international analysis and commentary

The Arab revolts, two years on

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It has been two years since the first outburst of the Tunisian Jasmine revolution in December 2010, with turmoil having spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. It is particularly important to monitor emerging trends taking place in Tunisia and Egypt, as they represent, for different reasons, the two ‘role models’ of the revolutions and the region.

Changes have been both superficial and profound, immediately felt and long-lasting, country-specific and yet exemplifying regional trends.

Changes have occurred on three levels: actors, processes and outcomes. As a consequence of these internal shake-ups, the balance of power in the Middle East and North Africa region has been in flux since, in what marks a significant phenomenon of accelerated geopolitical change induced by domestic variables.

On the first level, we have witnessed the emergence of new social and political actors.

As acknowledged by the United States shortly after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions toppled long-time dictators, the Arab people have moved to the center stage of the political process and have become a force to be reckoned with, both domestically and externally. The most relevant subgroup has to be found in the youth, which for the first time has acted as a protagonist of its own fate and its country’s political development. The lack of charismatic leaders signals both a strength of a ‘popular conscience’ movement, albeit with very significant differences and policy divergences, and a weakness, having failed to produce a cohesive agenda, party and identifiable spokesperson able to shape the national political agenda. The youth political participation, despite a political representation which remains insufficient, represents a paradigmatic shift both at a social and political level. In the social domain, this generation is more educated and individualist than the previous ones, already shows decreasing fertility rates and is tacitly more gender equal than in the past. At a political level, the successful overthrow of authoritarian regimes being an astounding symbol of optimal use of social resources will remain as a powerful reminder of their mobilization capacity and success, to be capitalized when the need arises.

In terms of processes generated since the revolutions, we have observed two very different transitions, both in terms of pace and modes. In stark contrast with the Tunisian example, where a clearly defined and orderly roadmap of elections, institutional and constitutional changes has been designed quickly from the start and all parties have abode by it,  the Egyptian process of change has been messy, erratic and unpredictable. This has partly resulted from the Islamists’ political immaturity, often navigating events without a clear trajectory in sight and unable and at times unwilling to forge consensus before moving to the following step. This however has also been caused by some cultural attitudes which have not been abandoned, mostly in terms of authoritarianism in the way key decisions are taken and imposed from above.

The processes of change embed an inherent tension Islamists will have to cope with in the coming years: as pointed out by Olivier Roy, these revolutions were not Islamic in their inspiration, but were driven by demands for democratization. This took plane in the context of Arab societies that are far more Islamized than in the past 30 years, but where different movements and parties compete on the ground of their religious credentials: since the emergence of Political Islam in the 1970s, the religious space has become much more diverse, and nobody can claim to represent the Islamic truth, without being confronted with competing interpretations and claims by opposing movements. These tensions will lead to a politically diversified establishment, both among secularists and Islamists, and might actually represent one of the most important assets for these countries’ pluralistic transitions.

Lastly, in terms of outputs, it is difficult to ascertain the exact trajectory these countries are taking in terms of the guarantees for civil and socio-economic rights. Egypt and Tunisia, in particular, are going through the delicate phase of constitutional negotiations that will be followed by elections in which the new constitutional principles will begin to be interpreted and implemented, on the backdrop of a far greater pluralism of views than in the past.

While the jury is still out on many accounts (how these countries will effectively deal with women’s rights, economic policies, the degree of consensual politics adopted, their foreign relations), some trends are likely to stay: a real competition for political power with the subsequent learning curve for better organization and coordination among political forces; free elections with an acceptable degrees of contestation; popular legitimacy for political leaderships; and lastly, the refusal by civil society to go back to “business as usual” if political leaders betray the revolutionary claims and/or does not deliver on its promises.

In other words, while the nature and outlook of transitions can only be gauged after several rounds of elections, we are looking at a region which will never be the same again, politically and socially. Setbacks and reversal of the revolutionary tide will likely be met with a politics of resistance by a society which is quickly learning to gather, protest, trust, take back its trust and go back to the streets. And while the learning curve for politicians and for mobilized public opinion is still long, the basic conditions are present for the emergence of societies where politics is an openly contested arena and a plurality of voices is fully accepted.