Marina Ottaway and David Ottaway
Dr. Marina Ottaway is a Middle East Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. She previously directed the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dr. David Ottaway is a Wilson Center Middle East Fellow and former Washington Post Middle East correspondent.
A second wave of uprisings broke out in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq during 2019 and gives no sign of abating. There is no doubt it will have important repercussions for the affected countries, just as the first wave did. The question is whether the outcome will be what the protesters would like or, as happened in the case of the first wave in 2011, the consequences will prove deeply disappointing and leave these countries mired in worse authoritarianism than before, even in chaos.
The 2011 protests that shook the Arab world were initially hailed as a turning point for the region. Authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were overthrown, and those in Syria and Yemen appeared destined to follow suit. As these uprisings petered out, however, with only intermittent and ineffectual explosions of rage in the following years, elation turned into disillusionment. Nothing had changed, observers and activists lamented, and democracy remained as elusive as ever. The old authoritarian leaders were replaced by even more authoritarian military regimes. Countries that had succeeded in nipping uprisings in the bud had done so by enacting minor reforms that did not affect the power equation that favored the old elite, as in Morocco, or by showering their citizens with largesse, as in the rich Gulf states. Protesters who had bravely taken to the streets and stood up to authoritarian and corrupt regimes had been sidelined everywhere. Discontent was rife, manifested in continuing demonstrations and low participation in elections many concluded would not change anything. Once again, the authoritarianism deeply embedded in the system of Arab governance had prevailed. Tunisia, where a multiparty system had replaced a dictatorship, remained a lonely outlier.
We disagree with this widely held assessment. It is based on a narrow definition of change, confusion between revolutions and democratic transitions, and general disregard for the complexities and slow pace of all political change. We believe that the events of 2011 had a profound impact on the region, comparable to the transformation brought about by the end of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and by the spread of Nasser’s ideology of Arab socialism in the 1950s and 1960s. Those events changed the region forever, sometimes for better but often for worse. Three of the countries into which the colonial powers carved the Ottoman Empire — Syria, Lebanon and Iraq — remain nonconsolidated states with uncertain futures a century later. And many Arab countries are still struggling to overcome the Nasserist legacy of statist economies and subsidization of food and services they can no longer afford.
The consequences of the 2011 events have been profound and irreversible. This assessment is based on repeated visits during and after the 2011 uprisings and on innumerable interviews and observations. These consequences are a mixed bag in terms of their impact on the future of the region. Countries that experienced uprisings have not become more democratic, with the exception of Tunisia. Egypt has become more authoritarian; Syria, Libya and Yemen are hardly functioning as states and are now heavily influenced, if not controlled, by outside powers. Protesters are deeply disillusioned everywhere. Still, the region is quite different now, and whatever trajectory it will follow in the future starts from the present situation, not from what existed before 2011.
One factor has remained constant in the region: political elites in 2019 do not appear any more reconciled with the idea that political change is necessary than they did in 2011. We are not implying that in the rest of the world ruling elites give up power voluntarily and without resistance. In countries facing major political and economic problems, however, elites often divide between those who cling to the status quo at all costs and those who believe the old system of governance has become unsustainable and reforms are mandatory. This was the main conclusion extracted from an influential series of studies of transitions from authoritarianism to democracy in Latin America and Southern Europe carried out in the 1970s.1 In all countries that experienced a transition, elites were divided; at least a part were convinced they had to accept change if they wanted to retain their influence. The result in some cases was what the authors called “pacted transitions,” in which the old elites reached an agreement with new political forces. So far, there is little evidence that such divisions are emerging in the Arab region, except in Sudan, as we shall see.
THE EMERGENCE OF FOUR WORLDS
When millions of discontented citizens first took to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen in rapid succession between December 2010 and April 2011, protesters were somewhat naïve in their expectations and certainly ill-prepared. They did not have a plan of action beyond mobilizing large numbers of people. They did not have well-articulated manifestos or even lists of demands beyond generic mantras like “freedom,” “dignity” and “the dictator must go.” Not only were they not organized for a long-term struggle to change the regime, many rejected on principle even the idea of creating formal organizations like political parties, believing hierarchies were anti-democratic and leadership should remain diffuse.
On the other side of the divide, governments remained supremely confident that they did not have to make serious concessions to remain in control. If some in the ranks of the elite believed reform was necessary, they did not have much influence. Instead, the regimes clamped down immediately, or at least sought to do so. The military took direct control in Egypt, forcing President Hosni Mubarak to step aside. The leaders of Libya, Syria and Yemen fought to stay in power, and their stubbornness eventually triggered civil wars. The Gulf Arab monarchies simply distributed billions to their citizens and to all possible organizations without giving serious thought to the possibility of political reform. Only the king of Morocco proved more subtle: at the first sign of protest, he quickly engineered constitutional reform that de facto left his power intact but gave opposition parties a greater role in governance. Tunisia emerged as the only country where an uprising led to real political change, in part more by accident than by design. President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali left to take his family to Saudi Arabia for safety, intending to return immediately to set things straight, but he was prevented from going back. The resulting power vacuum led to an open-ended process of change that birthed a multiparty democracy.
Although protesters soon lost control over unfolding events, the uprisings had real consequences, some affecting the entire region and others specific countries. First, all Arab governments are now taking the complaints and demands of their citizens more seriously. They have learned through direct experience, or by observing uprisings in neighboring countries, that they can no longer count on their citizens to remain quiescent as in the past. Just before the uprising in Egypt, we were assured by a high-ranking political official that President Mubarak would have no trouble transferring power to his son because Egyptians were docile people. No Arab official would make such a statement today, not out of political correctness but because rulers have learned the hard way that even usually passive citizens can rise up. Governments have developed a new fear of their citizens, which unfortunately tends to transform into repression rather than recognition of political rights. Citizens, for their part, have not lost all fear of government, but they have gained a new sense of the power of the street and a new willingness to challenge governments.
Street protests have become a normal part of political life in the Arab world today, just as they are elsewhere. It is worthwhile pointing out that one of the most enduring legacies of the French revolution of 1789 is the propensity of French citizens to take to the streets whenever they disagree with the government of the day.
Most changes that have occurred since 2011 are specific to particular countries or regions. It is easier to understand what is happening by accepting that there is no single Arab world, but four “worlds,” each affected by the uprisings in different and distinct ways. We have discussed these differences at length in our recent book, A Tale of Four Worlds: The Arab Region after the Uprisings. Space will only allow us to point briefly to some of the most notable outcomes to give readers a sense of how different the consequences have been.
Tunisia and, to some extent, Morocco are the success stories of the uprisings, though neither country can be considered a consolidated democracy. In fact, Morocco is still inching its way toward a constitutional monarchy, with a considerable way to go. However, both countries show that a mobilized citizenry can set into motion a process of meaningful political reform. What facilitated the outcome in both countries was an understanding by at least a part of the political elite that the old system could not restore stability. In neither country did the street protesters actually participate in the enactment of the reforms. In Tunisia, the initiative passed quickly to old-time politicians, the labor unions, civil-society groups and political parties, including the Islamist Ennahda, which had survived despite being banned under Ben Ali. The process did not represent democracy as an expression of high ideals, but democracy as it is in the real world, bargaining and compromises that do not satisfy anybody completely — democracy as sausage making, if you will. The many compromises struck by all sides blunted the extent of the transformation, allowing many politicians and business interests close to the old regime to retain their influence. In Morocco, the process was completely controlled from the top down, deftly engineered by the king and the palace to suggest progress toward constitutional monarchy without radically altering the power and prerogatives of the king.
In both countries, the most remarkable and often overlooked aspect of the transformation was the full integration of Islamist parties — which many Arab regimes consider terrorist organizations — into the legal political process. Since 2012 in Morocco, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), the leading Islamist group, has named the prime minister, although secular parties remain part of ruling coalitions. In Tunisia, Ennahda has been extremely cautious in not wanting to control the presidency or name the prime minister, except in the initial period, for fear of provoking a backlash from secularists. Nevertheless, Islamists remain the major political force because secular parties are badly fragmented.
The importance of this integration cannot be overstated. There can be no progress toward democracy in countries where Islamists have a lot of support unless they are accepted into the legal political process (the presence of secular parties in government is, of course, equally important but noncontroversial). A sign that Islamist parties in Tunisia and Morocco have become integrated into the political system is a comment we heard with increasing frequency in both countries: Islamist parties are now “normal” — with all the good and bad characteristics that entails.
The uprisings in the Maghreb were the beginning of a transformation — still uncertain, to be sure — away from authoritarianism. In Egypt, on the other hand, protest led to consolidation of the most authoritarian and repressive military regime the country has known since the 1950s and 1960s. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a long-existing, powerful committee of high-ranking officers, overthrew Mubarak, took the reins of power into its hands, and never really relinquished them. Although it allowed parliamentary elections to take place in early 2012, with the help of the Supreme Constitutional Court, it disbanded the new parliament within a few weeks after Muslim Brothers and Salafis won 70 percent of the seats. The SCAF also allowed presidential elections to take place, but announced that it would keep legislative power in its own hands until a new parliament was elected and did its best to undermine in all possible ways Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who had won the election. The overt takeover of power by the military in a coup d’état in July 2013 was the culmination of a process of ever greater and more overt military involvement that had started as soon as Mubarak was forced from power in February 2011.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the minister of defense who had engineered the coup against Morsi, was elected in 2014 as the country’s civilian president. He has been consolidating a regime dominated politically and economically by the military with the full support of most secular political parties, which lack confidence in their own ability to defeat Islamists at the polls. The entire leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is at present either in prison — where Morsi died in June 2019 — or in exile. The regime has confiscated the organization’s businesses and closed its schools, clinics and charitable organizations. It has also jailed at least 40,000 of its members and sympathizers.
Nine years after the onset of the uprising, Egypt is dominated by a military regime afraid of more protests breaking out at any moment and highly repressive as a result. It has banned all political activism by any party or civil society group. There is only a ubiquitous military and police state that tolerates no freedom of expression or of the media, nor any independent civil society organizations. In short, the regime seems determined to eliminate politics altogether.
Dire as the outcome of the uprising has been in Egypt, the state is still intact and strong. In the Levant, by contrast, civil wars and dysfunctional political regimes have eviscerated the state. Indeed, Syria and Iraq (as well as Libya and Yemen, which are not discussed here) demonstrate that a functioning political order other than a dictatorship requires first a functioning state.
In A Tale of Four Worlds, we concentrate on Syria and Iraq, countries created by colonial Britain and France after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. The new League of Nations mandated the two colonial powers to prepare Syria and Iraq for independence, not to rule them indefinitely. Thus, they had no incentive to invest heavily in state-building, and they did not. As a result, the two countries remained weak states with divided populations after a brief period of colonial rule that ended for Iraq in 1932 and Syria in 1946. The two countries saw strong states emerge under the dictatorships of Saddam in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria starting in the late 1960s. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, however, overthrew Saddam Hussein, greatly weakening the state once again and leaving its polity bitterly divided among feuding Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis. In Syria, the 2011 uprising turned almost immediately into a civil war, badly fragmenting the state. American and Iranian intervention in Iraq as well as Russian, Iranian and Turkish involvement in Syria preserved the two countries as distinct territorial entities, but not as sovereign or functioning states.
The chance that either Iraq or Syria will emerge as a cohesive, sovereign state in the near future appears slim. They might learn, however, to function as de facto nonstate countries, just as Lebanon has learned to do. In none of these three countries are the political elites capable of giving the state a sense of purpose or a vision for the future. Meanwhile, outside powers have no more incentive to invest heavily in state building than the mandatory powers did a century ago. The 2011 uprisings have laid bare the total failure of state building by outsiders in the Levant.
The Gulf Arab Monarchies
The last of our four worlds includes the six monarchies that belong to the optimistically named Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).2 These countries were scarcely affected by uprisings, except for Bahrain, where the Shiite majority rose up against its Sunni rulers, who were saved by the military intervention of Saudi Arabia. Yet all of them felt threatened by the possibility that the rampant discontent throughout the Arab region, in particular among its youth, would also erupt at home. They were right to be concerned. Gulf countries were changing rapidly, though unevenly. Their economies were growing and modernizing, but social change lagged far behind, and political change was almost nonexistent — six ruling families still control the Gulf countries single-handedly. They faced what Samuel Huntington has defined as the “king’s dilemma,” the possibility that the reforms monarchs instituted would in the end lead to their demise by unleashing new political forces destined to overwhelm them.3
Paradoxically, the Gulf monarchs’ reaction to the fear of unrest was to accelerate the same combination of measures they had already been undertaking. They showered money on their citizens (Kuwait handed out 1000 dinars, or $3,600, to every national) and launched or accelerated extremely ambitious economic modernization projects or visions, most notably Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom also loosened the draconian restrictions imposed on society by its ultra-conservative Wahhabi clerics and brought into the country Western concerts, movies and sporting events at which women could be spectators. Women were finally allowed to drive and leave the country without a male guardian’s permission.
Alone among the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia also introduced dramatic political reforms, but they aimed at increasing the power of the king, not giving a voice to citizens. By nominating his son Mohammed, still in his thirties, as crown prince, King Salman put an end to the tradition of the crown being transferred laterally from brother to brother among the sons of the country’s founder. This system had put on the throne a series of septuagenarian and even octogenarian kings in a country where 70 percent of the population is under 24 years of age. By making his son rather than a brother crown prince, King Salman made clear that power would now pass to the next generation. Perhaps even more consequential, the young crown prince immediately ended the Al-Saud practice of power sharing among different branches of the very large family, seeking instead to assert the absolute authority of the king and his crown prince over the kingdom. Mohammed has made clear that even the most popular reforms, such as curbing the religious establishment or allowing women to drive, will be enacted strictly from the top and that popular demands of any kind will not be tolerated.
WHITHER THE SECOND WAVE?
The new wave of uprisings that broke out in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon during 2019 will undoubtedly also bring about country- or region-specific changes. The looming question is this: will protesters again be sidelined, or have they learned lessons from the earlier wave to become better tacticians and strategists in their quest for change? Equally important is the question of whether the governing elites facing this new wave of uprisings have also learned lessons from their predecessors and are exercising greater flexibility in handling the challenge from the street. Since the second wave of protest is still unfolding at the time of this writing, the answers to these questions are bound to be extremely tentative. Still, it is already clear that events are taking different paths in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon. Thus, the four countries need to be discussed individually.
So far, Sudan presents the clearest picture and may emerge as the first example of a “pacted transition” anywhere in the Arab world. The country seems to be jettisoning the military authoritarianism of President Omar Bashir, ousted in April 2019 after 30 years in power. This came about thanks to actions taken by both protesters and the military, which has historically dominated the Sudanese political scene with only a few brief intervals of civilian rule.
Protests in Sudan started in December 2018, and initial events followed a pattern similar to Egypt. Daily demonstrations provoked the military into deposing Bashir, who had led them in a military coup in 1989 but had become an inconvenient presence by 2019. Again, following a familiar scenario, the military set up a Transitional Military Council to govern the country. But then events started diverging from the Egyptian course. Civilian protesters did not give up, even after a violent wave of repression in June 2019. Far from hailing the military as their savior, as Egyptians had done, the Sudanese continued to demonstrate against the military council. Most important, they continued to organize, bringing together a wide variety of old and new groups representing many segments of Sudanese society, including the old professional syndicates and new civil-society groups from various parts of the country. Professional syndicates, or associations of doctors, lawyers and academics, had been key participants in moments of crisis before. In fact, they had led the protests that brought down the regime of President Jaafar Nimeiri in 1985.
This time, the protesters united in one bloc, the Forces of Freedom and Change, and began negotiations with the military that lasted for three months. In mid-July, the two sides signed an agreement on a transition period of slightly over three years, during which the country would be governed by a council that would be headed by a military officer for the first 21 months of the transition period and by a civilian for the remaining 18. Elections would only take place at the end of the three years, to give time to new political parties to organize. The so-called Sovereignty Council was set up in late August, and a civilian government was established with members chosen by the Forces of Freedom and Change and led by an economist and career civil servant, Abdulla Hamdok.
A lot can still go wrong with the Sudanese transition. If military hardliners decide to keep power in their hands, civilians would most probably not be in a position to prevail. Despite the long-run uncertainty about the ultimate outcome, Sudan nevertheless shows that a civilian opposition can remain influential beyond the initial phase of street protest and take part in the building of a new system. The outline of a “pacted transition” has emerged in Sudan.
Protesters in Algeria also understood the importance of organization and peaceful tactics. They were aware both of what had allowed a relatively successful transition in Tunisia and of how their Sudanese counterparts had managed to negotiate their way into a power-sharing agreement with the military. But Algeria was still dominated by military leaders from the war of independence against France that had ended in 1962. They had wielded power for more than 60 years, either directly or in partnership with a civilian politician of their choosing. The military did cede to protesters’ demands that the wheelchair-bound President Abdelaziz Bouteflika not run for a fifth term in 2019, but this was as much change as its commanding officers were willing to consider.
The military also agreed under pressure from the street to postpone presidential elections from July to December, though it maintained control of the electoral process from start to finish. Thus, the five presidential candidates competing in the December 12 elections all came from previous Bouteflika governments, including two former prime ministers. One of the two, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 74, won the election, with the official turnout put at a historical low of 40 percent but widely believed to be much lower. The old political elite had dug in and successfully thwarted change. It may well prove a Pyrrhic victory of short duration: the opposition is not giving up its fight and has announced that protests will continue until the leaders of the war of independence retire from politics.
Algeria’s protesters do not have the benefit of strong professional syndicates and other organizations of civil society that existed in Sudan. Lawyers, judges and other professional groups at times expressed their solidarity with the street, but no organization similar to Sudan’s Forces of Freedom and Change has emerged so far to lead negotiations with the military. Nonetheless, the protesters have achieved one important victory. They devised new tactics of confrontation, keeping them strictly peaceful and limited to street demonstrations by students on Tuesdays and the general public on Fridays. This measured pace has made their protests sustainable. They have been taking place since February 2019 and could continue indefinitely since protesters can march in the street on weekends and still go to work or school on weekdays. If protest is sustained, there remains a possibility that voices will arise within the old military-dominated political elite calling for a different approach, as happened in Sudan. Although this elite and its opponents remained deadlocked at the end of 2019, it was too early to predict whether Algeria would follow the pattern of Egypt or Sudan.
Protest in Lebanon only started in mid-October. Nevertheless, it already looms as the least likely in the new wave to bring about any real change and give protesters a role in remaking the political system. Lebanon’s problem is not that the ruling elite is monolithic and united in opposition to change. Rather, it is fragmented among 18 officially recognized confessional groups, with the main ones, above all Sunnis and Maronite Christians, further splintered into fiefdoms. As a result, the system is extremely resistant to change; a real transformation would require reform not only at the central level of government but within the multitude of power centers.
Demonstrators have made it clear that they oppose the entire confessional system as well as the complicated election law that allocates power among the country’s confessional sects. It is quite likely that a new election law will be enacted; this happens periodically in Lebanon. The underlying power-sharing formula among political factions, however, is not based on the election law. It is the result of Saudi-mediated negotiations among the main Lebanese factions in their long-running civil war that led to the National Reconciliation Accord signed in 1989 in Taif, Saudi Arabia. This agreement has kept a fragile peace in Lebanon ever since.
Lebanon is de facto a nonstate country: an internationally recognized independent country without a functioning state. There is no center against which protesters can push, no central authority with which they can negotiate. The “street” caused Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign in November 2019, but he returned the next month when no agreement could be reached on an alternative prime minister among those very same sectarian leaders the protesters want banished from politics. Four months later, the selection of a new prime minister remained plagued by uncertainties. Nor have the protesters put forth a candidate. Although the ancien régime is far too fragmented to tackle the mounting problems of the country, ranging from a deep financial crisis to an inability to collect garbage, it remains deeply entrenched. Perhaps even more ominous is the fact that it appears to retain support outside the ranks of the protesters. Opinion polls carried out in November show that Shia support for the main Shiite party, Hezbollah, remains extremely high, while the attitudes of Sunnis and Christians toward it have become more negative.4 So far, the sectarian system and the old elites are proving more enduring than the protesters.
The situation in Iraq, where protests also broke out in October, is the most fluid and thus the most unpredictable. Two points are clear: protesters give no sign of desisting, but as of late 2019, they did not appear to have clear goals or a strategy to attain them. Nor did they have a leadership or organization ready to open negotiations with the government, even if the incumbents were open to dialogue. Furthermore, the Shiite-led government seems paralyzed as to how to deal with the protesters, who are mostly Shia themselves. It has wavered over the use of violence to end the demonstrations in Baghdad and Shiite towns in the southeast, but still has resorted to shooting protesters repeatedly. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reported that by the end of November, more than 350 Iraqis had died and more than 8,000 had been wounded, admitting that the real numbers were probably higher.5
The background to the uprising is what we call the “democracy trap,” in which the country found itself invaded in 2003, toppling Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated regime. This trap was laid in 2005 with the adoption of a new, largely American-written constitution that gave the country a multiparty system based on both elections and sectarian quotas. The system worked in favor of the majority Shia and the autonomous Kurdish region in the north but left the minority Sunni population fearful for its future. Inevitably, Sunnis felt marginalized, and many turned for protection first to al-Qaeda in Iraq and then to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which seized control of a third of the country and its second largest city, Mosul, in 2014.
Supported by the Shia majority, the political system has become untouchable — it is, after all, a multiparty democracy. There has been no talk of holding a national dialogue to reconsider the highly problematic constitution. Add to the dysfunctional political system the general anger against a government perceived as corrupt, incompetent and unable to provide basic services, and it is clear that Iraq needs to rethink the way it operates. In 2018, Iraq scored 18 on the Transparency International index of perceived corruption, where zero represents the highest possible corruption level and 100 a clean country. Protesters are well aware of this, reminded daily of government incompetence by constant electricity cuts as well as poor services and deteriorating infrastructure, despite a large increase in oil revenue.6 The defeat of the ISIS caliphate at the end of 2017 could have been a time for reform and reconciliation. Instead, the government called parliamentary elections without any discussion of the underlying problems facing the country.
The demands of Iraqi protesters sometimes sound highly unrealistic, such as their insistence that the entire political class be removed. They did succeed in forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, and they were still insisting in late 2019 that the political parties that dominate the present system not choose his replacement. In reality, those parties were still busy horse-trading over the choice of the next prime minister. In general, Iraqi demonstrators come closest to repeating the shortcomings in tactics and strategy as those in the streets in 2011. It is not clear what kind of system or constitution they want, only that they are fed up with what they have — but that is not a strategy.
The second wave of uprisings in the Arab region differs in tactics and goals from those in 2011, at least as they have unfolded in Sudan and Algeria. Moreover, today’s protesters are showing signs of learning from their predecessors. They are much more aware that the most difficult challenge they face is not overthrowing the incumbent leader but gaining a voice in the formation of the next government and, even more important, in the reform of the political system. They seem to better understand that political change is a process of long duration and are learning how to make their protest sustainable over the long run. It took less than a month of protests to depose Tunisia’s Ben Ali and just 18 days to oust Egypt’s Mubarak from power. Protesters did not immediately go home, but they had no follow up plan of action. By contrast, those in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq today seem to be into direct street action for the long haul.
But there are also differences among protesters in the four countries. Those in Sudan and Algeria appear to harbor fewer illusions that their protests will lead to a revolutionary takeover of government. In Lebanon and Iraq, youth still talk of overthrowing the entire political class, as if there were a ready-made replacement waiting in the wings. Despite these differences, protesters appear to have learned more than the regimes they are protesting against. Only in Sudan has a part of the old regime accepted the necessity of giving up some power and negotiating a compromise with the opposition. Time will tell whether the present agreement will last, but for now the moderates on both sides have prevailed. A “pacted transition” to democracy is at least imaginable.
In the other three countries, however, the members of the ruling establishment are still united in resisting change. In Algeria, a monolithic and geriatric establishment born of a war of liberation appears incapable of developing a new vision for the future, possibly because its members are too old to have a future. Protesters lack leadership to guide them into negotiations, but they also lack interlocutors with whom to discuss a way forward. In Iraq and Lebanon, on the other hand, the problem is the opposite: the political system and its elite are fragmented into multiple power centers with different outlooks and interests; there is no central authority with whom to negotiate.
We are stressing the importance of the willingness of those in power to accept reform and compromise because we do not see the second wave of uprisings succeeding in overthrowing the ruling elite or radically changing the existing political system on their own. In none of the countries do protesters have the organization or leadership to carry out a revolution. In fact, in Algeria and Sudan, the protesters openly seek only reform, not revolution. They seem more aware of the challenges they face, more strategic and more careful in the tactics they employ to avoid violence but still persist in their demands.
Protesters in Lebanon and Iraq talk the most radical language, demanding the elimination of the entire political class. But, in reality, they are still struggling to find ways to leverage their street power into a bargaining chip for dealing with badly fragmented polities that lack a central authority with which to negotiate. Their prospects for success at this point appear dim.
1 The study was published as a series of volumes. The last and most clearly related to this discussion was Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies (Baltimore: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
2 We use the word monarchy for all six countries, although technically only Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are ruled by a king; the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait are ruled by an emir, and Oman by a sultan. But these are in practice distinctions without a difference.
3 Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968):177ff.
4 “New Lebanon Polls: Despite Protests, Most Shiites Still Back Hezbollah, While Sunnis and Christians Turn More Negative,” Fikra Forum, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 4, 2019.
5 Reported in “Iraq: New Protester Deaths Despite Order Not to Fire,” Human Rights Watch, December 4, 2019.
6 A good overview of these issues appears in “Iraq Systematic Country Diagnostic,” The World Bank, February 3, 2017.