The political upheavals in the Arab world during 2011 have irrevocably transformed the Middle East. Yet, as the year draws to a close and the euphoria subsides, it is clear that comparisons of the ‘Arab spring’ to the end of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 were premature. There has been—and there will be—no serial collapse of authoritarian regimes leading to a democratic future. Instead of ‘revolution’, the talk now is of ‘uprising’, ‘revolt’ or even simply ‘crisis’. One reason for the disagreement on how to label the events of 2011 is the inclination to think of the ‘Arab world’ as a unified entity. Arab societies and polities do indeed have tight interconnections and share at least some important characteristics. The potent myth of the Arab nation and the common public space pervaded by the idea of ‘Arabism’ has had complex effects since the beginning of the modern state system in the Middle East. It has been cultivated by powerful media, such as the satellite television channel Al-Jazeera. The contagious nature of the uprisings that started in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread to a number of other Arab states, helped by these media (among other factors), is confirmation that the component parts of the ‘Arab world’ are linked by strong internal bonds. Nevertheless, thinking in terms of ‘Arab’ events—or even an Arab event—may also constitute a set of blinkers. First, by compelling us to search for common trends and characteristics, it prevents us from seeing the profoundly different causes, contexts and outcomes of the developments of 2011—from seeing that each uprising was different, focused on domestic, national issues and comprehensible in its own light. Second, it stops us from placing these developments in other, possibly equally relevant, contexts of crisis and contestation. One such context could be the Mediterranean and more widely European—even global—protests which also unfolded in 2011. Another is the Middle Eastern context, which would locate the Arab uprisings alongside the post-2009 Green movement in Iran. Although the Arab framework is important, other perspectives can also yield invaluable insights.
The Arab countries straddle the lifelines of world trade. They link Europe to Asia and, with Iran, surround the Persian Gulf home to some 54 percent of global oil reserves. The region’s many international and domestic disputes, as well as restraints on political expression and human rights, have spawned extremism. In turn, the region’s endemic instability or perceived risk of instability has provided cover for some of the world’s most authoritarian and corrupt regimes. Until the turn of this year, the Arab countries had almost uniformly resisted the process of democratization that swept up other regions in recent decades. The series of popular revolts known as the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in the last weeks of 2010, has already wrought more change in six months than the region had seen in almost 60 years and there is more to come. Whether or not the Arab peoples’ aspirations for dignity and voice are fulfilled, and how smoothly transitions to democracy proceed, are not just great moral questions they will also determine the region’s stability and its economic prospects for decades to come. At the same time, getting on a path of sound economic growth will greatly enhance the chances that transitions to democracy succeed.
The democratic uprisings and consequent turmoil in the Arab world during the last 18 months have had significant impact on the geostrategic situation in the Middle East as well as on the policies of major regional and global powers. As the upheavals continue to unfold, especially in strategically important countries such as Syria and Bahrain, they will continue to have a major impact on intraregional politics as well as great-power interests.