.