Ten years after people rose up against their leaders in country after country around the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, what can we say about how society, politics and religion have changed in the region?
To put it mildly, the social, cultural, religious, political and strategic events that history will remember as the “Arab Spring” sent a shockwave across an entire region. Today, the legacy of this chain of events is contested and to an extent still uncertain, but one thing is clear: the conditions for engaging in politics in these countries have shifted completely.
Lire cet article en français: “Révolutions arabes, an X: des sociétés à jamais transformées”
It’s true that in many places, like Egypt, we’ve seen a return to some form of the authoritarianism that reigned before the people asserted their right to take part in politics at the beginning of the 2010s. But social powers are the forces that write the definitive version of history, and these have seemingly been disrupted forever.
Citizens now know that ruling power is fragile; it can be shaky; it does not last forever. In 2021, the question is no longer whether it’s possible to topple a regime, or at least make it grant concessions, but rather what the cost-benefit analysis is for a process of political change. What price are people prepared to pay to see their situation improve?
The power of protest
The most obvious change has been the redefinition of political space in Arab societies. This has been shown again and again in the years since 2011, from the recent protests in Lebanon and Iraq, to the Hirak movement in Algeria.
Across North Africa and the Middle East, protests and demonstrations of public anger are no longer simply seen as signs of a challenge toward authorities, but rather as the potential forewarning of an uprising, or even a revolution.
Each social crisis opens the floodgates for real and uninhibited challenges to the regimes in power. Even Egypt, which in 2013 saw a return to authoritarianism that would make previous regimes in other Arab countries pale in comparison, is not exempt. Activists and groups have learned how to speak out against the government, often at great personal risk. A majority of citizens are now reasoning based on the hypothesis that the players currently holding power can be removed.
Secularism v religion
Across the region, the social and political spheres have become more secular, as both a cause and a consequence of the Arab Spring. The push for democratisation both fed into and was fed by the belief in egalitarian citizenship. Regimes, feeling challenged, encouraged sectarian attitudes and divisions, hoping to transform a vertical conflict (between society and authority) into a series of horizontal disputes (Sunnites against Shiites, Muslims against Copts, Arabs against Kurds, and so on).
In other words, by changing the original narrative, which was mainly secular and drew on political and social progress as a foundation, certain regimes placed their survival above that of their country’s unity. Syria is a textbook example of this.
While a number of religious groups, Islamists among them, took the side of popular uprisings during the Arab Spring, it is nevertheless difficult to give a definitive judgement on the role of specific religious groups, both at the time and since. It would be hard to compare Tunisia’s Ennahda, for example, with Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, given how widely communication, strategies, and even long-term goals vary from one group to another.
This is partly because the Arab Spring uprisings were not religious by nature; they were never built on the necessity of defending religious traditions, and even less so a threatened Muslim identity. Nor was the Islamist narrative the engine for these changes. Religious figures and movements jumped on the bandwagon, but they never managed to control the direction of these wide-reaching movements.
However, in burgeoning democracies, starting with Tunisia, the power distribution phase gave way to other laws, specifically those regarding the ability to siphon off votes. Islamist groups were clearly masters of this game, boosted by their claimed capital of moral and political purity and long-established abilities to mobilise people.
And so over the past ten years we have seen the subject of religion take centre stage, as social revolutions, in becoming constitutional and partisan, had a duty to tackle the question at the same time as Islamist parties were integrating themselves into national political scenes in transition. Right now, the key takeaway is undeniably the rupturing of the Islamist landscape.
The rise of jihadism
Though jihadism has been an important part of the political and religious landscape in Arab countries and elsewhere for several decades, this phenomenon was indirectly strengthened by the uprisings in the early 2010s.
The rise of jihadism over the past ten years is connected to the fact that parts of these societies, particularly the youth, saw the Arab Spring uprisings from two related perspectives. On one hand, it was clear that the revolutions were not going to bear fruit immediately. On the other, they were no longer exclusively rooted in the present time and in their country’s society as it had always been. Another utopia existed, and jihadism competed with that promised by revolution.
As a result, certain countries such as Syria, which is still gripped by civil war and a serious sovereignty crisis, became echo chambers for Arab tensions, or even laboratories for new kinds of violent, radical movements to spread, as illustrated by Islamic State’s caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
The undeniable politico-religious violence that has arisen since 2011, driven by jihadi movements, is also social and generational. Jihadism attests to the fact that the political realities in the regions are currently at an unprecedented crossroads, between the shift away from traditional religion, the plight of governments, and the many social, economic and psychological tensions weighing on entire populations desperate to see their hopes come to pass.
This article is published as part of IPEV Live: Transition from Violence, Lessons from the MENA, a series of eight live conversations held every Tuesday from May 18 to June 29, 2021.
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