How has the Arab Spring changed Arab perceptions of their citizenship? Immeasurable sacrifices and atrocities were committed as millions took to the streets with the prospect of shaping democratically-elected Arab governments that they hoped would mirror their identity for the first time in history.
When thinking about statehood, those in the West tend to take for granted the above principles and disregard the challenge of re-defining and re-structuring society. The effects these shifts have on identity-production and citizenship forces a reconsideration of what it means to be an Arab.
MEMO spoke to Pnina Werbner, Professor of Social Anthropology at Keele University, who has written extensively on the subject. “There was a sense of a new kind of citizenship dawning, with activists believing that a newly elected democratic government would be responsive to their voices,” Werbner asserted. However, the reassertion of the dictatorial and undemocratic deep state in Egypt in particular, with the somewhat chaotic transitions elsewhere, created deep divisions between secularists and Islamists.
The violence in Syria and sectarianism in Iraq, she explained, “brought disillusionment to the young activists who manned the barricades.” Any notion of decent, responsive citizenship has been shelved in most “Arab Spring” locations, with the possible exception of Tunisia. Activists have had to learn the hard way that democratic ideas must be underpinned by real political organisation.
When it comes to voicing their will and frustration through regional elections, we have seen states threatening and being threatened in turn, by a wildfire of clashes. Supporting groups of the, in most cases sitting rather than serving, president (usually someone who has been in power for decades) have the power to intimidate the public with instability as the sole consequence of their “rebellion”. In general, authoritarian regimes of the region cling on as their yearning for power compels them to impose their will, at the expense of their people; this is a pattern exposed in multiple uprising responses. Here are a few examples:
· In Lebanon, the presidential election is plainly remedying the fear of a state-void whilst it attempts to shun all options for an extension of rule for President Michel Suleiman. It seeks to stand by its constitution, with its shaky yet stubborn sectarian alliances between numerous parties, parliamentary and non-parliamentary. Corruption and sectarian strife is rife, combined with a frustration of not having a Lebanese nation working more or less cooperatively along the same path, bound by a shared history (in which certain episodes are simply refrained from being taught in school, due to fresh wounds and contested accounts of, for example, the 1975-1990 civil war).
· In Syria, President Bashar Al-Assad, still insisting on a summer presidential election, could well be seen as a means to get round the international push to establish a transitional government with full powers, which could precede the presidential and parliamentary elections. As of now, the president can await another “legitimacy” success vis-à-vis the international community.
· Algeria used the above paradigm of threatening instability, despite President Abdulaziz Boutaflika’s age and health issues.
· In Iraq, we see Prime Minister Noori Al-Maliki remaining glued to his seat also, despite indefinite bloody confrontation over allegedly corrupt election procedures.
Not very welcoming to forced structural reform or democratisation in general, the Gulf states and Israel are worried about the current political upheaval in the region. They predict that this could be the spark that could burn down the framework supporting the “old”, authoritarian, Middle East; which it is.
Despite official hatred of the uprisings and the likely repression following dissent, the calls for social justice resonate deeply. A recent story by MEMO showed the ID card revolution by young Saudi men who broadcast video clips on YouTube under titles such as “A message to the king” complaining about living conditions due to low salaries.
Bravely, their ID cards were held in front of the camera in an act of defiance to the authorities and the expected disproportionate response. It’s the kind of lethal response that Saudis have witnessed before.
The changes in theories to understand the new order
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey’s alliance-making and power blocs have changed since 2011. In order to understand the Middle East in the regional order, MEMO sought the help of a senior researcher at the Danish Institute of International Studies, Dr Helle Malmvig. She urges a new definition of power, open to ideologies and identity, theories that can tackle the close intertwining of regional and domestic factors.
If we look at the regional order from a realist perspective post-2011, not much has changed; it is still Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Turkey and Iran who remain dominant actors in the regional power balance, as it was pre-2011.
Normative power was the late 90s idea that Arab politics is governed by certain norms; that there are certain norms that you would need to adhere to as a state leader or political actor. For decades, the norms particularly relevant to the region were relations with the West and the Israel/Palestinian issue.
Then, from 2003 to 2011 these norms became a popular instrument for Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran; tapping into them, they named themselves champions of these issues. Post-2011, Dr Malmvig explained, these actors are experiencing severe difficulties in tapping into these norms, particularly due to the Syrian revolution-turned-war. “Issues like Israel-Palestine and the West simply play a lesser role, and due to the uprisings, other social and internal issues within each country have taken priority,” she argued.
We have a revolutionary moment at both a state and regional level. Although it is contested what the relationship between rulers and ruled actually is, and what the region’s geopolitical role will be, on top of all there is the sectarian issue.
Some Western authors claim that the Sunni/Shia divide is the main factor behind most of the conflicts, overshadowing the Palestinian issue as the main division in the region, both in terms of its capacity to mobilise people, as well as its ability to drive the conflict. This is debatable. “We should beware the rise of what authors call ‘identity-politics’ [ie arguing for the increase of political identity construction through loosely correlated social organisations such as ethnic or religion based organisation] as a kind of ‘nice’ way to say ‘sectarian conflict’,” said Malmvig.
Although dangerously simplistic and problematic, the Western media insist on representing the Sunni/Shia division as the primordial conflict ‘going back hundreds of years’. Amongst academics the instrumentalist approach is used, showing how regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia play the sectarian card to delegitimise other political actors and gain support at home.
This is crucial vis-à-vis the primordial distorted sectarian essentialisation in the Western media, but Malmvig argues that there is still a piece missing in their understanding of what is going on. From her perspective, what is problematic is not the identities, but the very fact that some political actors are turning identities into security issues by naming others as ‘community threats’. By pointing them out as threats, they also legitimise the extraordinary measures used for their eradication.
Such fearful logic from both religious and political groups was seen in the designation of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organisation”. Continuity in terms of regimes’ security logic is still predominant. This is apparent in the Saudi-Qatari conflicting approach to Syria. Malmvig’s point is that these dynamics have more to do with regime survival more than territorial, national state considerations.
Arab states are relatively weak territorially. Their permeability allows for ideologies, conflicts and ideas to travel freely, such as we saw in the beginning of the Arab Spring. We see this permeability in Lebanon as well, as inter-state conflicts become regionalised, affecting the affiliations of all sides across borders. Furthermore, the porosity of the borders makes it easier for authoritarian states to legitimise the use of oppressive security measures, and the need to strengthen communities in certain areas.
It is, therefore, important to look into how key regional and domestic actors are turning various entities into security factors and how fears of ‘the others’ are slowly becoming self-fulfilling prophesies, as we have witnessed over the past two or three years.
On the positive side, Malmvig argues that the region has gained a certain kind of autonomy vis-à-vis outside powers. “The overlay of outside powers is not as visible as before so they could be playing a less important role,” she argued. This means that the conflicts are now primarily regional.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.