The Arab 1989?

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, David Held, Alia Brahimi

The uprisings sweeping across the Middle East portend a political transformation as significant as those of 1989. The economic stagnation of the region, the failures of corrupt and repressive autocratic regimes, conjoined with a disenchanted youthful population wired together as never before, have triggered a political struggle few anticipated. Yet 1989 is not an entirely clear point of reference – the emergence of peaceful mass movements of change is a parallel, but the pull of the West, so marked in 1989, is weaker and more complex. Accordingly, the path ahead for these brave, inspiring, challenging movements is more uncertain.

An extraordinary wave of upheaval is beginning to sweep across the Arab world, with the potential to transform the political order in the Middle East. Mohamed Bouazizi’s desperate act of self-immolation galvanised a generation of marginalised youth to demand political freedom, economic opportunity and above all a sense of human dignity. Millions participated in massive demonstrations that ousted the Ben Ali kleptocracy in Tunisia and heralded the end of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. This turn of events has inspired people to mobilise against repressive autocracies across the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, the protests directly contradict the myths long spun by these regimes that their secular strong-men are both the guarantors of stability and the only bulwark against a fanatical Islamist takeover. Men, women and children from all backgrounds, classes and levels of education cooperated in non-violent calls for change. The resulting outcome could be transformative in its impact on a regional order that has, for decades, elevated regime and western stability above the democratic and participatory desires of its inhabitants.

Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December after his street stall was confiscated and he was humiliated by local authorities in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid. His plight resonated heavily with young Tunisians facing similar despair with their economic situation and lack of prospects for a better future. Protests began in conservative and rural regions of Tunisia and gradually spread to the cities where they intersected with rising social tensions and anger at the escalating cost of food and basic services. New media and social networking websites acted as powerful transmitters enabling activists, bloggers and journalists to bypass the security services’ repressive crackdown. The gradual convergence of socio-economic and political dissent widened the scope of the protestors’ demands to include the tackling of corruption and granting of political freedoms. Ben Ali responded with incremental concessions that culminated in a pledge not to seek re-election as President in 2014. When the Tunisian military refused to intervene and suppress the protests, Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia on 14 January, and was replaced by a transitional unity government ahead of planned elections.

Demonstrations in Egypt started on 25 January with the organisation of a ‘Day of Anger’ in major cities. As in Tunisia, a trigger (in this instance the ousting of Ben Ali) ignited popular frustration with the Mubarak regime’s perceived inability to address deep social and economic problems. The protests escalated into a ‘Day of Rage’ when thousands of demonstrators overpowered the police and security services and burned symbols of the regime across the country. Previously fragmented opposition groups coalesced behind Mohamed El-Baradei (the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and head of the National Association of Change) and demanded immediate political change. A remarkable feature of the crowds was their commitment to non-violence and ad hoc organisation of relief and other basic services to ensure orderly protests. Muslims and Christians stood side by side in unity and prayer and notably sported Egyptian flags rather than religious symbols. The military acknowledged the protests’ legitimacy and Mubarak was forced into conceding ever-greater checks on his power. These culminated in his announcement to stand down as President following the ‘March of the Millions’ on 1 February, when two million demonstrated in Cairo and several million more throughout Egypt demanded an immediate political transition. In response, pro-Mubarak thugs carried out indiscriminate attacks inflicting more than 1200 casualties and contrasting starkly with the peaceful non-violent nature of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations. This was a desperate act of a beleaguered autocrat and belatedly led the international community to abandon its support for Mubarak.

The political contagion has spread throughout the Arab world although it is strongest in countries where authoritarian regimes have limited fiscal and monetary revenues to defuse popular frustration. In Jordan, rising inflation and high unemployment and poverty levels were causing significant hardship and anti-government feeling long before the outbreak of overtly political protests. These squeezed hardest the middle- and lower-income groups that formed the core of the Arab world’s wave of mobilisation. Jordan’s lively media and social networking sphere also differed markedly from the conservative and tribal composition of the parliament returned in elections boycotted by secular and Islamist opposition groups in November 2010. A generational clash emerged between young activists spanning the religious and ideological spectrum and the monarchy seeking to deflect their frustration onto the parliament. King Abdullah fired the government of Samir Al-Rifai and appointed an ex-army general in his place. This was a strategic move to de-link potential political opposition to the monarchy from economic discontent by channelling the blame for rising socio-economic unrest onto the technocrats. The monarchy also benefits from the split within Jordan between East Bank tribes and formerly-West Bank Palestinians, which represents a safety valve insulating it from a mass popular uprising on the Tunisian or Egyptian scale.

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About the authors:
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Research Fellow at LSE Global Governance. David Held is Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Co-Director of LSE Global Governance. Alia Brahimi is a Research Fellow at LSE Global Governance

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