The Arab Spring Revisited: From Mass Protests to Local Revolts

The push for change in the Mid­dle East and North Africa, dom­i­nat­ed by the bloody civ­il war in Syr­ia, has mor­phed from mass anti-gov­ern­ment protests in the cap­i­tals into a wave of small­er, polit­i­cal and socio-eco­nom­ic protests often in the out­ly­ing towns, that could lead to a sec­ond round of anti-regime demon­stra­tions in coun­tries that have so far man­aged to con­trol wide­spread dis­con­tent.


Tele­vised pic­tures of mass demon­stra­tions in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as well as in Tunis, Tripoli and Sana’a have been replaced by scenes of bit­ter mil­i­tary bat­tles in Syria’s main cities and towns. How­ev­er, the impres­sion that the wave of peace­ful protests that top­pled the lead­ers of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen has lost momen­tum is decep­tive.

A wave of small­er, more local protests in out­ly­ing towns sug­gest a rad­i­cal shift in the Mid­dle East and North Africa: a once rel­a­tive­ly docile, cowed pop­u­la­tion is apply­ing a new assertive­ness, a sense of empow­er­ment acquired from the ini­tial suc­cess of the Arab revolts to push demands for reform. They focus their objec­tive on hold­ing their gov­ern­ments account­able for cre­at­ing the polit­i­cal con­di­tions that will bring jobs and achieve eco­nom­ic growth and demon­strate that pop­u­lar dis­con­tent con­tin­ues to boil across the region in both pre-and post-revolt coun­tries.

Revolts in wait­ing

Bahrain remains a sec­ond pop­u­lar revolt-in-wait­ing. Last year’s Sau­di-backed bru­tal crack­down drove pro­test­ers from Pearl Square in the cap­i­tal Man­a­ma into the vil­lages where small­er groups of demon­stra­tors clash with secu­ri­ty forces almost dai­ly. Secu­ri­ty forces used tear­gas and bird­shot ear­li­er this month to dis­perse pro­tes­tors in three dif­fer­ent loca­tions out­side the cap­i­tal. Some 45 peo­ple were injured and 40 arrest­ed. The protests are fuelled by the government’s fail­ure to enact reforms that would put an end to the dis­crim­i­na­tion of the major­i­ty Shi­ite pop­u­la­tion and engage seri­ous­ly in talks with the oppo­si­tion. ‘

Con­fronta­tion in the oil-rich East­ern Province of Sau­di Ara­bia has inten­si­fied as the gov­ern­ment cracks down on pro­test­ers demand­ing an end to dis­crim­i­na­tion of the pre­dom­i­nant­ly Shi­ite pop­u­la­tion by a Wah­habi regime whose puri­tan inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam views them as heretics. Ear­li­er this month, masked gun­men shot and wound­ed a bor­der guard while a police­man and an armed pro­test­er were killed when a secu­ri­ty patrol came under heavy gun­fire. Activists are prepar­ing for anoth­er mass protest in the region a month after a promi­nent oppo­si­tion cler­ic was shot while being arrest­ed.

While protests in the Gulf are fuelled by sec­tar­i­an resent­ment and demands for the rights of the state­less, demon­stra­tions in much of the rest of the region focus on labour, eco­nom­ic and social issues as well as cor­rup­tion. They range from post-revolt Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen to Jor­dan, Alge­ria and Moroc­co that have so far fend­ed off pop­u­lar revolts. The wave of protests often pre­dates the mass demon­stra­tions of the past 18 months, but has gath­ered pace as a result of the pop­u­lar upris­ings as well as the glob­al eco­nom­ic cri­sis.

Activists and trade union­ists in Moroc­co, where the king ini­tial­ly took the wind out of the sails of the protest move­ment by ini­ti­at­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al change and hold­ing elec­tions that pro­duced an Islamist-led gov­ern­ment, demon­strat­ed this month in the cap­i­tal Rabat and oth­er cities against ris­ing fuel prices, con­tin­ued cor­rup­tion by the rul­ing elite and the government’s per­ceived fail­ure to address social griev­ances. Ear­li­er, sim­i­lar protests in out­ly­ing towns like Taza in the north­east of the coun­try, were bru­tal­ly repressed by secu­ri­ty forces. Achiev­ing eco­nom­ic growth is like­ly to prove dif­fi­cult giv­en that Morocco’s agri­cul­ture-based econ­o­my imports its wheat and ener­gy and mar­kets them at sub­si­dized prices while fac­ing reduced exports to and remit­tances from Europe as well as an expect­ed drought. As a result, address­ing this year’s eco­nom­ic demands could prove more dif­fi­cult than meet­ing polit­i­cal demands last year.

Caught by sur­prise

Sim­i­lar­ly, a tac­it under­stand­ing between Alger­ian soc­cer fans and secu­ri­ty forces that allowed the fans to raise their griev­ances as long as they were con­tained in the sta­di­ums is becom­ing increas­ing­ly frag­ile, arous­ing fears that the protests could at any time spill back into the streets of Algiers and oth­er cities. Dis­con­tent over lack of water, hous­ing, elec­tric­i­ty and salaries per­vades the coun­try, spark­ing almost dai­ly protests inside and out­side the sta­di­ums and clash­es with secu­ri­ty forces. A quar­ter of the Alger­ian pop­u­la­tion lives under the pover­ty line and unem­ploy­ment is ram­pant. Protests ear­li­er this year in Laghouat and oth­er oil and gas cities, sym­bol­ic of sim­mer­ing dis­con­tent, have gone viral in social media.

A gen­er­al strike has par­a­lyzed the home­town of Tunisian fruit sell­er Mohamed Bouaz­izi whose self-immo­la­tion in Decem­ber 2010 sparked the wave of Arab protests, to back demands that the gov­ern­ment resign for fail­ing to alle­vi­ate pover­ty, which they claim has wors­ened since the ouster last year of Pres­i­dent Zine El Abe­dine Ben Ali. In Jor­dan, protests by trib­al groups, long viewed as the bedrock of the roy­al fam­i­ly, sweep the coun­try­side on a week­ly basis, tar­get­ing King Abdul­lah and demand­ing polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic reform and an end to cor­rup­tion. In Egypt, despite a law to sup­press labour strikes decreed last year by the mil­i­tary coun­cil, the num­ber of protests and strikes has increased since the top­pling of Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak. Work­ers across Yemen have stormed gov­ern­ment and com­mer­cial offices to demand reform and the dis­missal of alleged­ly cor­rupt man­agers.

The world was caught by sur­prise when Bouaz­izi changed the course of his­to­ry. Gov­ern­ments, intel­li­gence agen­cies and the media failed to see the tell-tale signs of mass protest in the mak­ing. The writ­ing on the wall is still there. A Uni­ver­si­ty of Ams­ter­dam report just pub­lished warns: “Although the Arab Spring is still in its ear­ly stages and opti­mism is preva­lent (at least among some pun­dits), there are nev­er­the­less cer­tain devel­op­ments ongo­ing that could be described as alarm­ing. Pro­longed polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty and the lack of eco­nom­ic progress could have adverse con­se­quences for both the Arab world and the West, not only in terms of eco­nom­ic inter­ests but also in terms of secu­ri­ty.”

While the civ­il war in Syr­ia dom­i­nates the news the wave of protests and strikes in the small­er cities of Arab states along the Mediter­ranean to the Gulf fore­tells a groundswell of mass demon­stra­tions and revolts that seri­ous­ly threat­en the secu­ri­ty of the regimes across the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.