Academic journal article Insight Turkey

The Arab Uprisings Two Years On: Ideology, Sectarianism and the Changing Balance of Power in the Middle East

Academic journal article Insight Turkey

The Arab Uprisings Two Years On: Ideology, Sectarianism and the Changing Balance of Power in the Middle East

Article excerpt

The fall of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia in January 2011, followed by the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt a month later, unleashed a tumultuous series of events in the Middle East and North Africa. Two years on, the region is still grappling with the impact of the Arab revolts. The wave of optimism for the region's future associated with Tahrir Square has given way to horror at the bloodbath in Syria. In countries where regimes have been replaced as a result of the uprisings, namely in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, there is hope, but also uncertainty. In Bahrain, fear and hatred reign after the suppression of the rebellion. Other parts of the region--the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Jordan, and Morocco--are still experiencing the after-effects of the uprisings.

This paper assesses the political situation in the Arab world two years after the start of the uprisings. I have suggested elsewhere that the causes of individual revolts must be sought primarily in the domestic realm of each country in which they occurred. (1) However, their collective impact on the broader Middle East and North African region is considerable and must be studied separately.

It constitutes the main focus of this paper. I argue that, although ideology and sect do play a role in the developments which are unfolding at the regional level following the uprisings, they must be understood primarily in terms of the main players' changing power calculations and competing regime and national interests. This paper starts with an assessment of current political developments in the Arab world and then discusses the impact of the uprisings on radical, Salafi, and moderate Islamist groups. Focusing on the Middle East-wide confrontation between an Iran-centered and (for want of a better description) a pro-Western camp, the last section draws out the implications of those domestic political developments and the evolving role, position and strength of Islamism for regional trends and balances.

A Summary of Domestic Political Developments in the Arab World

Depending on the impact of the 2011 uprisings (or lack thereof) on their domestic political situation, we can divide Arab states into three categories. Rebellions which overthrew or seriously challenged incumbent regimes occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. Beyond those six Arab countries, the uprisings also affected the internal political situation and developments in Morocco and Jordan, and the remaining GCC states. Another cluster of Arab countries--Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, and Palestine--have been relatively unaffected by the revolts, although their stability (particularly Lebanon's) may still be challenged by them. (2)

Two years after the outbreak of these tumultuous events, the Arab Middle East is still in flux. The current situation may be better captured by a somewhat different typology: rather than dividing Arab states into three categories it is more accurate to situate them in a continuum. The criterion for doing so is the level of conflict--violent, political, festering or minimal--which resulted from the uprisings and still characterizes the domestic political situation in each case. According to this analysis, Syria must be placed at one end because it is experiencing a bloody civil war, and a country such as Algeria can be placed at the other end because it has been relatively unaffected by the events of 2011 and their aftermath. I will look at all the Arab states in the order they hold in this continuum, starting with Syria.

The uprising which broke out in Syria in spring 2011, and is still exacting a gruesome toll on its people, is currently the focal point of Middle East international politics. The uprising started in a tentative fashion, in response to small-scale and isolated grievances, but the harsh response by the Bashar al-Assad regime, and in particular the uniformly brutal tactics of its army and security forces, caused an upsurge of popular revulsion and a strong reaction from the people. …

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