Ten years ago, a wave of popular uprisings erupted across the Middle East, threatening not only local monarchs and dictators but the strategic interests of the Western powers that backed them. In this series, David Wearing looks back on these events, their causes and consequences, and asks what they can teach us about the nature of imperialism in the twenty-first century.
In a small, beleaguered pocket of north-western Syria, the aspirations of the original 2011 uprising somehow endure. Sarah Kasem was 12 years old when those first protests began, spending her teenage years living under indiscriminate regime bombardment in Homs. Her family finally escaped to Idlib, one of the few areas still outside of Bashar al-Assad’s control, where she is now a student. “My generation is still carrying the same hopes for justice and freedom”, she tells the Guardian. “We will not give up on what the older generation started.”
The same report quotes Hasna Issa, a 36-year-old activist and former prisoner of the regime, who declares “we are not just victims. We are survivors”. Issa works on gender equality and female leadership programmes at Kesh Malek, a civil society organisation set up in those early days of the uprising. “We are raising the next generation in a way different to anything we could imagine before”, she says.
It is impossible to avoid the sense of epic tragedy that hangs over the Arab uprisings today, a decade on. Several of the worst acts of state violence in living memory took place across the Middle East and North Africa over that time, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives, and condemning millions more to displacement, impoverishment, jail and torture. But it would be a mistake to reduce the uprisings to a tragedy and nothing more. Even in Syria, where some of the very darkest chapters of this story unfolded, a sense of resistance persists. And taking a wider look across the region as a whole, it is clear that the story is not over yet.
Recent years have seen major uprisings in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, polities largely absent from the 2011 wave. In Sudan, a sustained campaign of protests and civil disobedience, carried out in the teeth of considerable regime violence, ended the three-decade rule of Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. The country is now on a tentative path of transition toward genuine democracy.
Also in April 2019, weeks of protests in Algeria culminated in the end of the two-decade presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Six months later, massive demonstrations broke out in Lebanon and Iraq, again driven by economic frustrations and targeting the corruption of the governing classes. Protests and unrest continue to varying degrees in all three countries, each of whose futures remain subject to real contestation.
Beyond these more dramatic events, all manner of struggles continue at the grassroots level. Recent alleviations of restrictions on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have been presented by the monarchy there as a sign of its own liberalising impulses. In fact, they are the achievement of a resilient and committed Saudi women’s rights movement, which has stood up to perhaps the single most violently misogynistic regime on the face of the planet, and wrung these concessions from it at great personal cost to several individual activists.
The spirit of the uprisings endures regionwide, flaring up in country after country, because the underlying causes described in the first article in this series remain unaddressed. Basic social and political freedoms continue to be denied. And neoliberal economics under authoritarian governance continues to reproduce a crony capitalism that offers no economic future, or even a decent present, to younger generations who have shown a clear unwillingness to accept their fate.
Naturally a decade of vicious counter-revolutionary repression has acted very effectively as a deterrent and as a destructive force, but the regimes are not omnipotent. The original wave of uprisings happened with few illusions about the forms of regime backlash that would lay in store, and millions still poured onto the streets in breathtaking acts of collective bravery. Those events were testament to the sheer power of the human drive for emancipation, an elemental force which can never truly be extinguished.
This is not to indulge a Panglossian sense of the inevitability of progress, but merely to remind ourselves of the pertinent socio-economic and political factors that remain at play in the region, and of the concrete developments they continue to produce. The question then is how the story might unfold in the coming years and decades.
One key element to pay attention to is the role of oil and oil wealth. As a previous article in this series explained, oil has been a decisive shaping factor in the political economy of the Middle East. The wealth generated by its sale shores up several authoritarian regimes, and its strategic significance attracts the involvement of the major Global North powers, who have long colluded with local elites to shut the peoples of the region out of the political arena.
Together, the powers of the Global North and the ruling classes of the Middle East and North Africa have comprised a formidable alliance against democracy. But that alliance is held together by oil, and questions will inevitably arise over its future to the extent that the process of global decarbonisation gathers pace.
Specifically, how do regimes overwhelmingly reliant on oil revenues sustain themselves domestically when global demand for oil begins to dry up? What happens when the wealthy producer monarchies of the Gulf no longer have the economic strength to act as effective counter-revolutionary forces in the wider region?
And what of the Global North powers and their strategic interests? What happens when the Middle East loses its status as the energy heartland of the planet, and the geostrategic value of projecting military power there falls away? What happens when Gulf petrodollar wealth is no longer available to recycle into the Western financial system, or to help sustain Western military industry? What happens to those regimes when they lose their value to the powers they have long relied upon for their very survival?
None of these questions can be answered definitively in advance. But what can be said is that the future of the power structures that obstructed 2011’s drive for “bread, freedom, social justice” is far from assured. To the extent that they are weakened, new revolutionary opportunities will present themselves.
Those of us in the UK are not spectators to these events. British power has been an active and important participant within the wider counter-revolutionary alliance since 2011, a natural product of its historic role in the Middle East, and across the Global South more generally. For us in this country, solidarity with the peoples of the region is something we can and must express in concrete, practical and specific ways.
This means raising public awareness of Britain’s real role in the Middle East, and thus raising the political cost to the British government of its behaviour. It means demanding demilitarisation, specifically through transitioning high-skilled manufacturing jobs away from the arms industry and into the development of green technology. This would simultaneously help Britain meet the real security challenges of the twenty-first century, and help to remove one of the major security threats to the peoples of the Middle East.
Perhaps above all, it means forcing an honest, evidence-based conversation about the true nature of British power in the world, historically and in the present day: not a benign force for progress and liberal values, but a violent and exploitative force serving the interests of the British elite. Only by first sweeping away these illusions can we create the necessary political conditions for a decisive turning of the page. If the British left can achieve this, the benefits will be felt far and wide – especially by the peoples of the Middle East.
The rest will be up to them.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.
Part one: What Were the Roots of the Arab Uprisings?
Part two: How the West and the Rest Conspired to Thwart the Arab Uprisings
Part three: How the UK and Gulf Monarchies Helped Crush Bahrain’s Pro-Democracy Movement
Part four: How the Arab Uprisings Were Drowned in Oil
Part five: How Syria’s Uprising Turned Into a War
Part six: What’s the Future of the Arab Uprisings?