Improbable Scenarios

Why Witnessing New Uprisings in the Region is less likely

Sunday، January 21، 2018
Improbable Scenarios

Over the past few weeks, protests have flared up across several countries in the region, such as Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Iran, reflecting latent potentials for instability, which have quickly evolved into a new cycle of violence and counter-violence. However, there is no indications that they will turn into a slippery slope as it happened in some Arab countries at the beginning of 2011 to create new states, different regimes and possibly different societies. 

Although protests moved from one city to another, with scenes or footage reminiscent of the so-called “revolutionary movement” seven years ago, the current wave of protests does not amount to “revolutions of the hungry”, overthrow the regime or threaten the survival of the state or suggest that what was termed “Arab Spring” has not ended as some writers suggest. However, they send messages to governments to improve living conditions, address internal deficiencies and “put the brakes” on expansionist tendencies at the expense of the welfare of communities.

The moment of explosion cannot be taken out of its context, or the so-called “all internal contexts”, despite the importance of “political contagion” theories and “domino effect” models, which indicate that Middle Eastern governments have been already operating under constant regional pressures. In addition, populations do not revolt every year or even every decade, since the governing factor is the “situational factors” -whether political pressures, security collapses or economic problems- which if available, protests may turn into uprisings or revolutions.

Sudden uprisings  

Countries in the region have been accustomed to sudden mass “uprisings” that do not amount to revolutions, as happened in Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s, which came to be called “bread riots” because the actions and decisions taken by the governments of those states to raise the prices, reduce subsidies and free float their national currencies came in response to the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), affecting broad sectors of society, including the lower and middle segments of the middle class.

Such unrest have been repeated in different times, most recently at the beginning of 2018, where the Tunisian protests led by a movement calling itself “Fech Nestannew” or “What Are We Waiting For?”. For example, protests erupted in several Tunisian towns such as Gabes, Kairouan, Gafsa, Tebourba, Douz, Kasserine, Siliana, El Kef and Sidi Bouzid against austerity measures, price hikes, increased taxes and suspension of the Fiscal Act of 2018 approved by the Assembly of the Representatives of the People on 9 December  2017, which included reducing the budget deficit to 4.9% compared to more than 6% in 2017.

The protesters in the adjacent neighborhoods to the capital Tunis chanted slogans, such as “poverty increased, hunger increased, citizens are oppressed”, “Your regime is decayed” and “unity government, people are suffering in the countryside” and “government shame on you, the prices are flaring like flames”. Tunisia still faces economic difficulties, especially in the remote southern regions, which also witnessed on last May protests against foreign petroleum companies’ exploitation of wealth without having positive impacts on the unemployed citizen in those areas.

Several states in Sudan, such as Nyala, Geneina, al-Damazin, Sennar and Madani have also recently witnessed protests led by school and university students, along with low-income families against rising prices of bread and other consumer goods, as demonstrators chanted “No, no to price rises”. Many Iranian cities also witnessed large-scale demonstrations beginning on December 28, 2017 protesting soaring prices, rising poverty rates, inflation and bankruptcy of lending institutions and the housing crisis as well as Iranian interventions in the internal affairs of Arab countries through supporting terrorist groups and armed militias, as shown in the slogans, such as “neither Gaza nor Lebanon, my soul is for Iran”.

It is important to note that the failure of successive governments in some countries of the region to provide solutions to development crises, the deterioration of purchasing power of large sectors of society, tax evasion, sale of public sector institutions, poor utilities and infrastructure, and the lack of a viable communication policy with remote and impoverished neighborhoods are all contributing factors to these waves of protests. Middle East Governments have in fact dealt with these security challenges as if they reflect “peripheral crises”  and “foreign conspiracies”. However, there are several factors that explain why the outbreak of a new wave of successive “uprisings”  in the Middle East is unlikely.

Weak triggers

1- Lack of triggers for a new revolutionary wave. This could be considered as catalysts for movements as the young Tunisian man Mohammed Bouazizi who set himself on fire in December 2010. These are turning points that prompt people to stage anti-government protests due to the lack of understanding from the part of the latter, which in turn are exploited by some political and social movements to advance their own agendas, as the political Islam movements, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, in some of the Arab Spring countries.

Strikingly, the current flurry of protests in Tunisia and Sudan does not call for the overthrow of the regime (with few exceptions), but rather the correction of government policies with regard to social problems, including restructuring subsidy funds. In previous years, protest movements assumed power, as Ennahda movement in Tunisia, which denounced, in various press statements, the “repeated calls by some political parties for citizens to protest to suspend the new Finance Act and throw the country into disarray”. 

The “transitional maze” 

2- Failures of internal transitions in post-Arab revolutions due to the complexities of transition from the collapse of old regimes to the construction of new ones in the so-called “transitional maze” that resulted from the transition from revolution to state in some Arab cases and the lack of developing viable political alternatives. Therefore, 2011 experience demonstrates that some countries were faced with revolutions that know where they came from but do not know where to go, bearing in mind that the common denominators among revolutions may not necessarily lead to common paths or directions given the nature of the transition phase, controlling political forces, alliances and the legacy of previous regimes.

There was a consensus among national powers and revolutionary movements in some Arab states to overthrow the old regimes, but no agreement was crystallized on the features of the new ones, which could not translate the slogans of “political freedom, social justice and human dignity” into a tangible reality. In other words, the forces of revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen had clear vision with regard to the existing regimes, but they had a distorted vision when it came to the establishment of new ones, which was later realized by various sectors of the elite and public opinion in the Arab states.

Consequences of chaos 

3- Sliding into chaos in states that survived the repercussions of the popular revolutions in 2011, especially in an unstable region plagued by long-standing political and military conflicts, both intra-state and inter-state, and being so prolonged that they have become intractable, with the majority of them being difficult to resolve or settle. This led many assessments to assert that broad sectors of public opinion are willing to return to the pre-revolutions stages. 

The chaos-scenario is compounded by the risk of cross-border terrorist organizations, some of them, such as ISIS, were attempting to launch their own 'state' in Syria and Iraq. Despite the disruption of this project, the danger of the organization remains, given that its cadres and leaders moved across the porous borders. In this context, most states in the Middle East have faced actual or potential threat of ISIS, along with threats from other terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and Boko Haram in Yemen and the African coastline respectively.

Constant decline

4- Weak momentum of protest movements which spread widely in many Arab countries and contributed to adopting the demands for better wages and fighting corruption and price hikes, albeit the driving forces of these protests were aware of the limited economic resources. Years later, protest movements witnessed rapid rifts over “sharing of the spoils”, implying that their alliances were temporary and fragile.

Moreover, criminal groups exploit some protests to rob, loot, break into shops and set fire to government buildings. In this context, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Tunisia, Khalifa al-Shaibani, said in media statements on 9 January 2018 that “Security operations in several parts of Tunisia are unrelated to the peaceful movements demanding development or protesting rising prices”. 

The revolutionary movements in Sudan are also fragile, as the leader of the Alliance of Revolutionary Forces, Arcua Minnawi, in a recorded speech dated January 10, called the opposition forces and civil organizations in Sudan to “unite to change the regime through the establishment of a unified center of opposition forces”.

Factional demands

5- Factional demands are those put forward by protest movements in some Arab states. Recently, Algerian resident doctors (whether they are specialist doctors, pharmacists or dentists, or those who completed their study as general practitioners and continue to study for specialization) in the capital Algiers, Oran, Constantine, Annaba, led a protest movement to demand the repeal of the civil service, where they stopped studying and working in hospitals. According to them, the civil service system has proved unsuccessful because of the poor working conditions in remote areas of Algeria.

In addition, Algerian doctors demand the repeal of the year-long military service, where the Ministry of Defence has excluded them from military service exemption after reaching the age of 30, unlike all other disciplines, and the Autonomous Collective of Algerian Resident Doctors (CAMRA) deemed this procedure inconsistent with the constitution, which states that all citizens are equal.

In the past few weeks, the residents of the Moroccan city of Jerada have also continued to protest the deaths of two brothers in a coal-mining well on 23 December 2017, the city has been in a special situation since the closure of the Jerada mining company 10 years ago. The city has relied on this company for 100 years, and despite the company’s closure, coal mines continued to be exploited randomly, due to the lack of alternatives to the population.

The central role of armies

6- Non-division of regular armies is one of the determinants that explain the resilience of some political systems and the collapse of others in the region, as manifested in the revolutionary movements in 2011, where armed forces played a key role in determining the possible routes of protests. This may explain Tehran’s ability to overcome the protests over the past three weeks due to the support of the army, the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basij. In addition, the Tunisian army was deployed to secure main governmental headquarters and critical infrastructure after the recent outbreak of protests.

Infiltration policies

7- Exposure of regional intervention motives particularly from countries such as Turkey, Iran and Qatar, which are pushing towards the realization of their transnational interests, teaming up with each other to undermine the structures of Arab states and support armed militias and terrorist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Houthi militia in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and sectarian militias in Iraq. These sub-state entities represent projects that are inimical to regional stability and are supportive of chaos.

Qatar is no longer a supporter of change as it claimed during the Arab Spring. Currently, it is viewed as an interventionist nation with a biased political agenda, which helps explain the resentment at the Qatari involvement in the internal affairs of Arab states. It has become evident that Doha's policies threaten the national security of regional states, pushing the Arab anti-terror quartet to take actions against it, as its role was largely limited to Arab hotbeds. Tehran is also busy dealing with internal protests, while Ankara is concerned about its own problems with the Washington and Moscow over the Syrian crisis and relations with the Kurds. 

Internationalization of protests 

8- Double standard position of international powers: This applies to the U.S. policy towards Iranian protests. The Iranian regime has managed relatively to exploit the position of President Donald Trump on Tehran, who called for  “time for change” and respect human rights and the need to release demonstrators, in order to promote allegations of foreign conspiracy led by international powers, and rally its supporters to reject the U.S. intervention in its internal affairs, especially since the Russian-European position is incompatible with that of the U.S., which is argued to have hindered the protests from turning into a revolution.

Moscow has rejected Washington's proposal to internationalize the protests in Iran, as was clear form the position of the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, on January 4, 2018, who described the U.S. proposal, to hold an emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss protests, as “harmful and destructive”, highlighting Moscow’s opposition to the intervention of the U.S. in the internal affairs of Iran. French President Emmanuel Macron also stressed that the change in Iran must come from the Iranian people alone, not from abroad, while Turkey warned of a backlash against attempts by outside parties to interfere in Iran’s domestic policies.


Based on the above, the Middle East environment does not catalyze “uprisings” or “new revolutions”. Most protests lack having a “revolutionary” political organization capable of translating ideas into action. In addition, there is the non-motivating experience of protests in 2011 that weakened the national states and regular armies and encouraged the interventions of destabilizing forces. Elites, public opinion and strong armies in the region do not want to repeat the scenes or experiences of weakening the internal immunity, whose impacts are still witnessed regionally.

Keywords: IranTunisiaArab SpringAusteritySudanUprising#IranProtests