Signs of Redemption Amidst Arab Political Upheavals in the Age of Trump

Protester in Algeria (Saddek Hamlaoui via Shutterstock)

by Emile Nakhleh

The anti-regime convulsions currently underway in Algeria and Sudan are the latest version of an “Arab Spring” that erupted in 2011 and that Arab autocrats and their security regimes ultimately quashed. The massive street protests in Algeria and Sudan forced the presidents of both countries—Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir—to resign. Thousands of protesters have also filled the streets in Morocco demanding the release of political prisoners. If the protesters in Algeria and Sudan succeed in their demands to dismantle the security “deep state” in these countries, the result would be a delayed but fitting continuation of the 2011 upheavals.  

If the army accedes to popular demands and democratically chosen civilian governments emerge in Algeria and Sudan, Arab autocracies and publics will have to ponder several important lessons from the newer version of the “Arab Spring.” The key lesson is that deposing leaders is a critical but insufficient step toward genuine political reform. True democratization must include removing the entire security apparatus, which has sustained the deposed leader in the first place. In the Arab world, the “security” state has been a conglomeration of a strongman regime, a pro-regime military, a compliant intelligence service, a docile judiciary, and a powerful group of business oligarchs tied to the ruler through corruption and kinship.

Another lesson is that the public is more interested in “bread and butter” and human dignity than in politics, and that rising food and fuel prices often drive thousands of people into the street. Dictatorial regimes could keep the lid on their peoples’ anger for a while, but their citizens’ daily struggles to feed their families and desire to live in dignity in the long run are more resilient and enduring than regime brutality. The regimes that survived the 2011 protests—for example, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Syria—must be watching unfolding developments in Algeria and Sudan with dread.

The third lesson is that Arab regimes have multiple tools and weapons of repression, which they have used frequently and without moral qualms to cow their people into submission. But when people coalesce in large numbers around a specific grievance and are ready to face down the regime despite its brutality, their fierce determination presents a serious challenge to regime repression. In 2011, the “Arab street” forced four dictators out of office even though each of them had ruled for over three decades. In the current Arab spring, the toppled rulers of Algeria and Sudan had also ruled their countries for decades. The jury is still out on the fate of the monarchical government in Morocco.

Finally, since 2011, Arab publics have come to realize that internal revolutions against the regime are often influenced by the policies and actions and inactions of external actors within the region and globally. The malign intent and actions of some of these actors, often in support of authoritarian regimes, frequently help foster a counter-revolutionary set of actions designed to undermine the popular revolution. Russia’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria is only one example. Washington’s support of the Egyptian “coup” in 2013 is another.

Because of their fear of what could happen in their own countries, the Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini regimes, in coordination with the Egyptian military under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, spearheaded a counter-revolutionary campaign against the leaders of the Tahrir Square. A similar campaign targeted the Pearl Square protesters in Bahrain. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are now reportedly working against dismantling the security state in Algeria and Sudan.

The Egyptian, Saudi, and Emirati regimes are also actively supporting Khalifa Haftar of Libya in his push to become the strongman ruler of the country. Much like Sisi’s grandiose title when he quashed the Egyptian popular revolution, Haftar has given himself the title of “field marshall.” Because of his enchantment with strongmen and autocrats, President Trump is also supporting Haftar’s military drive to conquer the capital Tripoli—contrary to the advice of his State Department, many other countries, and the United Nations.

The Arab Spring Then and Now

In 2011 and for a short time only, President Barack Obama and many world leaders viewed the Arab uprisings as a popular call for dignity, freedom, and democracy. They welcomed the departure of the autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. Once the rulers fell, American and other Western leaders were satisfied with the immediate outcome of the uprisings. Because of their respective national interests, these leaders felt that further dismantling of the state security establishment would undermine their long-term relations with post-revolutionary Arab countries, including with the emerging dictators.

The leaders of the uprisings felt betrayed by the so-called pragmatic policies of the major powers and the nefarious actions of neighboring states. As long as the post-Arab Spring dictators proclaimed their vocal commitment to fight terrorism, especially the Islamic State, Western leaders turned a blind eye to their human rights violations, massive illegal arrests, sham trials, and torture of peaceful dissidents. Nor did Russia and China shed any tears about human rights in these countries.

Because of his intent not to get involved in another Middle Eastern war, and perhaps because of Russia’s and Iran’s military support of the Assad regime, President Obama’s efforts to persuade the Syrian leader to step aside were unsuccessful. The world watched with horror as Assad systematically destroyed his country, gassed his people, and forced millions of Syrians out of their homes as internal, regional, and international refugees.

In the oil-rich Arab region, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar spent billions of their oil wealth to placate their citizens and contain popular protests. In oil-poor Bahrain, however, the minority Al Khalifa Sunni regime used unprecedented repression to subdue the mass protests., claiming that Iran directed them. Thousands of Bahraini citizens have been tortured and still languish in Bahraini jails. Several hundred citizens have also been deprived of their Bahraini citizenship.

The issues that fueled the failed 2011 uprisings continue to plague Arab society. During the past eight years, Arab states for the most part have devolved from nation-states to fiefdoms ruled by strongmen, potentates, and tribal princes assisted by a pervasive security structure and a business-military power system umbilically tied to the ruler. The rule of law has given way to repression; transparency and accountability have given way to systemic corruption. Governance, domestically and internationally, has shifted from a national political system to personalized, sycophantic political actions that cater to the economic and megalomaniac interests of the strongman at the top. The French monarchical adage, “l’etat c’est moi,” is alive and well in most Arab countries where rulers unabashedly equate the state with their personal interests. This absolutist hold on power will ultimately self-destruct.

These Arab autocrats have felt particularly emboldened since the start of the Trump presidency. Support for these regimes, however, does not guarantee their survival regardless of the ongoing close relationship between some of these autocrats, especially the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Arab autocrats by now must realize that internal factors, not external personal relationships, are the real drivers of change in those societies.

Trump and Pompeo have profusely praised Egypt’s Sisi despite his growing despotism and his altering of the Egyptian constitution to in effect anoint him president for life. The American ambassador to Saudi Arabia declared that the fight against Iran trumps concerns for human rights. Pompeo’s speech in Cairo this past January praised Sisi’s iron fist rule and barely touched on human rights despite the on-going regime brutality toward the Egyptian people. This warped and archaic colonial posture coincides with the demise of the nation-state and the rise of tribal politics in Arab politics, which diverges very little from Trump’s presidential practices.

If history is any guide, dictatorships do not endure, whether in America, in Arab lands, or elsewhere. When the Arab peoples finally coalesce against their dictators, the message will be clear: enough is enough. Algeria, Sudan, and perhaps Morocco might be charting the new map of the Arab world. If this happens, will the Trump administration and successive American administrations cling to a dying breed of autocrats or stand on the right side of history?

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.