The Arab Spring and the Western Winter
Beirut — There are many striking parallels between the Arab Spring that began in 2010 and the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, the election of US President Donald Trump, and the far-right resurgence across Europe. In each case, an old order fell, and progressive parties have been too weak to counter the emergence of authoritarian and xenophobic forms of governance.
The growing discontent with the status quo that underlay the Arab uprisings of 2010-11 had many causes, and the opposition took both progressive and conservative forms. Members of the middle class resented their loss of dignity at the hands of an unaccountable elite. Young people decried a future that looked especially bleak when compared to the expectations of their parents’ generation. And Islamists stoked moral opposition to the loss of ethical values in society.
These are all recurring themes in ongoing debates across the West, with its growing population of disaffected whites, displaced workers, and frustrated young people. Over time, as economic liberalism has crowded out longstanding principles of equality and social solidarity, vast wealth disparities have emerged, corrupting many Western countries’ politics.
Meanwhile, globalization and technological innovation have had profoundly negative effects on certain social cohorts, and public policies have failed to mitigate the damage. Far-reaching policy adjustments are now urgently needed, not least because of the deadly threat that climate change poses to the entire globe.
But what adjustments will be made, and who will carry them out? Popular revolts—in the streets and the ballot box—have so far failed to deliver an alternative governing framework that offers credible solutions to the political, social and economic problems that have engulfed Western and Middle Eastern societies.
In the Arab world, the explosion of popular anger dislodged long-entrenched regimes. But the old autocrats had worked hard to prevent a credible opposition from ever being conceived. The 2010-11 revolutions were leaderless, and thus could not fill the resulting political void. Instead, armies, tribes, sectarian groups, and religious parties quickly came to the fore.
Egypt has now experienced an autocratic restoration. Yemen, Syria and Libya are mired in civil war. Lebanon and Iraq are fragmented. And the oil producers that tried to extinguish the regional fire by pouring money on it are now running massive fiscal deficits. Turkey, too, has moved toward strongman rule; progressive forces in Iran have been weakened. Only Tunisia is still pursuing a messy transition toward democracy; but even there, economic reforms have fallen short of addressing the challenges facing the country.
The Middle East’s new autocrats are consolidating power with divide-and-rule tactics that have polarized citizens along sectarian and identity lines. Owing to widespread feelings of personal insecurity, many citizens have chosen sect over society, and security over civil rights.
In the West today, populist politicians with no realistic plans for actually building a better future are emulating Middle Eastern autocrats. They win power by stoking fear of the “other”—refugees, Muslims, or foreign terrorists—and promising to establish security through force. Once in power, they begin to consolidate their rule accordingly. Democratic institutions may be resilient to populist governance; but, as we are witnessing in America, these institutions will soon be tested, and undoubtedly weakened before all is said and done.
The same parallel holds for international relations. The geopolitical map of the Middle East is being redrawn by the transnational Shia-Sunni split—which is being stoked by rivals such as Iran and Saudi Arabia—and by outside intervention into regional conflicts. Similarly, Western populist leaders are disrupting their countries’ interests with respect to China, Russia, India and Northern Europe, and challenging the post-1945 international order, without offering anything remotely resembling a viable alternative.
Then there is the failure of progressive political forces to provide such an alternative. The dominant narrative has shifted worldwide. Most people no longer believe in a future defined by progress: economic dynamism, global integration, and social democracy. A pessimistic view has taken hold, in which the future is corrupted by globalization, untamed markets, labor-saving technological innovations, and global warming.
Restoring optimism in both the Middle East and the West will depend on whether intellectuals, unions, progressive parties, and civil-society groups can build a common political base and offer a shared vision for the future. This will require not only novel solutions to emerging problems, but also a credible means to implement change democratically.
At the very least, this new age of resistance and revolution has brought into the open problems that were once left to fester in the dark. We now know that economic policies should be geared toward inclusion; material consumption will have to be curtailed; and democracy must be protected from the malign influence of concentrated wealth and entrenched interests.
These are immense challenges, but if we can identify them clearly, we can begin to take action. And an achievement in one place can be a model everywhere else. The next time millions of people march peacefully in Cairo to demand that their voices be heard, the trigger may not be a self-immolation in Sidi Bouzid, but a riot in Istanbul, the impeachment of a US president, or electoral victories for progressive parties in Europe. Project Syndicate
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Ishac Diwan is an affiliate at the Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative at Harvard University and holds the Chaire d’Excellence Monde Arabe at Paris Sciences et Lettres.
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