The images of mass protests in Arab capitals, where demonstrators are demanding that corrupt and aging rulers step down, may look anachronistic. Wasn’t the Arab Spring a few years ago? And didn’t it end with coups and civil wars that restored the old autocratic status quo?
Well, yes and no. Yes, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is in the process of installing himself as dictator-for-life in Egypt; Bashar al-Assad reigns over the ruins of Syria; and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, are more brutally repressive than they have ever been. But in Algeria, popular demonstrations have just forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to withdraw his bid for yet another term. And in Sudan, daily protests are persisting despite both concessions and violent repression by the regime of Omar Hassan al-Bashir. In Jordan, people marched across the country last month to protest corruption. In Morocco, a big rally for teachers a few weeks ago ended with chants to “end the dictatorship.”
This is not, at least yet, a second Arab Spring. No regime has fallen. In Algeria, the clique of generals, bureaucrats and business executives that propped up Bouteflika is still in control. Many who joined the revolutions of 2011 are dead, imprisoned or demoralized. “Many, including Egyptians, realize that the costs of another uprising would be high,” says Michele Dunne, a scholar who foresaw the revolution in Cairo. “They are also less optimistic than they were in 2011 about what the ultimate results might be.”
Still, the new wave of unrest points to a couple of conclusions that run counter to the conventional wisdom in Washington — especially inside the Trump administration. First, as Dunne puts it, “The tinder again is quite dry in the region, and sparks are beginning to fly.” And, second, the authoritarian restoration that was supposed to return political stability to the Arab Middle East and open the way to economic modernization has failed.
Sissi and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman imagine they can pursue the model of capitalist autocracy modeled and promoted by China and Russia. But unlike Xi Jinping, they’ve been unable to deliver the economic goods. Corruption, heavy-handed state capitalism and sheer incompetence are driving away desperately needed foreign investment. The two regimes are wasting tens of billions of dollars on megaprojects such as new cities. Sissi’s latest development initiative consisted of ordering that all brick buildings in Cairo be painted in a uniform color scheme.
In Algeria, similarly, an ossified regime has been at a loss to make up for declining oil and gas revenue. Foreign reserves have fallen by half since 2013, and unemployment has risen to 11 percent. It’s twice that for young people, which is not surprising since two-thirds of Algeria’s 42 million people are under the age of 30.
Much of the region is suffering from the same toxic mix of mismanagement and corruption. Far from flourishing along Chinese or even Russian lines, Arab societies are once again depressed and frustrated. Leslie Campbell, a veteran program officer for the National Democratic Institute, summed up the regional climate in a recent essay: “Anger over the arrogance and impunity of political, military and economic elites and over persistent governance failures, exacerbated by audacious corruption and extravagant state spending, are reminiscent of the restive mood in 2010 and early 2011.”
To be sure, the unrest extends to countries with more liberal political systems. Tunisia, the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring as a democracy, is plagued with strikes and demonstrations. Iraq suffered from riots last summer over shortages of electricity and water. Violent protests in the West Bank forced the resignation of the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister in January.
Yet, as Campbell pointed out, these countries have “room for debate, some freedom of speech, and political institutions that — while far from perfect — can absorb and react to some of the demands for change.” The unrest in Iraq was followed by a peaceful and democratic change of government, and the new prime minister and president are moderates committed to rooting out corruption and improving services. Iraq remains a far-from-stable country; it is still threatened by the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State and Shiite militias loyal to Iran. But it looks good compared with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where the only response to unrest, or even peaceful dissent, is brutal repression.
The Trump administration founded its Middle Eastern strategy on the autocracies. It bet that Sissi’s Egypt and Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia would anchor a regional strategy aimed at countering Iran. The assumption is that their regimes offer stability. For that reason, the administration has made no attempt to restrain their repression. It follows that, if there is another Arab Spring, President Trump will be one of the losers.