The New Normal: Instability after the Arab Spring

July 30, 2013

Thirty months after the events that kicked off the Arab Spring, the various countries that saw massive upheaval remain, well, in upheaval.  Egypt’s lauded democratization project has reached a stalemate with the military-backed ouster of Mohamed Morsi, whose tenure ended after barely reaching the one-year anniversary of his ascension to the presidency.  Hundreds have been killed in subsequent clashes, with official government reports acknowledging at least 80 dead just this past weekend.  Libya remains unable to quell lingering challenges to internal security, as demonstrated most recently by the escape of a staggering 1,100 inmates during prison riots in the perpetually troubled city of Benghazi.  And in Tunisia, the assassination last week of a prominent opposition politician has led to violent clashes and exacerbated growing conflict between supporters and opponents of the government led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.  Widespread international optimism engendered by the revolutions that toppled some of the Middle East and North Africa’s longest-ruling authoritarian regimes has long since died away.

The term “Arab Spring” is problematic, representative of an effort to conceptualize a wave of revolutionary activity that was clearly interlinked, but which suggests a monolithic quality that simply does not exist.  The label, like that of “rebels” applied to the fragmented network of Syrian anti-Assad forces, obscures important distinctions and inhibits accurate examination of complex issues in a complicated region.  The term should be permanently retired.  But there is one characteristic that these countries share, and it is becoming increasingly apparent.  For each of them, instability is the new normal.

Of course, sudden and dramatic change is certain to produce a considerable degree of difficulty in the near-term.  The toppled leaders had all been in power for more than two decades.  Rapid transformation was bound to be followed by considerable uncertainty.  But the emergence of new political forces and the building of new political institutions have not mitigated this uncertainty; rather, they have contributed to it.  The new crop of post-revolutionary leaders appears largely unprepared to meet the security and stability challenges confronting them.

Here again, though, while Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia (and to some extent, Yemen, which also saw its long-time ruler toppled) all currently find themselves in ongoing fits of political and societal instability, it would be a mistake to ascribe any significant uniformity to the challenges that plague each country.

In Egypt, several dynamics combined in a sort of perfect storm that led to Morsi’s ouster.  First, the country’s population is deeply divided over the appropriate role for Islam in governing the state.  This division exists independent of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the organization’s year-long experiment as the dominant political force provided material substance to a debate that otherwise might have been more theoretical.  Second, with the successful removal of former president Hosni Mubarak by means of large-scale popular protests, Egyptians recovered a sense of control over their country’s destiny.  Both supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood remain intent on exercising this newfound control, ensuring that the streets of Cairo and other cities are filled by energized crowds with fundamentally incompatible demands that neither group appears willing to compromise.  And finally, signs that Morsi had effectively sidelined Egypt’s politically influential, senior military officers were, in hindsight, misread.  The military capitalized on the growing opposition to Morsi’s administration, forced his removal, and now finds itself left with the task of securing the streets while simultaneously pursuing a political track that a large number of Egyptians—mainly Morsi’s supporters—find abhorrent.

In Tunisia, problems have emerged not because of a single, deep societal division, but instead because of a number of rifts that threaten the fragile coalition government that combines Ennahda and two secular parties.  The working relationship between these parties is unsurprisingly tense.  Ennahda has also come under intense criticism from more conservative Islamists, a small but vocal minority in the country.  Efforts by the party to bridge the divide with such critics have driven down the government’s support among the Tunisian public.  Amid the unrest that followed last week’s assassination of opposition figure Mohamed Brahmi came calls from one of Ennahda’s secular coalition partners for the government’s dissolution.  But while Brahmi’s killing provided the immediate spark for mass demonstrations, the underlying factor on which anti-government sentiment continues to build is the perception that Tunisia’s new leaders have failed to address the most basic source of public frustration in the country—chronic unemployment and a continued lack of economic opportunity.  This collective popular grievance ignited the unrest that drove former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from office, and it remains the greatest challenge to Tunisia’s long-term stability.

Libya’s problems are different still.  The amalgamation of disparate armed groups that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi began to fracture almost immediately after his removal, and a troubling number of militias have yet to lay down their weapons.  In some cases, particularly in the east, armed groups’ hesitance stems from a long history of relative marginalization and fears that such a pattern will re-emerge even in post-Gaddafi Libya.  The recent massive prison escape highlights the consequent security vacuum, which has also raised legitimate concerns about the possible expansion of jihadist groups in the country.  Finally, lingering feelings of bitterness over Gaddafi’s rule drove Libya’s national legislative assembly to pass a measure banning officials of the former regime from holding office.  Meant to assuage popular anti-Gaddafi sentiment, the ban also threatens to strip Libya’s government of much needed technocratic expertise as it seeks to jumpstart its economy—particularly the oil industry on which it is overwhelmingly dependent for revenue—and thereby establish a degree of stability.

From an American policy perspective, these differences are significant.  For years, the U.S. either tacitly or openly lent support to strongmen on the basis of their maintenance of stability in their countries.  Essentially, in order to protect American national interests from the unpredictable effects of instability, stability was itself treated as a core U.S. interest.  But the U.S. government’s shift away from support of the region’s long-time authoritarian rulers did not signal the re-emergence of a Wilsonian idealism; rather, it reflected a calculated, pragmatic acceptance of a series of adjustments that the U.S. had little capacity to influence.

The differential quality of the Obama administration’s approach to the initial unrest in these (and other) countries illustrates this pragmatism.  In Tunisia, the pace of events caught the U.S. government by surprise, and its support for the revolution that toppled Ben Ali came largely after the fact.  President Obama made a statement in support of the Tunisian people on the same day that Ben Ali ignominiously fled the country to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia.  In Egypt, Obama was more assertive, lending weight to Egyptians’ demands that Mubarak step down.  In Libya, the U.S. provided military support to anti-Gaddafi rebels, albeit in a manner that spawned the phrase “leading from behind.”  In Bahrain, the U.S. has largely stayed above the fray of ongoing anti-government protests, giving greater priority to harmonious relations with the government of the country that hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.  And of course, with respect to Syria, myriad challenges have discouraged direct involvement, with more than two years of civil war resulting in only incremental policy evolution.

The result of these divergent approaches to upheaval throughout the region has been the same, however.  Instability in the countries in question appears to be increasingly institutionalized.  The Obama administration’s policies in the region have failed to arrest this pattern.  But, it is not an argument against the basic pragmatism that underscores these policies; rather, it is a combined function of an apparent hesitance to keep all policy options on the table (for instance, failing to push NATO to approve the request of Libya’s transitional authorities to maintain a military presence in the country) and a preference for half-measures (deciding to provide only small arms to Syrian rebels, and only after 100,000 have been killed).

All states, even the most powerful ones, are limited in their capacity to influence events around the world.  In retrospect, the period of upheaval by which the MENA region found itself deeply transformed was inevitable, as is the continued uncertainty with which new political authorities are now confronted.  The most appropriate course for the U.S. government is to seek to influence events to the limited extent that it can, and position itself to benefit from re-established stability, as and when it can ultimately be established.  This might entail undertaking an active interventionist role in some cases and largely withdrawing in others.  It might also lead to uncomfortable shifts in policy—such as supporting a military-backed interim Egyptian government after lauding the democratic election of the one that it replaced—but as long as instability is the new normal across a region with complex dynamics that are seemingly impossible to navigate, it represents the best means of protecting American interests over the long term.


John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.  Follow him on twitter at @johnamble.


Photo Credit: Mosa’ab Elshamy