Analysis & Opinions - per Concordiam

The Arab Spring's Three Foundations

| March 2012

Wave of Change Issue

Social media played only a supporting role in North Africa and the Middle East


It has scarcely been a year since the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa. Since then, emboldened Tunisians and Egyptians have, through mainly peaceful means, unseated their governments and ousted their respective presidents. Other popular protest movements, which have proven considerably bloodier, have spread in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya. Many observers were quick to credit social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube with providing the tools Arab citizens needed to overcome generations of fear and political apathy. This view, though alluring, is far too simple. Repression and the absence of meaningful political expression, with or without the tools of technology, have been the rule for decades, not the exception. So the question that requires further inquiry is: Why now? Three systemic changes during the past 30 years may reveal some useful answers.

The first change began in the 1980s, when many Middle East and North Africa (MENA) states adopted political and economic liberalization programs, partly as a means of transitioning rentier economies into global free-market economies. Economic restructuring often went hand in hand with bold promises of political reform. Unfortunately, economic liberalization proved difficult, and even the most reform-minded states were either too fast or too slow in making these transitions. In 1992, Algeria's fast and loose liberalization process inadvertently brought Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front to power through the ballot box. In response, Algeria's military government aborted the electoral process, reneged on promises of political reform, annulled the election and subsequently swept Algeria into a decade-long civil conflict that left 200,000 dead. Algeria's experience with reform chastened other MENA states, which concluded that reform was a recipe for their eventual demise. Though some continued to engage in slow and plodding reforms, most reduced liberalization to a mere façade. Not surprisingly, citizens who had embraced their governments' promises of reform were slowly cured of their optimism.

The second systemic change came with the rapid growth of satellite television, beginning with the debut of Al-Jazeera in 1996. Al-Jazeera was followed in less than a decade by no fewer than 700 satellite stations. Arab governments, along with some Western ones, tried to reduce the appeal of Al-Jazeera first through gentle coercion and then through co-optation. When these efforts failed, many governments opened up access to the media market, thereby flooding the airwaves with hundreds of competing channels and programming. In less than a decade, Arab citizens could choose from a smorgasbord of local and international news, entertainment, and religious programming that exposed them to open debate on issues that previously had only taken place privately behind closed doors. In short, viewers came to expect and demand greater selection and diversity and, to an increasing degree, also demanded more of Arab media as a whole.

The third systemic change arrived in the aftermath of 9/11. Though unintended, the dominance of the Global War on Terrorism led by the United States made it expedient, convenient, and in some cases, necessary to adopt what has been called a new "counterterrorism culture." Post 9/11 politics placed security before reform and inadvertently justified extension or readoption of heavy-handed and semiauthoritarian practices even in states that had made some progress in moving away from dependence on security apparatuses. Egypt dusted off and repackaged old emergency laws, Bahrain adopted anti-incitement legislation titled "Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts," and Jordan, a state previously hailed as a model of successful reform, aggressively pursued security threats to the kingdom, including the decision to twice dissolve its parliament. A majority of Arab citizens who were polled in the years after 2004 believed that their governments viewed civil liberties and reform as secondary to promoting counterterrorism, state security and continuation of the status quo. Of the three systemic changes, this period may well have done the most to convince the average citizen that working within the system would yield nothing.

In his 1998 book The Dream Palace of the Arabs, Fouad Ajami described an Arab citizen longing for a noble past and loathing the repressive present, but without the will to imagine, let alone bring about, a better future. Perhaps the Arab Spring has awakened us all from our own lazy sleep. The future strength and integrity of that dream palace rests firmly on the failures and successes of these three systemic changes.

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For Academic Citation: Lane, Heidi E..“The Arab Spring's Three Foundations.” per Concordiam, March 2012.