The Arab uprisings triggered a fierce regional counter-mobilization by threatened regimes and the elites who benefited from the status quo. This resurgent autocracy did simply restore the old order, however. It created new forms of populist mobilization and established new relationships among civil and military state institution. In May 2016, the Project on Middle East Political Science and Oxford University’s Middle East Center convened a workshop to dig deeply into the new regional politics generated by the authoritarian reconstruction.
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The effects and legacies of the Arab uprisings need to be placed into a broader comparative perspective in order to avoid drawing the wrong conclusions. It has become commonplace to assign the blame for the failures of the Arab uprisings to the problems of Arab culture, the unique nature of Islamist movements, or the distinctive pathologies of Arab civil society and political opposition movements. But as crushing as they may have been, were the failures of uprisings (such as Egypt’s) to produce lasting democratic change really so unusual?
In his keynote presentation to the workshop, Mark Beissinger observed that some two-thirds of revolutionary episodes since 1900 had ended in the failure of the opposition to gain power and the survival of the incumbent regime. Of the third that succeeded, almost a third of these cases lasted in power only three or years or less.
It is all too common to see reversals of the gains made by popular uprisings. Indeed, relative successes like Tunisia’s are the exception anywhere – not just in the Arab context. “Most new democracies fail,” observes Charles Kurzman. Since the late 18th century, the pattern has been “waves of democratization leading to waves of disillusionment.”
As Beissinger trenchantly noted at the workshop, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 — like Egypt’s in 2011:
[W]as spectacularly successful in mobilizing millions of citizens to the streets in order to evict a corrupt and repressive regime, and it was spectacularly unsuccessful in institutionalizing substantive change in its wake. Once it gained power, the coalition underpinning the revolution unraveled and its leaders became engulfed in factional squabbles over the redistribution of property, leading to gridlock. Within two years of the revolution, those whom the revolution evicted from power had won their way back to political office through the ballot box, undermining any sense that a revolution had ever occurred. The main legacy of the Orange Revolution when viewed from the vantage point of today was to set the stage for the societal disappointment that helped precipitate a new revolution in 2013-14.
Political change is hard. It is almost always partial, nonlinear, and unsatisfying. Elites may be driven from political office, but they do not so easily lose their wealth, social capital, or international connections. Real political change always faces resistance from the powerful social and political forces which benefited from the previous order.
But for all of this, it’s wrong to simply say the Arab uprising failed.
The uprisings have caused profound changes to the region’s politics, some for the better and some for the worse. As Jillian Schwedler astutely argues, the declaration that the uprisings are over should be understood as a political narrative which aims to demoralize and demobilize challengers and to normalize the new order. Egypt’s military seized power from an elected President with significant elite-led mobilization, restored parts of the old elite to power, and cracked down relentlessly on the Muslim Brotherhood and political activists. It rules uneasily over a young and restless population which has seen the power of the streets, has little condidence or interest in its political institutions, and is suffering from a collapsing currency and unaddressed economic problems. Barely five years into the process, it is far too soon to know with certainty which of these outcomes will ultimately prove more significant.
The essays collected in this volume range widely over the Middle East, surveying the methods and modalities of the autocratic backlash. Rory McCarthy shows how Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda adapted to the autocratic era by dividing party from movement. Courtney Freer explains how the Gulf states cracked down on Islamist movements. Reinoud Leenders traces the rhetorical and physical violence of the initial response to the Syrian uprisings. Walter Armbrust evokes the figure of the trickster in the capture of Egypt’s transition. Neil Ketchley shows how the Egyptian state engineered the June 30 protests. Amy Austin Holmes traces ongoing moments of popular resistance to autocracy in Egypt. Sune Haugbolle argues for the importance of ideology in understanding the post-uprising events. Lisel Hintz analyzes the rhetorical strategies of Turkey’s crackdown on the Gezi Park protests. Steffen Hertog details the political economy of the surviving regimes and the fate of their distributional bargains.
These diverse and challenging essays show profoundly that the challenges which produced the Arab uprisings remains unresolved. How those grievances present themselves in the near future will be shaped by the political, institutional, economic and rhetorical choices now being made by the region’s resurgent autocrats.
—Marc Lynch, July 28, 2016