The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is the next Arab uprising happening in plain sight?

Popular protests are on the rise across the Middle East again. What does it mean?

Algerians protest in massive, peaceful rallies against the fifth term of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. (Mohamed Messara/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The decision by the aged President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to seek a fifth term in Algeria last week triggered some of the largest protests in the country’s recent history. The massive, peaceful rallies exceeded the expectations of most observers of Algeria and of the broader Middle East. The protests focused on rejecting a fifth term for Bouteflika but could easily evolve into wider demands.

Algeria’s unrest erupted in the shadow of long-lasting, highly consequential protests in Sudan against long-ruling President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. While initially understood as protests against food prices, Sudan’s protests quickly focused on political repression and Bashir’s decades of governance failure. The protests expanded far beyond the usual precincts, taking hold across the country and in a wide variety of sectors. Last week, Bashir defied reports that he would not seek another term in 2020 by declaring a state of emergency and escalating violent repression of protesters.

The simultaneous eruption and gathering momentum of the Algerian and Sudanese protests inevitably bring comparisons with the 2011 Arab uprisings. Could Algeria and Sudan be the trigger for a regionwide protest wave comparable to the one ignited by Tunisia’s revolution? That may be the wrong question.

The next-wave Arab uprisings are already happening

Algeria and Sudan are part of a broader sequence of popular protest movements that hit more than a third of the countries in the region over the past two years. For the most part, these protests are responses to similar governance and economic problems and not evidence of diffusion across borders. Arab autocrats have spent the past eight years attempting to rewire the region’s media and politics to prevent precisely such diffusion.

Before the Arab uprisings, analysts tended to underpredict revolutionary political change. Since those disruptive events, they have tended to overpredict upheaval. But that should not reassure those who crave stability, or overly discourage those who seek change. The political, economic and social challenges facing almost every Middle Eastern regime today are worse by orders of magnitude than they were in 2011 — and the structural factors enabling protest contagion remain potent.

The protests in Algeria and Sudan are far from the first episodes of political unrest in the Middle East in recent years. Last summer, and again in the fall, massive protests swept through southern Iraq. Major protests hit Tunisia, Jordan and Iran last winter. A similar round of protests in Morocco, which began in the fall of 2016, persisted for many months.

Seven of 21 states (including the Palestinian Authority) conventionally defined as being in the Middle East have therefore experienced a major protest event in the past several years. Shattered states such as Syria, Yemen and Libya were hardly candidates for peaceful protest in the midst of ruinous civil wars. Qatar and the UAE are too wealthy, small and internally strong to face any credible prospect of domestic unrest. Turkey’s failed coup attempt in July 2016 created intensely repressive new dynamics which superseded protest possibilities. Depending on how one counts, then, nearly half of eligible Middle Eastern states have already experienced significant protests in the past few years.

These widely dispersed protests are probably underestimated as a regional pattern because it has not yet led to the overthrow of any entrenched leader. This is the wrong way to think about the significance of protests. Popular mobilization reshapes politics at all levels independently of whether it topples regimes. Other indicators are new identities, coalitions and political claims being made, how regimes attempt to adapt and respond, how expectations of political possibility change, and how the terms of political discourse evolve.

Why national protests have not become regional protests

The unique power of the Arab uprisings came from a “scale shift,” in which a shared identity brought together local challenges into a collective regional narrative. This sense of a single common struggle, playing out across a shared broadcast and online media, allowed Yemenis and Bahrainis to draw inspiration and protest tactics from Egypt and Tunisia. That emotional force provided power beyond any local capabilities.

Even though the demands of today’s protesters are very similar across borders, they have rarely been framed in that way as a common struggle. That is partly because of their scattered emergence. But it is also because since 2011, Arab regimes have lived in fear of the sudden diffusion of unrest. Rulers learned then that protests elsewhere in the region could suddenly generate massive, unexpected protest energy that could overwhelm their defenses.

Preventing such diffusion and contagion became a top priority for regional regimes. They cooperate to defend regimes threatened by popular unrest through such means as financial assistance and political support because they view revolution anywhere as a potential threat to their own regime survival. They reshaped the media landscape to encourage polarization and discourage mobilization, while aggressively expanding surveillance and manipulation into the social media space. A rare exception was Iran, where Gulf regimes and their media certainly encouraged last winter’s protests in hopes of challenging their rivals in Tehran, but to little effect.

Overcoming the deep scars of the failed uprisings

Failures of the Arab uprisings since 2011 have left deep scars on societies and individuals that impede shared regional narratives. Polarization that ripped apart so many countries left suspicions and hardened identities that are not easily left behind. With democratic transitions discredited, there are no clear visions on offer for positive change. Many activists have suffered enormously from prison, torture and exile. And nearly every regime’s security services are far more brutal in their repression and attuned to any signal of real danger.

Despite those very real inhibitors to a new regional protest wave, the deep drivers of instability and popular unrest across the region are clear. As economic and demographic challenges mount, and political institutions have been stripped of legitimacy, regimes that are already exercising maximal repression have few options for escalation. Even if protests will not diffuse as easily as they did in 2011, there are always potential triggering events — the death of an aging leader, controversial constitutional changes, unavoidable subsidy cuts, even the end of civil wars — lurking on the horizon.