Regional Context

The Regional Context: Arab Spring and Beyond

Large parts of the Muslim World have been experiencing the most fundamental political changes since decades. Beginning with the overthrow of Tunisia’s President Ben Ali and continuing with the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt a dynamic seemed to unfold, to also sweepaway more of the autocratic regimes in the region. But the civil war in Libya, the subsequent international military intervention, as well as the violence in Bahrain, Yemen and the escalating civil war in Syria made clear that the protest movements would not automatically lead to more liberal or democratic political systems. The developments in different countries follow very different paths, and they do not always progress peacefully. Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries differ considerably in regard tothe forms and developments of their body politics, culture, their societal and political structures, the degree of socio-economic development and the strength of civil society. All these factors play their part in how far social and political changes lead to peaceful transformations or turn violent.

© Ahmed Khalifa

Although the point in time, the speed and strength of the political changes may have been surprising, the demonstrations and uprisings did not happen without reason or out of thin air. Harbingers of the present upheavals can be identified in a number of countries of the region. Already in 2005 in Lebanon, triggered by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, mass demonstrations led to the resignation of the government – a case unseen in the Arab world thitherto – and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. In the same year a protest movement developed in Egypt that opposed the extension of President Mubarak’s term in office and went to the streets under the slogan “Kifaya!” (“Enough!”) in order to demand political reforms. In 2007/2008 mass demonstrations, often headed by lawyers, led to the resignation of military ruler Musharraf in Pakistan. The largest mobilization by far took place in 2009 in Iran. Up to three million people demonstrated against what was widely perceived as electoral fraud and called for democratic governance. Besides these large scale demonstrations, in a number of countries like Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Jordan and Yementemporarily and geographically limited protests took place, often ignited by rising food prices or local events.

© Ahmed Khalifa

Many of the mass mobilizations and uprisings were either defeated or pre-empted by the rulers through intimidation and violence or were de-escalated by offers of limited reform or financial largess. In most cases, the problems and underlying conflict constellations were not tackled, though. All of these events and developments are evidence of a broad change in Middle Eastern societies. In contrast to often fossilized power structures and ruling systems the respective societies have developed immensely. In a lot of countries increasingly self-confident middle classes emerged that strive for more political participation.

© Ahmed Khalifa

Up to now, the Arab Spring has brought about changes of government in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In some cases the hoped-for transition to more democratic, more pluralistic political systems respecting the rule of law has proven very difficult and produced situations of crisis, like in Egypt. In other countries, the transition took the form of violent power struggles, of which the Syrian civil war is its worst case.