International Relations

The Arab Spring: a new era in the Middle East ?


Pauline Rouillon (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations.

A psychological and epistemological rupture has occurred in the Arab Middle East that has shaken the authoritarian order to its very foundation and introduced a new language and a new era of contentious politics and revolutions” (Gerges 2014: 1). This essay will argue, in relation to the cases of Egypt and Syria, that the Arab uprisings have significantly altered the autocratic status quo at the national level, affecting the regional balance of power and triggering the emergence of a new security order. Primarily, this essay will assert that the popular uprisings of 2011 have shed light on the vitality of the civil society, thereby shattering the myth of the powerlessness of agency in the region. If the transition from authoritarianism has suffered some setbacks, the revolutionary moment is still unfolding. Secondly, this essay will show that internal changes had implications for the regional balance of power even though aspects of continuity with the pre-Arab spring period cannot be denied.

The Arab uprisings were a moment of political emancipation and self-determination, which challenged the authoritarian order and thereby, discredited the myth of Arab exceptionalism (Korany 2010). A group of thinkers like Bernard Lewis attributed the resilience of authoritarianism and the democratic deficit to the legacy of Islam: “the political history of Islam is one of almost unrelieved autocracy” (Lewis: 1954). In 2011, however, millions of Arabs across national boundaries revolted against al-istibdad (repression), taking ownership of public space, to call for political emancipation and civil and economic empowerment. Regardless of their outcomes, Arab uprisings shattered the dominant narrative, according to which Arab autocratic regimes were capable of maintaining the status quo and preventing dissent from turning into large-scale popular mobilization (Gerges 2014: 1).

Even though popular uprisings showed that the authoritarian order was far from durable, they had various outcomes. Both Egypt and Syria were ruled by populist authoritarian regimes, which had gradually moved to liberalize their economies and reinforce their repressive apparatus. But with the spark of the first wave of uprisings, Mubarak left power rather quickly while Assad moved the country into civil war. Whether rebellions succeeded in overthrowing the regime or not mainly depended on three main factors: the nature of the state-formation process, the institutionalization of the coercive apparatus and the international contexts that interacted with domestic structural forces (Sika 2015). Unlike Egypt’s uncontested legitimacy as a nation state, the Syrian regime was challenged by its heterogeneous society. State formation in the Levant was not an organic development from within, but was rather a western colonial imposition. Thanks to a greater degree of social homogeneity and cohesion, Egyptian institutions and security apparatuses were recruited from all parts of society and thus represented the country at large. By contrast, truncated processes of state formation in Syria had left the country with armed forces that were riven by sectarianism. When popular demonstrations took place in 2011, Egyptian security services did not attempt to crush the protests and decided, on the contrary, to push Mubarak out, taking over the role of guarantor of the post-revolution phase in order to protect the privileges of its officer corps. By contrast, the strong ideological Syrian army remained loyal to Assad since the protection of the Alawite regime was crucial for its own survival. Furthermore, foreign interests were catalysts for the emergent stability of the Egyptian state, with Washington working closely with the armed forces after the overthrow of President Morsi and the fall from power of the Muslim Brotherhood. Regarding Syria, foreign actors undeniably play a role in the ever-increasing violence of the civil war, which has become a regional and international war-by-proxy of unknown duration and consequences (Lynch 2013).

Moreover, the Arab uprisings altered the status quo in the Middle East by shedding light on the vitality of its civil society, with huge, cross-class popular protests shattering the myth of the powerlessness of agency in the region (Belin 2014). The Arab Spring refuted the misperception about the region that fear and fragmentation of the opposition would neutralize efforts by activists to mobilize the public against the existing order. On the contrary, the Arab Spring revealed the low-level dissent that existed years prior to the 2011 insurrection. “Half a century of political authoritarianism has neither devoured civil society nor broken its will to resist” (Gerges 2014:7). In the case of Egypt, there was a continuum between an increasingly active civil society and labour activism in the 19990s and 2000s and the 2011 uprisings. The “We are all Khaled Said” group, the 6 April movement, the Muslim Brotherhood youth, the new left, human rights and other civil society activists all played a role in Mubarak’s removal. What distinguished the large-scale popular uprisings of 2011 from past small-scale protests, however, was the active participation of urban and rural poor people.

The Arab uprisings revealed the inadequacy of orientalist and rational choice approaches and reinvigorated academic interest in bottom-up politics, thereby triggering “a refreshing departure from the past fixation with top-down politics and the elite” (Gerges 2014). Until then, most Middle East scholars focused on the durability of political authoritarianism instead of examining the root causes of the democracy deficit. “The result was to overemphasize high politics and downplay low politics and the role of independent action, as well as overlook the vulnerabilities of political authoritarianism” (Gerges 2014). Despite rising popular discontent in the first decade of the 20th century in the region, the crisis of authority Arab autocratic rulers were facing was not perceived as detrimental to their survival, for two reasons. First, Arab leaders were seen as capable of engaging in regime-craft and of establishing a new political system – “liberalized autocracy” – based on guided pluralism, controlled elections and selective repression. Secondly, effective popular challenges to these rulers were believed to require unlikely large-scale mobilization and organization.

The Arab uprisings have marked the beginning of a new historical phase, marked by the repoliticization of public space, in which governments will face demands for accountability to citizens’ demands. It marked the beginning of a process of liberalization and democratization that will play over decades, even thought the shift from a revolutionary moment to a constitutional moment is fraught with uncertainties, mixed successes and occasional reverses (Norton 2014). According to the structuralist-institutionalist approach, overcoming the authoritarian inheritance is uncertain because of the robustness of deeply entrenched interests, as suggested by the internal variation in regime collapse and resilience in the region. A more agency-centred approach of transitions from authoritarian rule argues, on the contrary, that the “the revolutionary moment is still unfolding” (Gerges 2014). As shown by history, revolutionary moments take time to produce a revolutionary outcome as they might be aborted, hijacked, co-opted, institutionalized or face setbacks. The damages of decades of autocratic rule on the political culture cannot be undone in a couple of years. As conceptualized by Dankwart Rustow, democratization is a process of habituation whereby the players learn and grow used to the democratic rule of the game. In the case of Egypt, even though the rebellions led to Mubarak’s overthrow, there was no unified vision amongst various social constituencies about the future political architecture beyond the ouster of the despotic ruler. Therefore, the challenge facing the post-authoritarian order is to build a new system for allocating power, institutionalize diversity and pacify civil-military relations.

Furthermore, the 2011 revolts have reflected the exhaustion of political legitimacy based on pan-Arabism and the re-emergence of a dense Islamic political network. At the time of their appearance in the 1970s, religious-based parties were repressed and marginalized by old elites. After the cold war, however, they consolidated exponentially, notably through their social engagement in charity and their provision of informal services combined with a muscular underground propaganda aimed at filling the voids of an inefficient central state (Legrenzi and Calculli 2014). The reconfiguration of the Egyptian political framework, with the Muslim Brotherhood wining the presidency, and the growing influence of Islamist groups amongst the military resistance to Asad show how Islam, as an identity factor, has substituted itself for the historically alternative Arabism. Describing the transformation of the Arab Spring into “an Islamist one” (Korany 2013), a chorus of voice has argued that it had failed. Many observers perceived the post-Mubarak dichotomy between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood as a choice between two illiberal and undemocratic entities that had vested interests in perpetuating the autocratic status quo. This interpretation fails to take into account the fact that the balance of social forces amongst Islamists has shifted towards pragmatists (Schwedler 2006). “Islamist parties are slowly moving away from their traditional agendas of establishing an authoritarian Islamic state towards a new focus on creating “civil Islam” that permeates society and accepts political pluralism” (Gerges 2013). Unlike the Mullahs in Iran, centrist Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt tend to embrace pluralism and parliamentarism and emulate the Turkish model of the AKP.

The challenges that endanger parliamentarization in Arab countries should not be used as evidence to under-predict the rise of democratic experiments” (Gerges 2013). Like other regions that have experienced democratic change, the MENA region will likely go through lengthy processes of political contestation and democratic transition. “The return of contentious politics signals the end of an era and the beginning of another, fuelled by a new collective psychology of empowerment and engagement” (Gerges 2013).

On a systemic level, Arab uprisings have transformed the balance of power paving the way for Turkey and Iran to consolidate their pre-eminence in the region (Ayoob 2014). These two pivotal non-Arab powers filled the regional power vacuum resulting from Arab fragmentation and turbulence. Indeed, the 2011 insurrection marked the start of a long, drawn-out revolutionary process that weakens post-uprising Arab states and leaves them preoccupied with issues of domestic order, thus detracting their capacity to influence regional affairs in the short-to-medium term. The only Arab country likely to engage in active diplomacy is Saudi Arabia, both because of its oil wealth and because its regime feels endangered by a nexus of external and internal forces that requires an active foreign policy to counter the growth of Iranian influence in the region. However, Saudi Arabia’s inherent vulnerabilities and the in-built contradictions of its foreign policy are likely to limit its regional appeal (Al-Rasheed 2011). In this context, both Iran and Turkey took the lead in influencing the fate of the Arab uprisings, especially in Syria, in order to serve their own national interests (Legrenzi and Calculli 2014). Furthermore, while Turkey is aspiring to a new regional leadership, it has been increasingly seen in the post-Arab spring context as a model of the successful combination of Islamic identity and democratic rule. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood turned to the success of Turkey’s AKP rather than to Iran for inspiration. In ideological terms, it suggests that the appeal of the Iranian Islamist model is declining (Dalacoura 2012).

Given their position in the regional balance of power, “the course of Middle East politics will depend on their bilateral relationship, especially their ability to insulate their overall relationship from potential friction” (Ayoob 2014). But despite visible tensions between the two powers, caused principally by their opposing stands on Syria, their relationship is unlikely to deteriorate into open conflict because both countries share common interests, including securing trade in oil and gas, curbing Israel’s aggressive proclivities and minimizing the intervention of non-regional powers in the Middle East.

Besides, Arab uprisings have encouraged the development of a “new regionalism” in the Middle East (Fawcett 2013). Breaking with their previous positions of non-intervention and strict respect of state sovereignty, Arab institutions have responded to regional events by supporting international initiatives taken against autocratic regimes (Bellamy and Williams 2011). “Support from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the League of Arab States was crucial in providing the legitimacy to international action, and suggested a move towards regional collaboration with multilateral institutions such as NATO and the UN” (Fawcett 2013). For instance, the League of Arab states, yet described as a “fossilized regional organization”, sided against the autocratic regime, calling for Bashar al-Assad to step down and backing UN envoy Kofi Annan’s peace mission to Syria.

The impact of the Arab Spring on regional alliances shows the importance of “intermestics” (Korany 2013), that is to say the organic interconnectedness of domestic and regional politics. As a matter of fact, partly in reaction to the Arab uprisings, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called in December 2011 for deeper integration of the GCC. This initiative may be read as an attempt to enhance regime security against external threats. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the 2011 revolts has been dictated by its internal political and social dilemmas. First, Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian state that has not engaged in political reform and whose stability is mainly based on the continuity of oil exports and on the US as a security provider. Second, the Saudi monarchy rules over a society characterized by inter-confessional fragmentation, which is a source of destabilization given the increasing Sunni-Shia polarization of the region. Thirdly, Saudi legitimacy is based on an appropriation of Islamic symbols and the application of the Sharia. The rise to power of Islamists in post-Arab Spring countries like Egypt threatened the Saudi model insofar as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have engaged in politics through elections and democratic institutions. The Saudi leadership was loosing its unique Islamic credentials and was therefore eager to contain the uprisings in such a way as to remain the sole Islamic model in the region. Domestically, Saudis relied on economic rewards, coupled with renewed religious discourse about obedience to rulers and heavy security measures in order to maintain order, which they failed to do in the Eastern Shia dominated provinces. Regionally, Saudis deployed three strategies towards the uprisings: containment in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, invoking a long Sunni heritage that prohibits peaceful protest and civil disobedience, counter-revolution in Bahrain and Yemen and support for revolution in Syria (Al-Rasheed 2014).

In this context, the Saudis promoted cooperation with the other Sunni monarchs of the Gulf States, who also feared the contagion effects of the tumbling of fellow Arab regimes, once dubbed “presidents for life” (Owen 2012) and the dangers of a resurgence of Sunni-Shia tensions, already exacerbated by the Iraqi war. Their fear of a potential strengthening of a Shia axis with Iran led them to increase their aid package to Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Oman and to a lesser extent Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. In other words, the turmoil triggered by the Arab uprisings led to a reinforcing of inter-monarchical alignments, with Gulf countries pursuing the muscular promotion of external change in order to protect the monarchical status quo of the Gulf subsystem and to forestall possible sources of external destabilization. Despite past cold relations, the trend towards Saudi-Qatari cooperation is based on a deep convergence of goals: the avoidance, in the Gulf sub-regional complex, of destabilizing domestic transitional dynamics and the will to constitute a regional bloc of governments based on Sunni Islam, in reaction to the increasing Sunni-Shia polarization of the region. The rising ambitions of the Gulf Cooperation Council were reflected in the proposal made to Jordan and Morocco to join the GCC, which “symbolically formalized an inter-monarchical welding, based on the common Islamic and Sunni identity of power, and on the type of political regime” (Legrenzi and Calculli 2014). This “new regionalism” offered the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar a renewed and more fertile opportunity for projecting power. The new role Qatar intended to play in the region in the wake of the 2011 insurrection represented a shift in its foreign policy. Doha used its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the political and financial cooperation with Islamist parties that took power in the region to strengthen its geopolitical position. “Qatari hyper-activism” (Fawcett 2014) was reflected by the role its Al Jazeera TV channel played in the Arab revolts.

Additionally, the Arab spring had an impact on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Turmoil around its borders led Israel to harden its terms for a settlement with the Palestinians, thereby aggravating tensions with its Arab neighbours. The negative reaction of the Israeli political-military elite can be first explained by Israel’s identity as a Western state. “Israelis think that their values and their culture make them part of Europe and they have no desire to become part of the Middle East” (Ayoob 2014). But it had also to do with Israel’s fear that Islamic extremists would benefit from the uprisings and threaten Israel’s security. Prime Minister Netanyahu viewed with deep misgivings the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, following the fall of Mubarak, even though Morsi reiterated his party’s commitment to uphold the peace treaty with Israel and preserve the strategic partnership with the US.

The Arab uprisings have altered the authoritarian status quo in the Middle East region, marking the beginning of a new era of political engagement and a shift towards parliamentarization. Changes at the domestic level triggered a reshaping of the regional balance of power, in favour of Turkey and Iran, as well as a strengthening of the monarchical axis in the Gulf region. Regional powers have been inclined to respond to regional events, which increased the level of interstate aggression at a sub-state level, with very important implications for regional stability and international security. While the Arab spring has significantly altered the regional status quo, Middle-eastern states’ relations with outside powers, namely the US and Europe, remain fundamentally unscathed. The Obama administration did not pursue any “grand strategy” in response to the Arab insurrection (Quandt 2014), while Europe’s limited and conservative reaction to the uprisings was in line with the historical pattern of its foreign policy towards its Southern neighbours (Bicchi 2014).


Al- Rasheed M., “Yes. It Could Happen Here: Why Saudi Arabia Is Ripe for Revolution”, Foreign Policy-Middle East Channel, 28 February 2011.

Bayat, A., 2010. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Belin E., January 2004. “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East”. Comparative Politics, 36.

Dalacoura K., 2012. “The 2011 uprising in the Arab Middle East: political change and geopolitical implications”. International Affairs. 88: 1.

Gerges F., 2014. The New Middle East, Protest and Revolution in the Arab world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis B., January 1954. “Communism and Islam”. International Affairs 30: 1.

Norton A. R., 1996. Civil Society in the Middle East. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Legrenzi M., 2011. The GCC and the International Relations of the Gulf: Diplomacy, Security and Economic Coordination in a Changing Middle East. London: I.B Tauris.

Owen R., 2012. The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life. Cambridge MA: Harvard university Press.

Schwedler J., 2006. Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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