The uprisings sweeping across the Middle East portend a political transformation as significant as those of 1989. The economic stagnation of the region, the failures of corrupt and repressive autocratic regimes, conjoined with a disenchanted youthful population wired together as never before, have triggered a political struggle few anticipated. Yet 1989 is not an entirely clear point of reference – the emergence of peaceful mass movements of change is a parallel, but the pull of the West, so marked in 1989, is weaker and more complex. Accordingly, the path ahead for these brave, inspiring, challenging movements is more uncertain.

 

An extraordinary wave of upheaval is beginning to sweep across the
Arab world,  with the potential to transform the political order in the
Middle East. Mohamed Bouazizi’s desperate act of self-immolation
galvanised a generation of marginalised youth to demand political
freedom, economic opportunity and above all a sense of human dignity.
Millions participated in massive demonstrations that ousted the Ben Ali
kleptocracy in Tunisia and heralded the end of the Mubarak regime in
Egypt. This turn of events has inspired people to mobilise against
repressive autocracies across the Middle East and North Africa.
Moreover, the protests directly contradict the myths long spun by these
regimes that their secular strong-men are both the guarantors of
stability and the only bulwark against a fanatical Islamist takeover.
Men, women and children from all backgrounds, classes and levels of
education cooperated in non-violent calls for change. The resulting
outcome could be transformative in its impact on a regional order that
has, for decades, elevated regime and western stability above the
democratic and participatory desires of its inhabitants.

*  *  *

Mohamed
Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December after his street stall was
confiscated and he was humiliated by local authorities in his hometown
of Sidi Bouzid. His plight resonated heavily with young Tunisians facing
similar despair with their economic situation and lack of prospects for
a better future. Protests began in conservative and rural regions of
Tunisia and gradually spread to the cities where they intersected with
rising social tensions and anger at the escalating cost of food and
basic services. New media and social networking websites acted as
powerful transmitters enabling activists, bloggers and journalists to
bypass the security services’ repressive crackdown. The gradual
convergence of socio-economic and political dissent widened the scope of
the protestors’ demands to include the tackling of corruption and
granting of political freedoms. Ben Ali responded with incremental
concessions that culminated in a pledge not to seek re-election as
President in 2014. When the Tunisian military refused to intervene and
suppress the protests, Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia on 14
January, and was replaced by a transitional unity government ahead of
planned elections.

Demonstrations in Egypt started on 25 January
with the organisation of a ‘Day of Anger’ in major cities. As in
Tunisia, a trigger (in this instance the ousting of Ben Ali) ignited
popular frustration with the Mubarak regime’s perceived inability to
address deep social and economic problems. The protests escalated into a
‘Day of Rage’ when thousands of demonstrators overpowered the police
and security services and burned symbols of the regime across the
country. Previously fragmented opposition groups coalesced behind
Mohamed El-Baradei (the former head of the International Atomic Energy
Agency and head of the National Association of Change) and demanded
immediate political change. A remarkable feature of the crowds was their
commitment to non-violence and ad hoc organisation of relief and other
basic services to ensure orderly protests. Muslims and Christians stood
side by side in unity and prayer and notably sported Egyptian flags
rather than religious symbols. The military acknowledged the protests’
legitimacy and Mubarak was forced into conceding ever-greater checks on
his power. These culminated in his announcement to stand down as
President following the ‘March of the Millions’ on 1 February, when two
million demonstrated in Cairo and several million more throughout Egypt
demanded an immediate political transition. In response, pro-Mubarak
thugs carried out indiscriminate attacks inflicting more than 1200
casualties and contrasting starkly with the peaceful non-violent nature
of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations. This was a desperate act of a
beleaguered autocrat and belatedly led the international community to
abandon its support for Mubarak.

The political contagion has
spread throughout the Arab world although it is strongest in countries
where authoritarian regimes have limited fiscal and monetary revenues to
defuse popular frustration.  In Jordan, rising inflation and high
unemployment and poverty levels were causing significant hardship and
anti-government feeling long before the outbreak of overtly political
protests. These squeezed hardest the middle- and lower-income groups
that formed the core of the Arab world’s wave of mobilisation.  Jordan’s
lively media and social networking sphere also differed markedly from
the conservative and tribal composition of the parliament returned in
elections boycotted by secular and Islamist opposition groups in
November 2010. A generational clash emerged between young activists
spanning the religious and ideological spectrum and the monarchy seeking
to deflect their frustration onto the parliament. King Abdullah fired
the government of Samir Al-Rifai and appointed an ex-army general in his
place. This was a strategic move to de-link potential political
opposition to the monarchy from economic discontent by channelling the
blame for rising socio-economic unrest onto the technocrats. The
monarchy also benefits from the split within Jordan between East Bank
tribes and formerly-West Bank Palestinians, which represents a safety
valve insulating it from a mass popular uprising on the Tunisian or
Egyptian scale. 

In Yemen, protests initially focused on rampant
unemployment and especially bleak economic conditions in a country
wracked by internal conflict and fast running out of oil and water.
Opposition anger was also directed toward President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s
controversial constitutional amendment in January 2011. This removed
the two-term presidential limit and cleared the way for him to run for
re-election in 2013. In this context, the protestors’ success in
extracting a pledge that he would neither seek re-election nor attempt
to transfer power to his son was significant. Saleh has twice before
broken promises to step down and it remains to be seen whether he will
act differently on this occasion. Notably, however, his concession
failed to take the sting out of the demonstrations, which instead became
more emboldened as events unfolded in Egypt. Saleh lacks the political
legitimacy to placate the broad-based opposition to his increasingly
repressive 32-year rule, but has thus far taken advantage of opposition
disunity to prevent a serious challenge to his rule. Pressure is
nevertheless building up in a context in which the regime already faces
armed contestation to its rule, and in which nobody seriously believes
it will follow-through on meaningful reform.

Popular demand for
change is spreading across the Middle East. Throughout the region a
fault-line has opened up between young populations exposed to global
modernising forces through the internet and satellite television and
ossified, oppressive regimes unable to provide opportunities or the
reality of a better life. 65% of the population of the Middle East is
under the age of 30 and are increasingly technology-savvy and adept at
using new forms of communication to bypass state controls and mobilise
around common issues or grievances. Bloggers in Egypt and Tunisia were
instrumental in publicising and spreading accounts of torture and human
rights violations by the security services. They emboldened people
everywhere to band together and confront the regimes that had ruled with
an iron fist. A decisive threshold has been crossed and, once opened,
this Pandora’s Box will be almost impossible to re-seal. Nor, in the age
of Twitter and Al-Jazeera providing live-streaming of events across the
globe, is it possible for regimes to seal themselves off from the
outside world while they take retribution on their opponents, as when
the Syrian regime massacred thousands of its domestic opponents in Hama
in 1982. Caught between the spotlight of instant global media and an
energised and youthful social movement, these police states are being
exposed as anachronistic, brittle and incapable of meeting the
requirements of modern societies.  

This is the storm moving
through the Middle East and radically reshaping the nature of
state-society relations. Crucially, the uprisings are popular movements
emerging organically from below in response to local socio-economic and
political conditions. They therefore differ fundamentally from the
military-led revolutions from above that swept away the colonial regimes
in the 1950s and 1960s and entrenched in power praetorian leaderships
built around the military and security apparatus. In addition they are
unconnected either to the US-led democratising agenda or the opposing
forces in the ‘war on terror.’ They thus have great popular legitimacy
in a region that has witnessed numerous recent examples of external
interventions that have tarnished local perceptions of ‘democracy.’
Moreover, the sight of regimes and leaders long denounced by Osama bin
Laden being toppled through peaceful and largely-secular mass protests
demonstrates just how marginalised Al-Qaeda and jihadist ideology really
is. Notably, demonstrators chanting in Cairo called for ‘tanmiyya’ (development) and ‘hurriya’
(freedom), often drowning out more overtly religious slogans. It is
this realisation that so threatens the confluence of western and regime
interests around the fallacy that democracy cannot be a stable
alternative to embedded authoritarian regimes. 

*   *    *

What
caused this cascade of popular rejection of a status quo that for so
long appeared set in stone? Moments of revolutionary change often occur
when specific triggers interact with slower but no less significant
changes gradually taking place. The seemingly random act of Bouazizi’s
self-immolation was the catalyst for popular revulsion at the marked
inequities and indignities they encountered on a daily basis. Just as
the assassin’s bullet that felled Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo
in June 1914 set in motion the train of events that led to the outbreak
of the First World War, the mushrooming anger following Bouazizi’s death
engineered the convergence of socio-economic hardship with political
grievances. In both instances, a constellation of internal and external
events exacerbated existing schisms and reconfigured the dynamics and
interaction of longer-term processes. The result is that while
discontent in these authoritarian regimes is not new, it is the speed
with which they have threatened to bring several of them to the brink of
collapse that is qualitatively different.

Different dynamics
have driven the specific course of the protests from country to country.
In some, the possession of substantial oil and gas revenues provide a
degree of insulation to regimes able to pre-empt or defuse protest by
increasing the redistribution of wealth. Kuwait’s gift of free food
rations for 14 months and a one-off payment of 1000 Kuwaiti dinars
(approximately $3500) to every citizen is the most blatant such example.
Similar outlets exist in most of the other Gulf States (with the
notable exception of Bahrain, which sees its own ‘Day of Rage’ on 14
February), blunting though not preventing dissatisfaction with
socio-economic stagnation. In Libya, more pronounced tribalism has drawn
larger circles of people into the regime’s orbit and given them a stake
in its survival. Memories of the decade of civil conflict that killed
more than 150,000 people in Algeria in the 1990s make Algerians
understandably wary of sudden change, while, as with Libya, its
hydrocarbon and foreign exchange reserves give the regime greater
manoeuvrability when addressing rising living costs. Meanwhile in
Morocco the religious legitimacy that the King derives from being a
direct descendant of the Prophet insulates the institution of the
monarchy from direct criticism.

These differences aside, all the
above countries have also seen protests spreading beyond the normally
carefully-defined parameters of opposition. Several threads link the
character of the social movement redrawing the regional political
landscape. Their commonality heightens the infectious overspill as each
individual extraction of concessions energises the movement elsewhere.
Deep underlying socio-economic issues run through the region and
constitute the Achilles heel in the ‘ruling bargain’ between autocratic
rulers and their impoverished citizenry. Sclerotic labour markets are
unable to generate anything like the sufficient number of jobs to absorb
the large numbers of young people coming of age. Youth unemployment in
Saudi Arabia, for example, is an estimated 43% for 20-24 year olds, and
figures exceeding 30% are replicated across the Middle East. The result
is dashed expectations for a generation of youth that are better
educated and more aware of alternative pathways than ever. Regimes are
endangered by the interlinking of socio-economic frustrations with a
widespread belief that advancement under current conditions is
impossible. One chant in Cairo’s Tahrir Square encapsulated the feelings
of utter helplessness at the status quo: ‘We are prepared to die
because we are already dead.’

Anger at regimes’ perceived
inability to address economic stagnation has also targeted issues of
corruption and inequalities in social mobility. This was a lightning-rod
of dissent in the rapid escalation of the demonstrations against Ben
Ali in Tunisia. The popular outpouring of rage directed against the
President and his wife’s family was succinctly (if inadvertently)
summarised in a leaked US diplomatic cable as a ‘What’s yours is mine’
culture of avarice. Rising prices of food, fuel and basic everyday
services sharpened anger at corrupt officials and the states they
represented, as their opulent lifestyles and ostentatious wealth clashed
with lower and middle-income groups whose margin of subsistence had
been eroded by inflationary pressures.  From Morocco to the Gulf, the
internet and tools of new media opened up discussions about the enormous
and widening gap between social classes and the disparities in wealth
and incomes between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ They resonate most
strongly among youthful populations, whose greater exposure to non-state
controlled viewpoints coexists with their exclusion from economic
opportunities by corruption and other barriers to meritocracy.

New
media and advances in communications technologies are transforming the
terms of the debates between rulers and ruled. Regimes’ control over the
flow of information has rapidly eroded under the pressures of
globalisation. In Egypt, the government cut off the country’s internet
service providers and tried to prevent Al-Jazeera from broadcasting.
These were desperate measures that backfired as the protests continued,
and they inflicted enormous damage to the regime’s international and
economic credibility. Nevertheless it demonstrated the intense
vulnerability of autocracies to new methods of holding them to account
publicly. Blogging, social networking, and encrypted communications
technologies such as Skype and BlackBerry enable suppressed and
marginalised voices to make themselves heard to wide audiences both
locally and around the world. This undermines governments’
tried-and-tested stifling of dissent and opposition narratives.

The
synthesis of new media and younger populations is therefore dismantling
the system of controls and filters carefully constructed and maintained
by ministries of information and government media. Together they are
shining a light into murky authoritarian depths and providing new forms
of private, public and virtual space in which activists can mobilise,
organise and channel participatory demands. Al-Jazeera’s online
streaming of the popular revolution in Egypt saw its viewing figures all
over the world increase by 2500%. Similarly, they represent new forums
for debate and coordination of activities that stretch across national
boundaries and overcome barriers of time and space. These trends are
reconfiguring the composition of opposition movements and facilitating
the linking of social and economic grievances to demands for political
reform. The resulting realignments are transformative in their broad
dissemination of messages that far exceed – and bring together –hitherto
narrowly-based oppositional groups in (temporary) coalitions of
sustained protest. 

Conflicts and moments of rupture often are
sparked by the convergence of external pressures and internal fissures.
Rising food and commodity prices exacerbated schisms within societies
and widened existing fault-lines between authoritarian regimes and their
citizens. The role of new media in documenting and transmitting the
feelings of shame and humiliation that drove Bouazizi to his death also
hit a very deep nerve in people across the region. This intersection of a
lost generation bereft of hope for a better life with the
hyper-modernising forces of the internet and satellite television hits
the tired, elderly regimes at their weakest point. It exposes their
manifest failure to govern freely or even fairly and their instinctive
reaction to suppress, rather than engage, an increasingly organised and
vocal opposition. The Egyptian government’s attempt to cut off global
communications revealed it to be naïve, anachronistic and completely out
of touch with the modern world. It will be harder, now, for regimes to
repress and torture dissenters into submission without being held to
public (if not yet judicial) account for their actions. This reality is
radically eroding the ability of authoritarian leaderships to intimidate
domestic opponents, and revealing the fragility of their narrow social
base of support after decades of ruling through coercion rather than
consent.

 

*    *    *

Can
the upheaval in the Arab world be compared to the revolutions that
swept Eastern Europe in 1989? Is this indeed the ‘Arab 1989’? While
comparisons of events across time and place can be misleading, examining
what was distinctive about the events of 1989 can provide some clues to
the significance of current events. The political transformation of
Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania were
sweeping, dramatic and unexpected. They constituted a revolutionary
situation that decisively overturned seemingly immovable regimes in a
matter of months. However they were also linked to slow yet significant
processes and changes that gathered momentum over the preceding decade.
Thus the trajectories that culminated so visibly in the fall of the Iron
Curtain and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989-90 had roots
stretching at least to the early 1980s.

Significant political
changes were underway in Eastern Europe in the early 1980s. In Poland,
the Solidarity trade union movement began in 1980 and spearheaded a mass
movement for freedom and self-determination. It survived the regime’s
attempted repressive crackdown in 1981 and gradually created an
independent civil society sphere by fostering independent networks of
information, cultural exchange and social relations. Meanwhile the
late-1980s also witnessed important shifts in political emphasis in the
Soviet Union itself, linked to the perestroika reform process
initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev. A profound shift in strategic thinking
occurred, from the Brezhnev Doctrine (protecting the ‘achievements of
socialism’ by force if necessary, as in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia
in 1968 and Poland in 1981) to the Sinatra Doctrine (tolerating
nationally chosen paths – ‘Do it your way’). This had decisive
consequences for the Soviet bloc as the removal of the threat of
coercion and Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe accelerated
centrifugal forces and eroded regimes’ ability to suppress opposition by
force.

Emerging schisms also reflected the impact of long-term
pressures on the Soviet economy. Soviet economic stagnation stemmed in
part from its lack of integration into the world economy, which provided
short-term protection from competitive productivity elsewhere but left
it weak and uncompetitive in the longer-term. Rigid and relatively
inflexible centrally administered structures were put under additional
strain by the renewed arms race following the intensification of the
Cold War in the early-1980s. This placed a much greater (relative)
burden on economic and human resources in the Soviet Union and the
crumbling infrastructure of the Soviet economy. The declining economic
situation and the move toward toleration of distinctive national
pathways to reform constituted a deep ‘legitimation crisis’ of state
socialist societies, and represented a proximate cause of the
revolutions in 1989. 

How do these events compare or contrast to
the unfolding developments in the Arab world? Four common elements and
one contrast may be discerned. Economic stagnation in authoritarian Arab
economies is rooted in similarly uncompetitive and knowledge-deficient
economic structures. With the partial exception of the oil- and
gas-producing states, regional economies are falling further behind at a
time of accelerating innovation and knowledge-intensity in the global
economy. Many Arab economies have largely been bypassed by processes of
globalisation analogous to the Soviet bloc’s marginalisation in the
world economy in the last century. This initially shielded Arab
economies from competitive pressures and from the direct impact of the
global financial crisis of 2007-9. However, its deeper significance lies
in the general failure of Arab regimes, despite some patchy programmes
of ‘infitah’, to develop sustainable economic structures independent of
state support and capable of competing in global markets.

This
links to the second commonality, which is the failure of authoritarian
regimes to present a viable alternative model for meeting the
socio-economic challenges they confront. Structural problems of rampant
un- and under-employment, inflexible and stratified labour markets, and
profound imbalances between overbearing public and weak private sectors
coexist alongside emerging problems posed by rising food and commodity
prices, periodic lapses in flows of remittances from expatriate
labourers, and volatile revenue streams from external ‘rents’, whether
oil and gas prices or income from tourism. Regimes’ inability to offer
the prospect of a better quality of life-chances to their
increasingly-youthful citizens compounds the difficulties of managing an
orderly transition to a new political generation with its own
distinctive social and cultural background and differing perceptions and
priorities. This occurred in the Soviet bloc in the mid- to late-1980s
with the rise to power of Gorbachev. Arab regimes today face the task of
reconciling the clash between the old guard and a generation of youth
they fail to represent or understand. 

Heightened awareness of
alternative political and economic pathways to development are a third
characteristic common both to 1989 and 2011. Just as the growth of
Solidarity in Poland throughout the 1980s, civic activism and reform
movements in Hungary and mass petitions and anti-Communist
demonstrations in Czechoslovakia in 1988-89 raised expectations of
change, so the current revolutionary wave is opening the prospect of a
political reordering in the Arab world. As in 1989, previously-solid
assumptions regarding the possibility of regime change are being
overturned as long-entrenched leaders fall from power, initiate
timetables for hitherto-unthinkable political handovers, and are forced
into making substantial concessions limiting their authority. The role
of new media in facilitating and transforming the shift in the terms of
debate and discourse is quantitatively, but not qualitatively, different
from the 1980s, when improvements to communications and changing forms
of media also bypassed state controls to penetrate largely-closed
societies.

The fourth commonality is the role of religion in
providing a mobilising counterforce to stagnating autocratic rule. In
Eastern Europe, the Catholic Church played a powerful role in organising
and shaping dissent in Poland, while it organised a mass petition in
Czechoslovakia in 1987 in support of religious freedom. At the time it
represented the largest opposition petition in Eastern Europe and
demonstrated the Church’s function as a strong opposition group. Islam,
too, shares a capacity to organise different voices behind questions of
social (as well as religious) justice. Public attention in the west is
(wrongly) fixated upon the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and political
Islam in allegedly directing the anti-regime protests, but it is
undeniably the case that mosques and Friday prayers do provide
significant spaces to raise core issues of social and political
organisation that regimes would much rather leave untouched.

Nevertheless
these four issues are counterbalanced by the very different role of the
west and the international community, and by the clarity of the
alternative to authoritarianism. People in Eastern Europe in 1989 called
for open societies, market forces, public accountability and consumer
choice. The alternative to communism was very clear and involved the
breaking up of old centrally-organised structures, integration with the
west and the international arena, and the creation of democratic
governments with market economies. Demonstrators and opposition leaders
had a wholly positive view of the United States and the west, which in
turn welcomed and embraced the revolutions as they unfolded. The
alignment of interests between Eastern Europe and the west facilitated
the political transition toward democratisation and their eventual
integration into NATO and the European Union.

No such smooth
conformity exists in the interactions between the advocates of change in
the Arab world and the west. Relations have been strained by the events
of 9/11 and their aftermath. The ‘war on terror’ involved two western
military interventions into Arab and Islamic states and unleashed chaos
and bloodshed in the name of stability and democracy. The crusading zeal
of the George W. Bush administration and its British ally polarised
feelings in the Arab world and fuelled the militant and extremist
ideologies opposing them. Meanwhile the twin spectres of terrorism and
the rise of political Islam have complicated the relationship between
the Arab world and the international community, as well as the potential
role that the west might play in supporting processes of change in the
Middle East.

Additional uncertainty stems from the fragmentation
of opposition movements. It is not yet clear whether their coalescing
behind calls for political change will survive beyond the revolutionary
moment. The difficulty of sustaining momentum beyond this point has been
amply demonstrated in the messy and incomplete aftermath of the Rose
and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003-4. Neither do the
opposition groups share any great degree of broad agreement about the
direction of possible alternatives to autocratic rule. Fundamental
differences of opinion exist around critical issues such as attitudes
toward western models and the role of religion in society. Although the
cross-unity of purpose between Islamists and secularists has been
strikingly prevalent in the demonstrations across the region, these
divisions will come to the surface in any transition. Opposition
movements are also vulnerable to regime attempts to manipulate and widen
these divisions in a continuation of longstanding policies of divide
and rule through selective co-optation of groups and demands.
Importantly, no Arab equivalent of Gorbachev has emerged as a figurehead
for reform within, and eventually beyond, the authoritarian system.

The
present is a moment of great promise, opportunity and uncertainty. The
Arab world stands at the brink of transformative changes to ossified
political regimes and, in increasing numbers, ordinary people are
willing to risk their lives to force a break with the past. Demands for
reform have shaken the tottering autocrats and brutally exposed their
repressive nature in the face of mass calls for political freedom,
democracy and human rights. Neither will the taste of freedom of
expression and assembly enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of
demonstrators be easily contained or re-sealed. Meanwhile the impact of
the internet and new media on burgeoning youth populations will only
grow over time, making any attempts to cling to the status quo all the
more unsustainable. These trajectories will have profound domestic
repercussions that will play out over years and decades. On the other
hand, western (and Israeli) nervousness at the weakening of their
regional partners may also translate into support for partial reforms
that jettison unpopular leaders but sustain underlying authoritarian
structures. The choices that will be made in coming weeks and months
will largely determine whether the groundswell of demonstrations in the
Arab world yield meaningful transitions from autocracy to substantive
democratisation, or whether the west continues to prioritise stability
over democracy even in the face of such affirmation of universal values
by so many people throughout the Arab world. 

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Research Fellow at London School of Economics Global Governance. David
Held is Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science at the LSE and Political Science and Co-Director of LSE Global
Governance. Alia Brahimi is a Research Fellow at LSE Global Governance.
This article first appeared on openDemocracy.net and has been republished under a Creative Commons licence.