Four years after the uprisings that broke the mold of the old Middle East, 2015 promises to be another year of tumultuous change, notes Paul Salem, the Middle East Institute’s Vice President for Policy and Research. The eruptions of 2011 unleashed decades of pent-up tensions and dysfunction in the political, socioeconomic, and cultural spheres; these dynamics will take many years, if not decades, to play themselves out and settle into new paradigms and equilibriums.
In 2014, four Arab countries—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—sank decisively into the ranks of failed states with no longer any effective central authority over the expanse of national territory, he notes:
ISIS arose as the largest radical threat in the region’s modern history, challenging political borders and order and proposing political identities and governance paradigms. Sunni-Shi’i conflict intensified throughout the Levant and reached Yemen; an intra-Sunni conflict also pitted supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt rebuked its previously ruling Islamists and elected a military officer as president who has prioritized security and economics and cracked down heavily on dissent. Tunisia’s secular nationalists and Islamists found a way forward with a new constitution and inclusive national elections. Jordan and Lebanon have managed to maintain stability despite massive refugee inflows. A cautious Algeria maintained its status quo, reelecting an aging president to a fourth term. And Morocco continued its experiment in accommodation between a powerful monarchy and a government led by the moderate Islamist PJD party….
2015 promises to be no less turbulent than 2014, as domestic and regional dynamics continue to play out, says Salem:
The Battles of the Youth Bulge
Prime among these is a demographic youth bulge of historic proportions that burst the precarious piping of the old political and socioeconomic structures and will continue to overwhelm the social and institutional orders of the region for some time. Two thirds of the population is under the age of 30 and their search for jobs, identity, and empowerment will fuel the tumult of the region for many years. …
Power Shift toward the Populace
Advances in technology and communication have led to a power shift from once all-dominant states to an increasingly informed, powerful, and demanding populace, both as communities and individuals. They have access to the global web of information and communication; they can build virtual societies and communities of identity and interest; and they can mobilize and coordinate. …
Failing and Resurging States
Twenty percent of Arab states have failed in the past few years, others are teetering, some have adapted, and still others have regrouped to reassert old power. The failed states—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—have in common conditions of low national unity, but they have failed for different reasons. .….
The Arab uprisings of 2011 heralded that the past paradigms had broken, but this created a scramble for new paradigms, and to date no new paradigm has emerged as paramount. The old paradigm of repressive authoritarianism and quiescent populations, in exchange for socioeconomic development, broke down in the face of slow and unequal economic growth, growing popular empowerment, and worsening government corruption and repression. The initial uprisings inarticulately threw up outlines of a paradigm of democratic, pluralistic, and socially just government. The Muslim Brotherhood proposed a paradigm of Islamist government. The military in Egypt is proposing a neo-nationalist paradigm in which order and economic growth are paramount. The Moroccan king might be on the road to evolving a constitutional monarchy. Lebanon and Tunisia are managing precarious but pluralistic and power sharing political systems. ….
Three years ago, Arab public opinion was resonant with a loose paradigm of popular empowerment and accountable and inclusive government; today it is a bickering Babel of competing paradigms. Until the region settles on a governance paradigm—as Western Europe did, albeit after centuries of conflict—this cacophony of visions and ideologies will continue to bedevil the region. In the long run as this century develops, democratic and inclusive government—whether as constitutional monarchy or republican democracy—will probably be the only sustainable paradigm.
Political Islam and Secular Nationalism
These have been the best of years and the worst of years for political Islam. ….. Although nationalism has lost much of the ideological clarity it had several decades ago, in the face of strong Islamist narratives that seek to rearrange community and society along religious lines, there has been a resurgence in some countries of attachment to the broad outlines of nationalism that base community on attachment to the nation-state and the constitutions, institutions, and laws that it promulgates.
State and Civil Society
Civil society remains a key deficit in the Arab world. It played a key role in pushing back against an Islamist hegemony and pushing forward a political transition in Tunisia. It is essential in keeping the complex Lebanese social system together and inching forward. It played a key role in Egypt and other countries in 2011, demanding a new way forward. But in countries where civil society was weak, it was either overtaken by better organized Islamist movements, more powerful sectarian divisions, or a resurging state. In the attempt to rebuild national stability, whether in Egypt or elsewhere, it is important to realize that civil society is an ally in reclaiming public space and social power from divisive Islamist or sectarian narratives, and is a key factor in creating stable and sustainable state structures. Both the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Assad regime in Syria were deeply skeptical of civil society and preferred Islamist organizations to fill up social space. This ultimately weakened the state and weakened state-society cohesion. In the long run, a healthy civil and political society provides the living link between state and society and provides the bedrock for state stability and the main antidote for radical movements….
Looking for White Swans
The region will continue to furnish the world with well more than its fair share of crises. The West took about five centuries to transition from medieval to “modern,” working through its wars of religion and battles to establish national identities and state borders, transform worldviews, try out radical ideologies, and eventually evolve toward stability, coexistence, and liberal democracy. This only occurred after two devastating world wars and genocide in the twentieth century. The Middle East started its profound transformation roughly a century and a half ago. It will take more than a few years to work itself out.
In the short term, extrapolating into 2015, the time horizon might be close enough to venture a few estimates. First, I do not mean to imply that the Middle East will be defined only by crisis. The majority of countries in the region, from Morocco to Iran, will likely maintain basic stability while working through various political, social, and economic challenges. Only a minority, including at least Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, will predictably continue in deep crisis….
Iran’s regional policy, led by the Revolutionary Guards, continues to expand and founder at the same time. In the past three years, Iran’s proxies in Baghdad and Damascus have lost control of their countries and control now only rump states. In Syria, Iran had to send Hezbollah and its own commanders, trainers, and valuable resources to save the Assad regime from collapse; this effort has stretched Hezbollah and Iran, but Iran has shown no serious interest in real political change in Damascus as a way out of the crisis. …The trouble for Iran—and indeed its neighbors—is while its influence is expanding in the region, its policies are leading to the collapse of once-functioning states and to explosive sectarian tensions.