Most signs point to disintegration. Syria has been destroyed and bled to death, Yemen bitterly poor and battered by war, Libya marked by years of chaos, armed power struggles and militia rule. In Egypt, a paranoid and murderous military regime is enforcing cemetery silence. Lebanon, where millions of Syrian refugees are waiting, is collapsing. Iraq is in a crisis that could unleash an even greater destructive force. The future seems even more bleak than the present: booming populations meet economies in decline, in which very few people can find work. Emaciated and broken societies meet armed elites who cling to their power and block the way out of the misery. A symbol of the ongoing decline is the broken grain silo that juts out of the devastated port area in the Lebanese capital Beirut like a memorial. A tremendous explosion, which was the result of the arrogance and indifference of those in power, carried out the self-destruction in fast motion.
The contrast between the panorama of disintegration that the Arab world offers today and the hopeful scenes of the popular uprisings that shook it in 2011 could hardly be greater. Ten years ago, in the Tunisian provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. His act of desperation awakened his country, then the whole region, completely unexpectedly. After decades of apathy against ossified regimes, societies rebelled and demanded “bread and dignity”.
They overthrew dictators whose rule seemed set in stone. First Ben Ali in Tunisia, then Husni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar al Gaddafi, the last one to give up was the Yemeni ruler Ali Abdullah Salih. A tension broke out in the population of the MENA region: their countries no longer belong to the rulers of tyranny. Rather, people now took their fate into their own hands. They wanted to recapture the state that brought them nothing but corrupt, condescending officials and brutal security apparatus.
The brief period of hope was followed by years of horror, for which nothing stands as aptly as the conquests of the “Islamic State”, religious fanatism and its pseudo-caliphate. Their strategists used the chaos for a perverted alternative to the failing states of the region. Nevertheless, the collective tantrum of the Arabellion, which at the time was naively transfigured into an “Arab Spring”, was not in vain.
Historical upheavals are neither in a straight line nor in one direction. Anyone who had taken stock of the French Revolution ten years after the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 would have come to a sobering conclusion. First came the terror of the guillotine and a phase of restoration. The effectiveness of the uprising in Paris and the ideas of the revolution only became obvious decades later.
The Arabellion marks a turning point. It broke open encrustations and started a movement. Young activists speak of themselves as part of a generation that was politicized by the events of that time. The year 2019 saw a second wave of mass protests. They were now challenging the regimes in Algeria and Sudan, and the demands of the demonstrators in Iraq and Lebanon went beyond those of the Arabellion. They want their countries to be re-established as modern nation-states and an end to the system that divides countries along religious and ethnic lines. The change processes are so profound and complex that the following generations will also suffer from their pain. National identities, the relationship between religion and politics and the state, the relationship between the individual and the state, and economic participation must be clarified.
It’s about new Arab social contracts. In the days of the Arabellion, people showed solidarity and civil courage. It was the dictators who then stirred up the chaos they had always warned against. While the regime unleashed gangs of thugs on the demonstrators in Cairo, young police officers took off their uniforms in the street, local residents threw them new pants, and a young woman enthusiastically explained on Tahrir Square that her compatriots had never looked out for each other.
In the Libyan capital Tripoli, Gaddafi’s troops were still fighting bitter retreats when bearded militia officers lined up at the entrance of a hotel, placed assault rifles on the luggage scanner and had their belongings checked. In revolutionary Tunis, tear gas hung in the streets and snipers of the fallen dictator Ben Ali were up to mischief when a lawyer announced that in this chaos he would not even throw his tissue on the floor. “I’m not doing it because I’m a citizen of this country, a citizen,” he said. But only in his country did things change for the better. Bloody conflicts broke out elsewhere. There was no consensus for a joint rebuilding.
The failure of the state had driven the people into the streets, weariness had united them. Because the states only have a modern facade. The rulers around the military and security apparatus see the country as a benefice, and so they use the resources of the state to access the resources. Corruption is endemic because of a lack of transparency and accountability, and the distribution of income and wealth is as unequal as in few other parts of the world because people are denied fair participation. Governance is bad and administrations are excruciatingly inefficient.
However, the activists who opposed all of this were quickly marginalized. They had neither a practicable alternative nor the political force to implement one. And they faced regimes, whose persistence many had underestimated. An Egyptian revolutionary already knew: “We only cut off the head of the monster.” They lacked allies that Hannah Arendt would have called “professional revolutionaries”, that is, people with political weight but unsullied names, who are capable to seize “the power in the street”.
After decades in which the rulers had flattened political discourse, however, there was no political debate worth mentioning and no competition of ideas. Only the Muslim Brotherhood was organized, it also had an alternative proposal, that of political Islam. And so in 2012 in Egypt, a man from the military and a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood competed against each other in the final vote of the presidential election. The latter won, but the generals won the ensuing power struggle, and in the summer of 2013 the security forces in Cairo carried out a massacre that left more than a thousand deaths when they stormed the protest camps of supporters of the ousted President Muhammad Morsi.
Years of unprecedented repression and unrealistic propaganda followed, which itself blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for damage caused by storms. In Tunisia, the Islamists, but also the seculars, were moderate and smart enough to compromise. That was not the only reason that succeeded there what failed in Egypt, for example: an open debate about the role of religion, democratic elections, political participation. The social foundation was also more stable and broader. Organizations like the trade unions acted as mediators. A high-ranking European diplomat was already amazed at all the democracy workshops during the time of the transitional government, while Tunisia needs one thing above all: help to get the economy going and to create jobs.
Europe looks perplexed and without a common strategy at the disintegration south of the Mediterranean. France, burdened by its colonial past, is pursuing an elite-oriented policy and helping to cement the situation in North Africa. Germany is even more likely to try to support a transformation by strengthening civil societies, insofar as this is possible at all. This is often done according to the watering can principle and too little with strategic partners who could show noticeable success, but are also difficult to identify. Europe will be affected if the disintegration of the Arab world continues. The past few years have shown that if hope for change dwindles, for example in the Maghreb countries, more young people are making their way north, including those who are needed to rebuild their societies. Europe shouldn’t let itself be fooled by dictators like Abd al Fattah al Sisi: Cooperation with repressive regimes only creates a deceptive and short-term calm. In the long term, however, they stand in the way of stability and are also a threat to Europe.
The generals in Cairo have long been dependent on the help of authoritarian patrons from the Gulf to secure their rule. Since the historical Arab regional powers have failed, the United Arab Emirates are increasingly taking over the lead by doing everything possible, even with the most modern Arab army, to maintain the status quo against the forces of change, whether with interventions in Egypt or Libya, in Sudan or in Yemen.
The rich Gulf monarchies, on the other hand, offer their subjects prosperity and a functioning administration, in return they demand obedience and loyalty, which they also enforce using police-state methods. So far, this has been successful because they have more money to distribute and the population is smaller and much more homogeneous than those in the Levant or North Africa. But they too will find it increasingly difficult to fulfill this social contract.
Saudi Arabia is no longer able to provide a job for the 400,000 young people who enter the labor market every year. The generation conflict will become more pressing the less the leaders can offer. Even today, the young people, among whom the worn-out stories of the old elites are no longer caught, are carrying the protests.
The UN expects the population of the Arab world to increase by more than 200 million people by 2050. In Egypt it is growing by two million people every year. The Egyptian army controls two-thirds of the country’s economy, its companies pay no taxes, and they barely create jobs. The wave of unemployed young people pushing the country in front of it is getting bigger and bigger. In addition, the demographic pressure is also leading to a lack of schools and housing, draining the infrastructure, which is considerably deteriorating. Climate change will also make life more difficult. The dictatorships in North Africa and the Levant are not prepared for this. Because they are unjust and inefficient, and they divide populations in order to be able to control them better. But in doing so they destroy the foundation for a new construction. The Libyans can tell you a thing or two about it – and above all the Syrians. Bashar al Assad exceeded the limits of humanity further than anyone.
In Damascus, the former middle class is now queuing up to buy bread, begging for medication and longing to flee abroad. The words with which a resident describes the conditions are an Arabic sign: “We are only zombies in a landscape of ruins.”