By Giorgio Cafiero
In 2011, there was much optimism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that the so-called Arab Spring revolts would make the region more democratic. Yet over the past eight years, the MENA region has become increasingly authoritarian. This year, Egypt’s head of state is essentially securing his presidency for life while Sudan cracks down on protestors, Gulf monarchies grew more autocratic, and the Arab world is basically accepting Syria’s regime back into the regional diplomatic fold. The idea that the Arab Spring is “dead” provides a sense of comfort to the Gulf leaders who shuddered at the earlier wave of revolutionary activism.
Officials in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals are determined to prevent a repeat of 2011. The crackdown on dissenters and oppositionists (both Islamist and secular) in these counter-revolutionary countries since 2011 has been especially harsh. But the leaders of the Saudi/United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led bloc of “counter-revolutionary” states have done much more than tighten their grip at home. In the words of Marc Lynch, this anti-revolutionary bloc has “rewired the entire region trying to prevent another Arab Spring.” So, for instance, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi provided diplomatic, economic, and military support for Bahrain’s Al Khalifa rulers in 2011, bankrolled the Egyptian coup of 2013, sponsored Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, and blockaded the only “pro-Arab Spring state” in the Gulf, Qatar.
Nonetheless, street demonstrations across Algeria and Sudan throughout late 2018/2019 suggest that the Arab Spring is not dead. The leadership in Saudi Arabia and other “pro-status quo states” in the Arab world fear that bottom-up change in Algeria and Sudan could spread across international borders. Bruce Riedel argues that Saudi officials observing events in Algeria “are worried about the implications of an increasingly incapacitated, elderly leader being ousted by popular demonstrations and demands for a more open political system—both anathemas to the Saudi absolute monarchy.” Recent protests in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia also inform this view that “the Arab street is regaining its voice” in 2019.
The leadership in Riyadh is likely hoping that Algeria’s “deep state” (the Algerian military, security apparatus, and business tycoons) remains in power in the Maghrebi country. Just as Saudi Arabia backed Algeria’s military in 1992—with financial aid and by encouraging George H.W. Bush to follow suit—the leadership in Riyadh will likely attempt to help the Algerian authorities maintain their grip over the country, particularly in the wake of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s recently announced resignation.
Yet with perpetually low oil prices, a costly war in Yemen, and its own ambitious economic reform program, Riyadh may not have sufficient funds to help Algeria’s leaders maintain power, particularly on top of financial obligations to Egypt and other Arab states. Moreover, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has a reputational problem in Algeria. Protestors demonstrated against his visit to the country last year, and the Algerian president also snubbed him by canceling their meeting. It’s unclear whether Riyadh can convince the Trump administration to back Algeria’s army.
The worst-case scenario in Algeria from Saudi Arabia’s perspective would be an anti-status-quo political order emerging in Algiers. Riyadh fears an Islamist ascendancy in Algeria, similar to Egypt in 2011/2012, particularly against the backdrop of anger on the Arab street resulting from Arab states’ warming up to Israel. In February, Abdul Razzaq Muqri, head of Algeria’s Muslim Brotherhood-aligned party, the Movement for a Society of Peace, attacked Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for allegedly supporting Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” He declared that “Saudi Arabia is exploiting its influence and connections to enforce the Deal of the Century and normalize relations with the Zionist entity, while the UAE is concocting the scheme with the occupation state to concretize such [a] plot.” In a grander geopolitical context, officials in Riyadh as well as Abu Dhabi are nervous about Algerian Islamists on friendly terms with Qatar and Turkey shaping the country’s post-Bouteflika era and further distancing Algeria from the kingdom’s influence.
At the Arab League summit held last month in Tunis, there was much consensus in discussions about Algeria and Sudan’s deepening crises. But even as they band together to collectively oppress the will of their citizens, while ignoring the need for reforms that can address underlying grievances, these authoritarian governments are not laying the foundations for long-term stability. If the basic needs of a population are not met and the public is not satisfied with government services, civic anger will inevitably boil over in resistance to authorities, no matter how oppressively they govern.
What happens next in Algeria, where ordinary citizens are banding together against military, business, and political elites, will matter heavily for the future of the region. Ultimately, most authoritarian regimes in the Arab world appear to have learned the wrong lessons from the events of 2011 and now believe that only more repression can bring stability to unstable corners of the region. Algeria’s ruling elite embraces such thinking at its own peril.