H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Nine years ago, the Arab world began to see the simmering of uprisings, beginning in Tunisia, and then continuing eastward. The common narrative is that most of those uprisings led to catastrophe and that autocracy has become ever more rooted in the region – but only when one’s view of history is short-sighted, imprudent and rash. The Arab uprisings weren’t a blip on the radar screen, and to regard them as such is only to admit one is unprepared for further upheaval. Perhaps 2020 will be a year when more disruption takes place, but commotion in the wider Arab world is inevitable, because there is unfinished business.
In the wake of colonialism in the Arab world, postcolonial regimes took on the structures and norms of colonial rule, but replaced the individuals within them with natives. That did not mean a decolonization of those systems by deconstructing what was unhealthy about them and restoring a balanced set of arrangements. Rather, the systems were appropriated – systems that were designed for the exploitation of the population for the service of the colonial overlord.
The nation-state model was imported, and grafted upon these populations – without due reference to how such models might be applicable to this region’s history and traditions. A common misconception of Islamist movements that opposed these regimes is that these movements were keen to roll back modernity in this regard. Ironically, those movements imbibed that part of modernity totally, and simply aimed to change some minor aspects of the modern nation-state to fulfill their political programs.
But these models, which contemporary ruling elites and many of their opponents hold on to with all their might, were not set up to promote good governance among these populations. And that, indeed, is the root of the Arab uprisings of 2011.
These types of inadequate post-colonial state settlements continue to this day. If that were not bad enough, the region’s own natural developments in population growth, combined with the advances in health, meant that demographic pressures increased. Today, the Arab world continues to see that fossilized version of the nation-state settlement.
We’re accustomed now to seeing the Arab uprisings solely through the lens of the politics of protest, and indeed, that’s a major part of it. No population will consistently and continuously be satisfied to live under a structure that systemically fails to fulfill the desire to live with minimum levels of dignity.
But beyond that: the uprisings are the repercussions of failing to deal with what happened in the colonial and post-colonial era. The continuation of failing to do so will just get worse. Because now, it’s not just about demographics, but the stresses associated with war and conflict. And, looming near on a horizon that draws closer, the climate crisis.
That is the lens through which we ought to consider the protests today in places such as Sudan, where protests led to the ouster of military leader Omar al-Bashir; in countries such as Lebanon, where their leaders continue to try to salvage their regime against the wishes of their people; where in Iraq, protesters continue to hold their ground against their government.
As Egyptian blogger Zeinobia notes, the story is not over. For the story of the Arab world still continues to see security apparatuses that operate under the same logic of repression, which see the Arab uprisings of 2011 not as safety valves that prevented far more turmoil than we can imagine. Rather, they view them as threats, and the conditions that allowed them should never be allowed to happen again.
But, and here is the rub of the matter, one cannot reduce the fire beneath an already boiling kettle by merely placing a tightly sealed lid on top of it. On the contrary, such schemes only mean that it becomes more, not less, likely that upheaval may take place again and again. Until that point where the rulers realize, as the aforementioned blogger wrote, “We [the ruled] are not animals.”
I have no idea if 2020 will see more upheaval – but I do know that until those that rule understand that the ruled will always insist on a certain level of fundamental dignity, such upheaval is inevitable. It is only a matter of time. It would be better for those who can change the system to do so. Otherwise, the kettle will just keep overheating and the consequences could be more dire than we can imagine.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.