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Squaring the circle in the Arab uprisings

It was two years that in a small roundabout in Egypt, called ‘Liberation Square’, a few hundred people gathered to protest against the government of Hosni Mubarak. 18 days later, that square would be etched into modern world history by its original Arabic name: Tahrir. Tunisia’s popular uprising against its president had come first: but it was Egypt’s that set the fire ablaze, with uprisings unravelling across the Arab world.

Tahrir Square in Egypt

Two years on, the picture of the uprisings looks confusing. Commentators and analysts across the region wonder: were these revolutions? Others are disappointed, wondering: what happened to all those promises of secular enlightenment? Is there a danger of things ‘rolling back’, where one type of autocracy is exchanged for another?

It is important to remember the context within which these uprisings began. In Egypt, the regime had been in power for not three decades, but more like six. President Hosni Mubarak might have ruled from 1981, but the military establishment, from which he came, ran Egypt since 1952.

In Libya, Mu’ammar Qadhafi ruled with an iron fist since 1969 – in Syria, the Ba’ath rule of the al-Assad family was in power almost as long.

What these countries all had in common was a particular type of state. To a lesser extent, the same can be said of the other Arab countries that went through an uprising. That state did not limit its power to running the institutions of governance, as per a normal, regular state structure. Rather, it sought to reduce, piece by piece, the amount of activity that took place in society without direct involvement of the state. In other words, these states targeted - and successfully pulverised - civil society.

Not only was civil society confined to a weak and marginalised space: political discourse was also narrowly controlled, and in many places, almost absent. The ‘curtain of fear’ when it came to political discussion was total in places like Libya and Egypt. Autocracy and dictatorship was not simply about the absence of a transparent political arena, with competing political actors – it was about the absence of political discourse and open civil society actors representing and reacting to society at large.

Free elections in Tunisia, 2011

With such a backdrop, the very fact that the Arab uprisings began is something of a miracle. Indeed, when the first happened in Tunisia, the feeling regionally and worldwide was that the overthrow of President Ben Ali was a political fluke - it could not possibly be repeated anywhere else. Civil society in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere would not be able to muster the strength to pose any challenge to the power of the state.

This was, obviously, proven to be wrong: the ‘death’ of civil society had been widely over-exaggerated. Popular discontent did indeed lead to uprisings in different Arab countries. However, the decades of neglect of, as well as direct attacks on, civil society had lasting effects, going some way to explain the development of the last two years. For example, anyone who expected that in the absence of tyranny, a pluralistic political sphere would immediately emerge, made up of a variety of well-defined points of view, had unrealistic expectations.

With civil society in such a weak state prior to the uprisings, it is not surprising the overwhelming majority of citizens from fallen regimes would enter into extended transition periods. Such transitions would not simply be about the formation of new states – but of political cultures.

In Tunisia, citizens had more than 80 political parties to pick from in their first elections in 2011, with the overwhelming majority going to less than 10 of those parties. Egyptians had more than 50 registered political parties to pick from, although the lion's share of seats went to five of them. Libyans had more than 100 political entities to pick from, which delivered seats to six of them. A new political arena had suddenly arrived – and civil society was struggling to recover after decades of abuse in order to help stabilise that arena.

In the midst of that, again it is not altogether surprising that things did not work out the way those who had launched the uprisings would have hoped – at least, not yet.

In Tunisia, a plurality of votes for the assembly went to the Muslim Brotherhood Islamists of Ennahda, as they did in Egypt’s first post-uprising parliamentary elections. In both cases, that meant that those who had not been most involved in the uprising nonetheless benefited from it the most.

Libya's National Transitional Council leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil

In Libya, the situation was somewhat different. The transitional government that led the military struggle against Qadhafi had a leader who set up a political force – that reified force was a natural successor for many Libyans, and won almost a majority of seats in the first elections.

The question now however is: what next? Is an Islamist Arab world the definitive result of the Arab uprisings? Is that the inescapable point of the Arab revolutions?

The answer to both of these questions is no.

These political cultures are clearly in a state of flux. These societies are generally socially conservative, and will be unwilling to entertain a political culture that is not deeply co-operative with religion – but that does not equal to an Islamist culture.

Libyan society, for example, is far more socially conservative than Tunisia – but the Islamists did particularly badly in Libya. On the other hand, the non-Islamist parties were not anti-religion, or even distant from religion. On the contrary, they openly regarded religion as being a widely-held societal value for any future Libyan polity, which spoke to the overwhelming majority of Libyan society.

In Egypt, Gallup polls taken just after the uprising revealed no more than 20 per cent confidence in the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the different Salafi movements. Within a year, they had accumulated more than three times that figure in the share of the vote in the parliamentary elections. A few months later, the overwhelming majority of votes went to non-Islamist candidates in the presidential elections. Egyptians had not suddenly become MB members and Salafis, and then just as suddenly left those movements – rather, political culture was in such a state of flux, the overwhelming majority of citizens were not settled on one political force or another. This remains to be the case today.

The final question, nevertheless, is obvious. Was it worth it?

Arab citizens are the only ones who can answer that question. It is they who paid, and will continue to pay, the price for the uprisings and revolutions.

One thing, however, is very clear: the ‘curtain of fear’ in all of these countries has not simply dropped. It has been ripped to shreds. Arab citizens in these different countries have the chance, for the first time in decades, to forge their own future, in political atmospheres that are contested and more vibrant than they have been for a long time.

That in itself is a great achievement, for it provides opportunities for the future. Whether the citizens of these countries are willing to take advantage of those opportunities is up to them – but for the first time in more than a generation, they at least have the choice.

Read more: Egypt, Tunisia
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About
the Author

Dr H.A. Hellyer, is a non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution (Twitter @hahellyer)

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Charlotte Isaksson,
Senior Gender Advisor, Swedish Armed Forces, Sweden
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