An Expiry Date for Despots?

A new wave of Arab uprisings suggests that the authoritarian bargain of the past may be collapsing.

While thousands of Algerian citizens have continued to protest peacefully for the 40th consecutive week, demanding an accountable government and an end to corruption, streets in Iraq and Lebanon have turned into places of mass protests and ongoing confrontations between angry citizens and their governments.

These events were preceded in recent months by a popular uprising in Sudan, which led to the ousting of longstanding dictator ‘Omar al-Bashir and installed a new government based on a power-sharing agreement between the military and civilians. Meanwhile, in other Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt citizens have staged minor protests to voice economic, social, and political demands.

That Arabs are once again taking to the streets has pushed to the fore the question of whether we are witnessing a second wave of the 2011 uprisings. At the time, citizens in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain mobilized to remove autocrats and demand democratic change and accountable governments. However, apart from Tunisia’s success in building a constitutional and political framework for a democratic transition amid rising economic difficulties, all other Arab countries either entered into civil war and state destruction—as in Libya, Syria, and Yemen—or slid back into repressive rule after a brief political opening—as in Egypt and Bahrain.

The meager results of the 2011 uprising gradually silenced popular calls for democratic change and accountable government. By 2013 majorities in the Arab world, collectively demobilized from protesting or disenchanted because of civil wars and repression, seemed again willing to accept their governments’ autocratic bargain: food and security in return for submission to unaccountable rulers. In the past this was effective in curtailing protests and delegitimizing peaceful political demands as harbingers of chaos and destruction.

To ensure that the 2011 uprisings are not repeated, Arab governments, with the exception of Tunisia, have passed draconian laws limiting citizens’ freedoms. They have extended the reach of the security services to keep opposition groups and pro-democracy activists in check. Furthermore, Arab governments have allocated more and more of the scarce resources in their countries to regime loyalists in the upper echelons of corrupt state bureaucracies and to crony business communities. They have also used their vast media arsenals to create personality cults around the rulers—whether presidents, kings, or crown princes—who have been portrayed as their nations’ sole saviors.

Yet, toward the end of 2018 and throughout the last months of 2019 Arab governments unexpectedly started to face popular challenges to their hopes for a Pax Autokratia. In countries that were not part of the 2011 uprisings, citizens have marched in the streets demanding political change. In Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon, the protests have been fueled by economic hardship and widely shared negative perceptions of governments’ commitment to improving living standards and ending corruption.

All four countries are listed in the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International as endemically corrupt. Public opinion polls conducted in 2018 by Princeton University’s Arab Barometer have documented that economic development, combating corruption, and bettering the quality of public services are the most pressing issues for solid majorities in these countries. This is true for 79 percent of the Sudanese population, 81 percent in Algeria, 56 percent in Iraq, and 73 percent in Lebanon. Government institutions have lost citizens’ trust. According to the Arab Barometer, 70 percent of Sudanese do not trust their government, while the figure is 90 percent in Algeria, 87 percent in Iraq, and 81 percent in Lebanon….

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