There are three elements that symbiotically contribute to this trend. First, in addition to the various insurgencies and violent non-state actors that were empowered in the first decade of this century, the Arab Spring and related events saw a pattern of empowered protest movements ranging from peaceful demonstrations to full-blown rebellions. A second element is technology, specifically the spread of social media as a tool to rally unprecedented masses. And third, though the upheavals in 2011 brought with them the hope of democracy throughout the region, and indeed advanced some countries further in the process of democratization, the catalyst for these political movements was, in fact, economic. It is now clear that these economic objectives will only be further exacerbated by the increased political instability.
While there are innumerable theories as to why the Arab Spring occurred in 2011, the view that these protest movements are linked to previous events shows that they are part of a broader pattern.
Ziad is a young Syrian living in Beirut who is currently working on a screenplay about the Arab Spring. “All of this started with Syria and the Cedars Revolution in Lebanon,” he says. “That was the first time people of my generation saw that you could openly take control of politics.”
Some people, especially Iranians, feel that the Green Movement was an important precursor.
Regardless of the roots of the Arab Spring, what is clear is that since the Cedars Revolutions, the protests in Iran, and other possible precursors, the number of popular protests in the region has risen at an exponential rate.
This increase is reflectively threatening to already-fragile states in the region. Stratfor’s Ben West explains, “Protests are forms of asymmetric opposition in which the… protesters cannot succeed by using force to overwhelm the state but must find (or create) and exploit specific weaknesses of the state.”
Therefore, not only are protest movements a threat to politically unstable states, but they are also an indicator of weaknesses within the nation-state. As protest movements continue to grow in influence and number, states will be less immune to them.
A substantial stimulus for these protest movements is technology. In spite of disagreements over the extent to how much social media and networking sites drove the Arab Spring and related movements (e.g. the U.S. Institute of Peace’s “Blogs and Bullets II” vs. the Dubai School of Government’s “Arab Social Media Report”), it is increasingly evident that politics will be greatly influenced by the spread and utility of communications technology.
As my colleague Daveed Gartenstein-Ross explains in Global Brief, technology is one of the most important variables that could empower non-state actors: “Technological developments can make upheavals hit an already unstable system at a heretofore unimaginable pace.”
This point is reinforced with the example of the life and death of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation instantaneously caught the attention of the world with the fuel of advancements in communications. Significantly, any mention of Bouazizi, who is seen as the catalyst for demonstrations in Tunisia and beyond, highlights the fact that he was a struggling street vendor.
A trigger for social dissatisfaction is economic concerns. Already, there are worrying statistics regarding MENA about stock markets plummeting, GDPs diminishing, and so on. Indeed, even after, for example, relatively stable elections and a political transition in Egypt, economic prospects for the country remain questionable.
In a recent trip to the Sinai, I had a conversation about the Arab Spring with Jimmy Dahab, the owner of Bishbishi Hotel and a scuba instructor. He explained, “Of course, what happened in the revolution was good for the country. A lot of us closed our hotels, shops, dive centers to go to Tahrir. But it has been very tough. No tourists in Egypt is like not having the River Nile.”
In the next few years, we can expect that increasing protest movements, the fuel of communications technology, and the tenuous economic situation will compound to expose and exacerbate weaknesses and instability within MENA states. As such, these changes will seriously affect U.S. foreign policy in the region. Having spent decades relying on a status quo that trumped up nation-states, it would be prudent for the U.S. to adapt to such dramatic changes by focusing its attention on other elements and actors within these countries.
Tara Vassefi is a member of the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy Middle East Discussion Group. She is also a faculty member with the Naval Postgraduate School’s Leadership and Development Education for Sustained Peace Program. She received her master’s from the University of St. Andrews and lived in Syria and Egypt from 2007-2008. These views are her own and do not represent the views of NPS, LDESP, or the Center for Civil-Military Relations.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s September/October 2012 edition.