The optimism surrounding the Arab Spring is giving way to fears of the next revolution. Daily, people around the world watch the triumph of bringing down Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak descend into pitched battles between secular protesters and an increasingly alienated government run by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt is on the brink, with military leaders warning of a possible collapse of the state. This pattern of unrest highlights what is likely to be a long struggle ahead, not just in Egypt, but in multiple countries struggling in the wake of the Arab Spring to consolidate democratic gains.
Egypt is exhibiting patterns common to many revolutions captured by historian CraneBrinton in his 1938 book, “The Anatomy of Revolution.” The struggle to bring down a dictator is followed by a consolidation phase. There is no peace at the end of revolutions. Factions once aligned against a common enemy turn on one another, which leads to pitched battles resulting in unrest threatening the new regime. The glory of the revolution becomes a war of all against all, marked by reactionary violence.
This pattern is on display in Egypt. A cloud of mob violence hangs over the country. In the lead-up to the adoption of a new constitution, conflicts between the supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the secular opposition kept the country on the brink. Elements sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood attacked secular opposition protesters, beating some to extract confessions of “foreign support.” Likewise, elements sympathetic to the secular opposition burned multiple Muslim Brotherhood offices.
Despite “winning” the constitutional referendum, Mr. Morsi’s government continues to unravel. Elite defections weaken his cabinet. The economy remains stagnant and structurally flawed by subsidies, corruption and a current account crisis brought on by weak growth and a flight of foreign investment. In December, the International Monetary Fund announced they would postpone a $4.8 billion loan at least a month due to the political turmoil as well as a reluctance by the Egyptian president to implement reforms. As the economy deteriorates, it sharpens existing cleavages in Egyptian society and increases popular frustrations likely to play out on the street. The army, as the final arbiter of who rules in Egypt, appears to be holding the balance in exchange for retaining a privileged position.
Protests, enduring rivalries and the emergence of hardline Salafi groups questioning the legitimacy of the state plague post-revolution Libya and Tunisia. In December, Tunisian security forces fired tear gas and live rounds at crowds protesting the stagnant economy. The government ended up occupying Siliana to put down widespread rioting. The economic malaise that mobilized Tunisians and sparked the Arab Spring over a year ago remains. The economy is contracting, inflation is on the rise and unemployment remains high. The net effect is an expectations gap likely to produce further unrest.
There is a lingering crisis of authority in post-Gadhafi Libya. Parts of Libya are in a state of utter lawlessness. The threat of tribal conflict simmers under the surface in Southern and Western Libya. Weapons continue to pour out of the country, leading to unrest in the region. As seen in the Benghazi attacks on Sept.11, the influence of radical Islamic elements is a persistent problem. While Salafi groups are a minority, the ease with which they can access weapons creates problems for the interim government.
This is the anatomy of the next revolution. Beyond Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the region sits on the brink. Cycles of violence and unrest look set to continue into 2013 as the new regimes consolidate their authority across the Middle East and North Africa. There will be further riots, reactionary violence and struggles to control the state before any peaceful democratic transition emerges.
Benjamin Jensen, an assistant professor in American University’s School of International Service and at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, served in Afghanistan in the U.S. Army Reserve.
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