The Crisis is Permanent: Middle East and North Africa After 2011

Gilbert Achcar

Arab Spring Movements Graph: Wikipedia

THIS TEXT IS an edited transcript from the author’s podcast. Gilbert Achcar is the author of several of books on the Middle East and North Africa, including The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013) and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016 ). His most recent book is The New Cold War. The United States, Russia, and China from Kosovo to Ukraine (Haymarket Books, 2023). Here is where you can follow his columns and other podcasts.

I WILL BE sharing with you my thoughts on the state of the Middle East and North Africa, the MENA region, since the 2011 “Arab Spring,” and try to explain why this region has been in continuous upheaval ever since that year.

The year 2011 was a time of great hopes in MENA. A major regional shockwave shook almost all countries of the region, except for very artificial entities like the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, where 90% of the inhabitants are migrants. Otherwise, practically all MENA countries saw a sharp rise in social protests.

Six countries witnessed major uprisings: Tunisia where it all started at the end of 2010, followed by Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. This created a very high level of hope, which was renewed again eight years later, in 2019, with what some media called the “Second Arab Spring.”

Four other MENA countries witnessed new uprisings: Sudan where it started at the end of 2018, followed by Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon. So in all, ten of the region’s countries have been into major uprisings over those few years. That’s almost one half, and they include more than half of the region’s population.

Six heads of states were brought down: in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria and Sudan. In several countries, including most of those where the head of state had been overthrown, new constitutional processes created hopes based on the idea that what was at stake in the regional upheaval was essentially democratization, what political science calls “democratic transition.”

The situation today is quite far from the hopes created by the two waves of uprisings. The balance sheet is rather dreadful. Instead of uprisings, the region is characterized by what the mainstream calls “failed states.” There are civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Sudan — in addition to Iraq and Lebanon, to which the classical definition of the state as the monopoly of legitimate violence within a territory has no longer applied for many years.

Other countries have seen authoritarian setbacks. There was early on a counterrevolutionary intervention by the Gulf monarchies in Bahrain. Since then, there have been authoritarian setbacks in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan prior to the civil war.

The main reactionary stronghold in the region, which is the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially the Saudi kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, seem to be politically dominant in MENA today. In sum, there is a huge difference between the hopes created by the 2011 and 2019 uprisings and the present outcome. That’s what I will try to explain.

Roots of the Upheaval

For this, we need to understand the roots of the upheaval. The most optimistic expectations were based on considering it as merely a matter of “democratic transition.” However, the fact is that the uprisings were above all the expression of a deep structural socioeconomic crisis, which I analyzed in my book The People Want (2013; a second edition with a new preface came out in 2022).

In brief, I attributed the regional social explosion to the combination between neoliberal changes and a peculiar system of states characterized by the existence of a hardcore of patrimonial states. What does this mean?

Patrimonial states are states actually owned by a ruling family: they include monarchies, of course, but also a few republics turned into patrimonial states where ruling families own the state in the same way as in absolutist monarchies. There are so-called republics that are even more absolutist than monarchies, and not only in MENA (think of North Korea).

In MENA, in addition to the six monarchies, the “republics” of Syria under Assad until today, Libya under Gaddafi until 2011, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein until 2003 were all transformed into patrimonial states.

Alongside this hardcore of patrimonial states, the other states of the region are neopatrimonial, where the institutions are separate from the rulers but with a high degree of nepotism and corruption. Three of the states in the region are under military regimes, where the armed forces are the backbone of power: Sudan, Algeria and Egypt.

The combination of this patrimonial or neopatrimonial state system with neoliberal changes is what produced the social and economic outcome that has been decisive in creating the political explosion. The key point is that the neoliberal changes are based on the postulate of the private sector’s leading role in the economy. The view is that if you liberalize the economy, if you withdraw the state from it and open all gates to the private sector, you’ll witness an economic miracle, and your country will take off on the track of development.

This postulate of the key central role of the private sector completely ignores the different conditions between countries. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank recommend the same set of recipes to all countries in the world, overlooking the huge differences in economic and social conditions that exist among them, including differences in the nature of states and conditions for private sector activity.

Neoliberalism produced fast growth and economic achievements in some countries, such as Turkey, albeit with a social cost of course. In the MENA region, the Arabic-speaking countries, this has not happened. And that is because there were no conditions in that part of the world for private sector long-term investment conducive to development.

The result was very slow GDP growth, especially per capita compared to demographic progression, and therefore inability to absorb new entrants to the labor market. This has produced massive youth unemployment, the highest rates of any region of the world.

Youth Unemployment Crisis

The region had been holding record rates of youth unemployment for a couple of decades before the explosion. It is a crucial factor: the frustration of young people created by this set of conditions translated into political upheaval.

Other parts of the Global South have been affected by low growth, but they are usually poorer than the MENA region, so that most unemployment becomes disguised unemployment in the informal sector. The same exists in the MENA region too, of course, but in lesser proportion because of the higher proportion of lower middle class sectors who benefited from the democratization of higher education promoted by the nationalist populist regimes since the sixties, leading to a large production of graduates.

A key part of youth unemployment in MENA is graduate unemployment. That’s also one key to understanding the upheaval and the role played in it by social media users, who are not the poorest of the poor since they are able to use the new technologies of communication.

These socioeconomic conditions are the root cause of the big upheaval, and not just political frustration due to the lack of democracy and freedom. Political oppression has been dominant in the region for decades: it doesn’t tell us why the explosion occurred in 2011. It is part of the picture, for sure, but the key factor is its combination with socioeconomic frustration.

This analysis entails a few conclusions. First, that the ongoing upheaval is not a rapid democratic transition. This is not East Asia where democratic transition occurred after a long period of intensive economic development. There, the political transition was an adaptation of political conditions to economic advancement.

In MENA, it is an economic quasi-stagnation that led to the explosion. And if the roots are structural and socioeconomic in the first place, it means that we are facing not a short-term transition, but a long-term revolutionary process that can spread over several decades until the socioeconomic situation is unblocked, and the region put back on the track of development.

A second conclusion is that the obstacles to change are formidable in MENA. Another comparison will make this clearer. Eastern Europe witnessed a political explosion in the late 1980s on a background of economic stagnation that is closer to what happened in MENA. But Eastern Europe was ruled by bureaucracies, not even by propertied classes. The situation there was in sharp contrast with the hardcore of patrimonial states that characterizes MENA.

Whereas a bureaucratic state can collapse in the way we saw in Eastern Europe, this cannot happen at all in patrimonial and neopatrimonial states where not only there are propertied classes sticking to their ownership much more than any bureaucracy to its privileges, but even ruling groups regarding the state itself as their private property.

No Peaceful “Transition”

The most famous slogan of the two waves of 2011 and 2019 was: “The people want to overthrow the regime.” The problem is that in many countries, the regime is inseparable from the state. The regime is the state. The state is the regime. There are so much connected that the collapse of the regime means the collapse of the state, as happened in the most complete manner in Libya, when the Libyan regime of Gaddafi collapsed, and with it, the whole state apparatus.

This also means that in the patrimonial states, where you have ruling families owning the state, there is no way to peacefully overthrow the regime — the monarchy, or the dictatorship as in Libya or Syria. And there’s no way to bet on the army as in those neopatrimonial states where it is the backbone of the regime, such as Sudan, Algeria and Egypt. In those three countries the army removed the president and his inner circle: it happened in Egypt in 2011 and again in 2013, and in Algeria and Sudan in 2019.

This can’t happen in the patrimonial states, because of the specific connection between the ruling families and the key and elite corps of the armed forces. The ruling family controls those apparatuses through familial, tribal, sectarian and regionalist allegiances, which means that when an uprising occurs, the most likely outcome, if it lasts, is civil war. The ruling family will use unrestricted violence against the uprising, pushing it to arm itself to respond to this violence. The result is civil war.

In the neopatrimonial states, despite nepotism and corruption, the state is not the ownership of any family. In Egypt for instance, even though Mubarak’s sons played a key role in the regime he presided over, you couldn’t say that the Mubarak family “owned” the state.

The higher degree of institutionalization is characteristic of neopatrimonial states when compared with patrimonial states. Under neopatrimonial conditions, the head of state can be removed by the state apparatuses, whereas you couldn’t have this in Libya or Syria, or in any of the monarchies.

All MENA monarchies, even those where there is some kind of parliamentary representation, are basically absolutist monarchies and therefore patrimonial states. These are the conclusions that flow from the analysis of the structural crisis that is at the root of the regional upheaval.

The Oil Curse

This condition is further complicated by the strategic and economic value of MENA. Oil resources in the region, what can be called “the oil curse,” have been a central cause of foreign interference at a much higher level than in other parts of the world. This explains why the region is such a theater for regional and international cross-border interventions, which are ongoing.

In no other geopolitical part of the world can one find such a density and intensity of conflicts. This impacted the uprisings through foreign interventions starting from 2011. The first one was the Gulf monarchies’ intervention in Bahrain to repress the uprising. Then you had NATO in Libya trying to hijack the uprising against Qaddafi.

Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United States have troops in Syria, part of whose territory is occupied by Israel. In Libya there is a proxy clash between Turkey and Qatar, on the one hand, and the UAE, Egypt and Russia on the other. In Sudan, the war is becoming a proxy tug-of-war between the UAE and Russia, on one side, and the Saudi kingdom and Egypt on the other.

The United States is deploying ongoing efforts to set up a regional military alliance of the Saudi kingdom, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Israel against Iran’s regional expansion. Both sides played counterrevolutionary roles: the USA and its allies, as well as Iran and Russia.

The Islamist Factor

A fourth important factor complicating the situation in the region is the existence of a reactionary opposition force, which has been there for a very long time: the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It is a modern Islamic fundamentalist political movement founded a century ago in Egypt, which spread to the whole region and beyond. It has branches basically everywhere where there are Muslims.

Nowadays, the MB is backed by Qatar and Turkey, but until 1990, it was funded and supported by the Saudi Kingdom and used by it as well as by the United States as an antidote against left-wing nationalism, the Communist parties and Soviet influence in Muslim countries. Thus, the main ideological antidote that Washington used in this part of the world in cooperation with the Saudi kingdom is Islamic fundamentalism.

The ideological discourse of human rights and freedom used against Communist states in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was not deployed by the West in MENA. The United States was quite happy relying on the Saudi kingdom ideologically to wage the fight. This is how the MB took advantage of the failure and decline of left-wing Arab nationalism starting from the 1970s.

The first decisive blow to Arab nationalism was the June 1967 war. Israel played a key role in defeating the radicalizing trend of Arab nationalism, which had gone quite far to the left in social and economic measures. Later, in 1990 a break occurred between the MB, which had started filling the vacuum left by the defeat of left-wing nationalism, and the Saudi kingdom. That was because the MB did not support the deployment of U.S. troops in the kingdom followed by the “Desert Storm” onslaught against Iraq in early 1991.

A few years later, Qatar replaced the Saudi Kingdom as sponsor of the Brotherhood, funding them and allowing them to use the Al Jazeera TV network. We therefore moved from a period when the main opposition movements in MENA were nationalists and communists, to one when the Muslim Brotherhood had become the main opposition.

In 2011, the MB was seen by the Obama administration as the best option to diffuse the tension of the Arab uprising and keep regional political change within limits acceptable to Washington. The Obama administration favored a compromise between the MB and the old regimes. This happened at a certain moment in each of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Morocco.

The MB appeared as a political alternative, but it was no social or economic alternative. It fully adhered to the neoliberal credo, which is why they were doomed to fail in power and that was fully predictable.

In my 2013 book The People Want, for instance, there is an expectation of the fall of the MB experience in Egypt made before it happened. MB failures in Tunisia and Morocco occurred for the same reason.

Wherever it came to government or just took part in government as was the case, for instance, in Tunisia after 2014, the MB was part of a political setting that was not socially and economically different from the previous condition. The countries remained on the same economic path, which got even worse because the political unpredictability that explains the economic blockage that led to the upheaval in 2011 only worsened after 2011 due to much increased regional instability.

An Accelerating Deep Crisis

This whole set of factors explains the condition in which we presently are and how we moved from great hopes in 2011 and 2019 to the rather depressing condition that is prevailing today. However, from a broader and more global perspective, we are witnessing an acceleration of the crisis of neoliberalism since the Great Recession of 2008. This led to two opposite types of radicalization as happened in previous historical periods of crisis, such as the interwar years (!920s-1945) of the past century.

Progressive radicalization translated in movements such as those seen in MENA with the Arab Spring, in Greece, Spain, even in the United States and Britain. There was a rise of left-wing radicalization, but also a global rise of the far right, very clearly after 2008.

This global rise of the far right was spearheaded in some ways by Israel, where Netanyahu is in many ways an archetype of the new global far right. He was part of a drift to the right and far right that has been ongoing ever since Likud came to power in 1977. This led to increasing oppression in the 1967 Occupied Palestinian Territories, fostering a counter radicalization that primarily took the form of Hamas.

The clash of these two trends has now peaked with the genocidal war that Israel is conducting in Gaza. It will have tremendous consequences in the region and will spill over to Europe and beyond, for sure.

All this is creating massive and very deep political frustration, huge legitimate anger. In 2011, along with the socioeconomic roots that I mentioned, there were also political factors of radicalization, one of which was the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Events in Palestine too played a role, for instance, in a country like Egypt.

There is now a new wave of massive political anger that is rising. It will translate again in some unfortunate ways, partly like the frustration created by the defeat of the first wave of the Arab Spring fed the rise of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. In Tunisia, for example, due to the post-2011 frustration, a sizeable proportion of young people joined ISIS.

But there will also be a healthier kind of radicalization against the existing regimes, necessarily combining with the ever-increasing socioeconomic crisis in MENA into continuing the long-term revolutionary process.

There is no way that this part of the world could get back to any form of despotic stability. Anyone believing this is dreaming. It can’t happen because of the structural crisis that I mentioned. We can see the socioeconomic process at work even in a country like Syria, which has gone through one of the cruelest tragedies in modern times. And yet a social upsurge occurred there a few months ago: a massive social protest in parts of Syria that are under regime control.

That shows that the socioeconomic issue is still acting as a catalyst for social struggle. Morocco has recently seen one of the most important social struggles in its history, waged by schoolteachers.

These examples are the indication that however bleak the situation may look today, the ingredients for social and political explosion are still there. I’m not trying to sound optimistic, and I would be lying to myself and to you if I tried, because there is no ground for optimism for all the reasons I explained before, the formidable challenge that any real change in the region represents.

But there is ground for hope. I make an important distinction between optimism, which is the belief that the best-case scenario will happen, and hope, which is the belief that there is a potential for a better scenario, but a potential only, not something that is to be taken for granted.

MENA is at a crossroad between more and more of the kind of barbarism that we have seen developing since 2011, in civil wars in particular, and now with the genocidal war in Gaza, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, radically progressive social and political change that the region is in very, very high need of.

3 comments

  1. Amalgamation of crises in MENA is indeed astounding, also astounding is the degree  of confusion and omissions in this text.
    An unspoken Populism (towards Islam and Islamic tendencies) guides this assessment, which creates a lethal political paralysis.
    Any analysis of the region without a critique of Islamic Republic of Iran and its machinations throughout the region is simply unacceptable. 
    But our most respected professor won’t say a word about the ayatollah in Tehran, Houthies or Hezbollah, because in his good old Populist world, they are all “anti-Imperialist!”
    Israeli militarism and fascism is condemned in any and all shapes and forms, and all resistance to it deserves absolute support.
    At the same time Hamas and Hezbollah remain absolutely and deeply reactionary, counter-revolutionary, extremely backward (stone ages, beginning of Islam backward) forces.
    Hezbollah is an obstacle to Israeli domination, but it’s also an obstacle for the Lebanese revolution, Lebanese social movements and civil-society at large.
    Radically progressive social and political change in the region usually don’t fall from the sky and before anything require a clear headed comprehension of the circumstances.
    Perhaps a coherent balance sheet and perspective, free of any Populist foolishness (21st century Narodniks) could be a first step, a good start. 
    Perchance?

  2. Achcar makes a brave attempt to update his theory of patrimonial regimes. His thesis tends to get lost in a thicket of other factors, but Achcar makes some useful observations along the way. Hoshang is right — what about Iran and its influence? Achcar refers to Hamas as a “radical response” to Israeli oppression, but “radical” in what sense? Like the British military in World War I, willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of their own people in order to gain a few hundred yards of dirt for a couple days?

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