Delayed Effects: The Arab Spring

Published June 20, 2012
By Nate Haken
The Failed States Index
In analyzing the Arab Spring, metaphors matter. If it was a seasonal awakening of democracy we should throw open the windows, that is, welcome it. If it was a contagion of unrest, then we should board up the doors, i.e., control it. If it was a pressure cooker blowing its top, the response should be cautious and deliberate; in other words, we should manage it.

The Failed States Index (FSI) does not conclusively answer the question of which metaphor is most apt, though CAST, the methodology behind the index would tend to preference the last one, with its basic construct of pressures and institutional capacities as a theoretical framework for understanding state fragility and failure.

A look at the content analysis data, aggregated monthly by country, gives us a better picture of what happened over the course of the year. The beginning of the year was the most eventful in terms of protest and collective action. First, in January, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia went into exile. Then, in February, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt stepped down. This was followed by three months (February, March, and April), of protests spilling across the region, including in Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. Taking an average of the protest scores for all 19 Middle East and North African, or “MENA” countries, the regional trend is clear.

The content analysis data measuring trends in protests for these countries were highly correlated—some more so than others. A group of countries that was particularly correlated over the course of the year was, Bahrain, Iran, Libya, Oman, Syria, and Yemen.

In Yemen, protests began in January and continued in March, despite promises by President Ali Abdullah Saleh not to extend his term past 2013. In Bahrain, protests began in February and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was initially conciliatory, but as the protests continued into March, he declared martial law and called in Saudi troops to restore order. In Syria, protests began in March. In an attempt to dissuade the protesters, President Bashar al-Assad released some prisoners and lifted the state of emergency, but only two months later, the crackdown began. In Oman, protests were not nearly as severe, however the trends tracked closely with the other countries in this group. In February there were protests in which one person was killed by police and since then there have been reforms enacted, including in the October election. In Iran, there were protests in February, the first since the “Green Wave” of the previous two years. Then, in November, protesters attacked the British embassy in Tehran in opposition to economic sanctions being imposed by the West. In Libya, protests broke out in February which led to a crackdown and subsequent international intervention.

Different countries tried different combinations of approaches to dealing with the protests as they gathered momentum. Even Syria initially adopted the “pressure cooker” metaphor and tried managed conciliation. Then, when it became clear that the protesters would not be conciliated, the preferred metaphor changed to “contagion of unrest,” and doors started slamming shut as the tanks rolled in.

The impact of these protests on the overall CAST trends, as measured by content analysis, varied significantly, with Oman and Bahrain able to keep the social and political pressures from escalating, Iran holding steady under high pressure, while Libya, Syria, and Yemen, are desperately trying to hold it together.

After the economic and democratic populist uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, there was a lot of discussion about what these countries had in common making them susceptible to such instability. If we can understand the drivers and the triggers, we will be able to better forecast and manage such upheavals. People started hypothesizing about the next region of the world where people power would burst onto the scene.

The FSI is not a forecasting tool. It tracks current trends in social, economic, and political pressure. As such, it can provide some insight into where policy makers should target their resources in the interest of sustainable security. The Index can be used to identify hotspots by region, time period, and sector. Looking at the most recent FSI scores of those six countries where protests were so tightly correlated, the differences between them are jarring. A cookie-cutter approach will not do. Yemen has much higher demographic and economic pressures than any of the five countries in this list. Refugees/IDPs range from the very low (Bahrain and Oman) to the very high (Syria and Yemen). Human Flight is not extremely high for any of the six countries. The indicators that are most consistently high for these six countries are Group Grievance (with the exception of Oman), State Legitimacy, Human Rights, Security Apparatus (with the relative exceptions of Bahrain and Oman), and Factionalized Elites.

Still, if pressures in these indicators are brought down, there is no guarantee that protests will dissipate. There is no guarantee, either, that the ruling governments will suddenly be accepted by the people. Sometimes, in order to build sustainable security, governments must change. But as Sun Tzu wrote over one thousand years ago, and as we learned the hard way in Iraq, “Taking a state whole is superior. Destroying it is inferior to this.” If the state is destroyed, whether from within or from without, in the process of bringing about the hoped-for season of Spring, anarchy can overwhelm the system, making things much worse than they ever were in the first place.