Prof. Dr. Meliha Benli Altunışık, ORSAM Advisor for Middle East, METU Director of Institute of Social Sciences

We have not been informed enough about the uprisings, which broke out in Tunisia on December 2010 and spread into many Arab countries, yet. Why those uprisings broke out at this very period? What are the characteristics of these movements? Could it be an uprising prevailing across the whole Arab world? Or does each uprising have its own characteristics? Why have those uprisings led to change of leaders in some countries, while they have had different consequences in others? Above all, why haven’t some countries (Algeria is the most important exception among all) been affected by this wave?
Many such questions have not exactly found an answer yet. It is necessary to carry out more research on these subjects. Moreover, many approaches and terms which have been used in Middle Eastern studies so far must be reevaluated in the light of current developments. For instance, it is required to reconsider the issues such as; civil-military relations, dynamics of social movements, rent-seeking state approach, political economy approaches, and political Islam in the light of the developments taking place for the last two years. In addition, considering regional and even global effects of transitions and ongoing conflicts in various Arab countries will be quite important in terms of understanding the dynamics of Arab uprisings.
Before examining those subjects more thoroughly, certain generalizations might be made based on current developments. First of all, it is necessary to highlight the importance of the developments that have taken place for the last two years. A large literature, which tries to understand why the opposition has not come to the fore despite all these socio-economic problems and authoritarian regimes that lost their legitimacy in the Middle East emerging especially since 1990s, came out. In this literature, which tries to understand why the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East survived considering their democratization trends in the world, this situation was mostly explained as the “exception in the Middle East”. In this context, the literature was trying to explain the phenomenon of continuous authoritarianism in the region by various factors ranging from culture to oil and to foreign support for these regimes. The developments taking place for the last two years have shaken this framework at its core.
On the other hand, the recent developments showed us that no other generalization should be made by ignoring the importance of what has been happening. Thus, the expectation suggesting that Arab uprisings will turn into some kind of democracy would equally be deceptive. Those uprisings would also have different consequences, just like different causes and characteristics. These consequences would emerge in the context of historicity of that country, the characteristics of dominant actors, their institutional structures, socio-economic possibilities, and their relations with the outside world.
It will be necessary to understand the developments in the Arab world that have been going on for the last two years in terms of both their regional characteristics and also their originality. It is obvious that the regionalism of the developments has come out at several levels. First of all, the developments have triggered one another. Besides, solidarity networks have been created both during the uprisings and among various opposition groups afterwards. In this context, another important development is that regional Arab identity has been reinforced. The Arab populations in different countries of the the Arab world started to identify themselves with these movements even if there is no such uprising in their countries, and they started to talk about an “Arab awakening” (this terms was firstly used against Ottoman Empire).
Nevertheless, the regional aspect of the developments should not cast a cloud over their originality. As mentioned above, uprisings take shape within the context of original history and characteristics of the country. Therefore, it would be truer to talk about Arab uprisings, rather than an Arab uprising.
Another subject related to Arab uprisings is about how “recent” these developments are. Especially those who have not been closely following the developments in the region tend to analyze that these uprisings, which broke out in Tunisia and have been going on in some other Arab countries, emerged all of a sudden as a new situation. However, the recent developments are the extension of the protest movements, which started in the region in early 1990s and have been continuing at certain stages and which are relatively limited in some countries while quite widespread in others. In this respect, Egypt has been the country where mobilization has been at highest level. The demonstrations of solidarity committees during the Second Intifada which began in Palestine on October 2000 might be given as the first example to the expansion of “street policy”. During the US invasion of Iraq, Egypt witnessed the biggest anti-war movement in the Arab world. During this period, protest demonstrations turned into an anti-Mubarak movement before long. In 2004, on the other hand, Kefaya (Enough) movement emerged as an umbrella movement, in which different groups in the political spectrum participated. Afterwards, Egypt has become the center of social mobility in the Arab world. Similarly, Bahrain is also a country, where protests have become widespread for the last two decades. Despite at different levels, the examples of protest movements in Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, and even in Libya have been observed since 1990s. Therefore, despite the fact that what have been taking place for the last two years are recent in terms of their dimension, these developments are also the result of social mobility that has been going on at least for the last two decades.
There are already many arguments regarding the causes of Arab uprisings. It will be possible to understand better the dynamics creating these uprisings as more research is carried out on this subject. As much as countries have their own unique conditions, there are also similar factors already leading to uprisings. However, it appears that not on their own but all those factors together have ignited the wick of the social opposition in these countries. First of all, we might focus on socio-economic factors. Considering the economic growth rates of the recent years in some countries where Arab uprisings take place, it might be seen that the growth rate is at a quite good level despite the crisis across the world. For instance, it is observed that Egypt, Tunisia and even Syria have achieved an economic growth of 5-6 % in recent years. Especially Egypt and Tunisia were already shown as examples for a while by institutions such as the World Bank and IMF due to their “neo-liberal policies, and their achievements”. On the other hand, while Yemen was the poorest country of the Arab world, oil-rich Libya was an example to a rent-seeking state. Thus, it seems hard to make generalizations about those countries regarding macro-economic indicators. Nevertheless, no matter what their economic situations are, we can suggest that the countries where Arab uprisings take place have encountered some common socio-economic problems. Above all, despite the difference in terms of their economic development, it might be suggested that poverty has been a common problem in these countries in general, that distribution of income has increasingly become worse and that unemployment, more specifically the unemployment among young population, has increased. Those problems went from bad to worse as the world food prices rose in foreign-dependent Arab countries in food production. In addition to all these, one of the most important problem is poverty. As socio-economic problems become worse in societies, the fact/perception that a small group in power is not affected by these problems and on the contrary they plunder all sources of the state appears to be another reason why the social opposition has increased. All in all, corruption politicized existing socio-economic dissatisfactions, and led the hostility to be directed towards those who had been in power for a long time.
The second group of causes are related to profound legitimacy crisis that political structure in these countries have been going through. The increasingly oppressive practices of regimes in the Middle East that have been going on for a long time, their turning into “one-man” regimes, the “father to son” system prevailing even in the regimes defining themselves as a republic, and the political legitimacy crisis caused by all this situation was put forward through the studies carried out. For example, speculations regarding that Mubarak was preparing to hand over the regime to his son Gamal in Egypt was one of the most important agendas of the rising social opposition in 2000s. However, those regimes survived through the intelligence and the army. Academician Lisa Wedeen attributed the survival of those regimes to their creating an illusion of power in a book she had written on authoritarian regimes in the Middle East in 1999. The events taking place both in Tunisia after Bouazizi set himself on fire and also in other countries showed that these illusions along with fear walls could be destroyed. As a matter of fact, it also explains why people still pour into streets and continue to fight despite the violence applied by the regime even in the countries with an oppressive state mechanism like Syria.
Lastly, we can talk about the effect of external factors. The support that great powers have provided for authoritarian regimes for many years was considered as one of the most important reasons of those regimes’ survival. The great powers prevented the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East by intervening implicitly and sometimes explicitly. After the Cold War ended, especially the U.S. and EU appeared to be supporting democratization in the Middle East from time to time. However, this kind of policies ultimately came to an end by these countries’ supporting the status quo in a way not to put the stability, in other words their own interests, at risk. For instance, the Clinton administration put the discourse of democratization in the Middle East aside in early 1990s, following the Algerian elections. Similarly, after the first Bush administration used the aforesaid discourse as a means to legitimize the Iraqi invasion, it was revised especially after the Palestinian elections. During the second Bush administration period, this policy was completely ended.
The Arab uprisings developed through internal dynamics to a large extent. Even though the international conjuncture, globalization indirectly affected these uprisings, in the final analysis, the internal dynamics launched the events. Nevertheless, after those dynamics took action, both regional and global actors mobilized to affect the aforesaid dynamics. As in Bahrain, this kind of interventions sometimes led to suppressing the uprisings, sometimes led to a civil war like in Syria, and sometimes led to the collapse of the regime as in Libya. The interventions of foreign actors were sometimes less observed. All in all, despite the fact that Arab uprisings emerged through internal socio-economic and political dynamics in those countries, the following developments started to be affected by the policies of foreign actors to a great extent. Due to all those reasons, the Arab uprisings continue to be a political phenomenon that can be evolved into such complex and different directions.