By Guy Burton
The events in Egypt – the Arab world’s largest country – are having reverberations across the Middle East. The reasons for the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt are not hard to fathom. The region is dominated by strong authoritarian states which repress relatively weak civil societies. However, increasingly the region’s people have had enough, especially given their governments’ relative failures in economic and social policies. At the same time that social protection systems are undergoing retrenchment the economic growth across the region is proving insufficient to provide fast growing populations with enough jobs and incomes.
The internal nature of these protests is important, both for understanding how different governments have tackled this rising tide of public disillusion and frustration and the international community’s relatively leaden response. Moreover, it suggests that foreign policymakers need to review their responses to the protests, focusing less on the governments themselves and more on civil societies within the region.
One response: offering concessions
Poor economic opportunities and state corruption were what lit the fuse in Tunisia – literally – at the end of last year when Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself. Similar events took place in Egypt around the same time and last month before escalating into a nationwide protest movement against the regime. On 12 February similar motivations prompted demonstrators to take to the streets in Algeria against the government. On the same day an aide to the Palestinian Authority (PA) president announced that elections which should have taken place last year will be held by September. This came in the wake of several demonstrations in the West Bank in support of the Egyptian protests and which were disrupted by the PA loyalists – much to the disgust of many Palestinians.
Leaders’ fear of diminishing legitimacy is echoed elsewhere. In Jordan, parliamentary elections were held in November, at the same time as in Egypt. Like those in Egypt the opposition remained unconvinced by their legitimacy; the absence of any significant electoral changes meant the main opposition, the Islamic Action Front, boycotted the poll. Consequently, over the past month King Abdullah has sought to defuse tensions by replacing his prime minister and government. The new government moved to cuts prices for key products like fuel and foodstuffs including sugar and rice. However, it is not certain that the move has been sufficient to satisfy the opposition yet. Similar concessions are being pre-empted by the governments in Kuwait and Bahrain, which have offered cash incentives and free food to head off any public disaffection.
An alternative approach: clamping down on dissent
That said, not all governments are trying to buy off the opposition. Several are making use of tried and tested methods. In Syria, for example, where the state is far more in control, the government appeared to have made a similar appeal to the population when it announced its decision to allow Syrians direct access to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Until now Syrians have been able to visit these sites, but they had to make use of proxy sites in order to do so. However, this may be less of a concession than it appears: direct access may make it easier for the government to monitor potential activists motivated by events in Tunisia and Egypt.
The Syrian government’s approach appears to be similar to that taking place in non-Arab Iran. At first the Iranian government sought to head off any equation between the Egyptian protests against the regime by emphasising Islamist similarities within Egypt and its own revolutionary origins in 1979. At the same time the opposition is confronting that claim by urging people to take to the streets on 14 February.
If the opposition is able to get people out in considerable numbers it will be the first time since the government clamped down on the Green Movement, which emerged in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s dubious re-election victory in 2009. However, the prospects for doing so are heavily weighted against the opposition: the government has kept its pressure up over the past two years, including intermittent arrests of prominent opposition activists at the end of last year as well as in recent weeks.
Potentially misplaced foreign fears
That the region’s governments are pursuing alternative courses has implications for external actors with interests in the region, like the US and the EU. The governments’ different approaches to these protests and the common themes underlying them – a lack of democracy, poor economic prospects and limited social security – emphasise the internal causes of the tensions at work between these states and their societies. Indeed, the origins, course and outcomes of the protests have highlighted the relative irrelevance of foreign actors.
Despite this, both the Americans and Europeans have been slow-witted in their responses to date. In Egypt, the Americans initially offered support for the now deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As a result they failed to understand that he was the problem rather than the solution. Meanwhile last month the French offered to help with policing during the Tunisian protests. Presently, the US and EU have been muted in their approach to Palestine, Jordan and Syria, stressing the importance of the peace process (perceived to have now failed by many Palestinians), lending support to King Abdullah and saying little in relation to Syrians’ aspirations. The only exception to this ‘softly-softly’ approach may be Washington’s playing up of the Iranian government’s fears that the Egyptian scenario may befall it.
The reason for the American and European responses may be due to their focus on regional stability over change – especially if it leads to their main fear, the rise of radical political Islam. However, Islamism is not the cause of social tensions in the region; rather it is the symptom. Both the Egyptian and Tunisian experiences do not suggest that political Islam has been the dominant force leading the protests or even the principal beneficiary. Similarly, from a broader historical perspective, it was not immediately apparent that it would be the Islamists who would eventually prevail in the Iranian revolution against the repressive Shah.
Consequently, if the international community is to adopt a more responsive approach to the crises within the Middle East, its policymakers need to consider them in their own right rather than through the ideological prism that it has constructed to date. This means adopting a more supportive stance in favour of civil society and its demands, rather than focusing on the actions of their governments.
Guy Burton is Researcher at the Centre for Development Studies at Birzeit University and Research Associate at the LSE Ideas Centre.
Shifting Sands is the blog of the Middle East International Affairs Programme at LSE IDEAS, analysing current events in the Middle East and contributing to the ongoing deliberations over policy prescriptions.
Silvia L. Peneva, Editor