If Arab autocrats thought the political shakeup that followed the popular uprisings of 2011 ended, they should reconsider. Last year, protests erupted in countries that had not seen mass uprisings like those that swept across Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Recently, popular protests broke out in the one country, which long served as an example that repression could work: Algeria. In mid-February, protests erupted in response to the re-election bid of Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth presidential term. The ailing 82-year-old president has been in power since 1999.
Although mass protests have occurred in other countries recently, the protests in Algeria are particularly significant for three reasons. First, they broke out at a time when authoritarian regimes elsewhere seemed to be consolidating their power after years of unrest. Second, Algeria was the only major Arab republic that did not experience the Arab Spring phenomenon — until a few weeks ago. Finally, the response to the protests indicates that autocrats learned the wrong lessons after the Arab Spring.
Last year was generally a good year for autocracy in the Arab world. Bashar al-Assad secured his regime in Syria through a series of political and military gains, starting with high-level statements in Washington that his removal was no longer a U.S. policy objective and that the people of Syria should decide his future, and ending with U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprising decision to withdraw forces from the country. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won a second term unopposed in April.
The political winds generally seemed to be blowing in favor of the counter-revolutionary bloc led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. These Arab states viewed the end of the uprisings with a great sense of relief. They could now consolidate power and restore the repressive stability that predated the so-called Arab Spring. Even though Assad’s victory in Syria strengthened the axis’ nemesis, Iran, it was considered a positive development contributing to their idea of stability — and partly explains why Abu Dhabi reopened its embassy in Damascus in December.
However, last year also saw multiple protests in unexpected places. In Jordan, 30 trade unions organized demonstrations against a proposed tax law and increased fuel and electricity prices. The protests continued to gather pace, to the point where protesters demanded the downfall of King Abdullah. In Iraq, huge crowds in southern provinces protested endemic corruption and unemployment. Sudan followed suit, as thousands of people demonstrated against poor governance, rising prices, and unemployment, demanding President Omar al-Bashir to step down.
The new wave of protests shows that countries that escaped the fate of Libya and Syria have profound problems that still require solutions. The region will continue to be politically volatile and prone to uncertainty as long as these outstanding grievances remain unaddressed. This might seem self-evident, but policymakers in Washington and other capitals sometimes cite calm as an example that economic and political indicators are not always a sound basis for measuring regime insecurity. In private conversations with western policymakers, I have been told “population fatigue” ought to be factored in by observers assessing whether an authoritarian regime could stabilize a country.
But, as the new round of protests demonstrated, calm is not the same as content. A trigger for dissent could spark broader agitation even when a country’s political situation appears to be improving. Iraq, for example, faced protests and violence last July shortly after its first parliamentary election and after the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in December 2017. Large numbers of Saudi citizens are expressing discontent against the government and seeking asylum in the West in unprecedented numbers, even after the government contained the early shocks of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the rise of the Islamic State in 2014.
More of the Same
Of all the countries that faced protests over the past year, Algeria is the most illustrative of the ongoing process of autocratic meltdown. Until now, Algeria served as an example of how a violent end to a popular uprising could lead to enduring stability. According to this view, the lack of an uprising against the Bouteflika regime like those in neighboring countries correlates with the recent memory of violence in the 1990s. The same could be said about Hama in Syria, the site of a large-scale massacre in 1982; the city had a mass uprising in 2011 but not the violence and destruction that swept through other cities across Syria.
A common belief within the counter-revolutionary bloc is that uprisings in 2011 happened because the embattled regimes were not repressive enough and allowed dissent to emerge. This thinking leads such regimes to learn the wrong lessons from these uprisings: Instead of ending unrest by addressing the underlying problems, they propose more repression. This approach is reinforced by deteriorating economic conditions and dwindling resources, which make the regimes less capable of resolving the underlying issues. These regimes will continue with their repressive measures, whether because they believe it is the only solution or because they are incapable of an alternative.
Additionally, these regimes believe they have been vindicated after years of chaos and widespread destruction in multiple countries, and that they are getting closer to victory. As a result, offering compromises is not an option. Bouteflika has been in a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in 2013, unable to function as a president or even to speak. Yet the military and civilian elites refuse to bow even a little to the growing popular demands.
Boiling anger, unresolved conflicts, and deteriorating economic conditions could lead to new waves of dissent. In response, the new autocrats have little to offer in the way of meeting the demands of the people — only more of the same. For them, there are no lessons to be learned from the uprisings other than the need for more repression. Instead, they count on their people understanding “the lessons” of the Arab Spring, as they typically point to the savagery of the Islamic State and the mass-scale destruction in Syria and Iraq.
Hassan Hassan is the Director of the Non-State Actors in Fragile Environments (NSAFE) program at the Center for Global Policy. His work focuses on militant Islamism, nonviolent extremism, and the geopolitics in the Middle East. He is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and the co-author of New York Times Bestseller “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” (2015).