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A little more than a decade after the Arab Spring swept away many autocratic regimes in the Middle East and plunged others into chaos, a new authoritarian order is settling over the region. Egypt and Tunisia, the first two countries to rid themselves of longtime dictators in 2011, have weathered coups that pulled them back toward authoritarianism. Sudan, which had to wait until 2018 for its revolution to succeed, has also seen its once-promising transition to democracy derailed by a coup. Meanwhile, Iran has expanded its sphere of influence across the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, while China, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf states have increased their sway over many of the region’s weakest states. Thanks in part to these trends, President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in Syria is being quietly eased back into the Arab fold.
This is partly a story of authoritarian backlash. Alarmed by unprecedented scenes of citizens taking to the streets to demand their rights, the autocratic regimes that survived the first wave of the Arab Spring cracked down on those who joined pro-democracy protests and offered handouts to win over those who were considering doing so. Bahrain’s promises of jobs and pay raises in early 2011 and subsequent assault on demonstrators in Manama—aided by troops from Saudi Arabia—was the first example of this approach. It was followed by far more brutal crackdowns that ended in civil conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and a mix of repression and co-optation in other countries that saw minor protest movements, such as Jordan and Morocco. Later, authoritarian leaders would claw back power in Egypt, Sudan, and Tunisia.
Beyond a revenge of the old order, the autocratic resurgence playing out across the Middle East is a story of U.S. disengagement from the region and the geopolitical shifts that this has caused. The last three U.S. administrations, but especially the last two, have sought to pare back U.S. military commitments in the Middle East while maintaining Washington’s long-standing focus on combating terrorism. This has reduced U.S. influence in the region and made the United States more tolerant of autocratic partners, so long as they support its main priorities. It has also opened the door to greater regional activism by China and Russia and by regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states—all of which conceive of their national interests as extending far beyond their borders.
The result has been a partial resurrection of the old authoritarian order, except without the authoritarian bargain—whereby populations reluctantly accepted economic prosperity in lieu of political freedom—that once underpinned it. Autocratic governments across the region are cracking down on human rights and rolling back democracy, but they can offer little in the way of jobs or other economic opportunities in return. Even though oil prices have risen as a result of the war in Ukraine, improving the short-term economic outlook for some authoritarian governments in the Middle East, many others are still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and facing unfavorable long-term economic trends, including a looming climate crisis that will hit them harder than most. Today’s Middle Eastern autocrats are not the face of a new, stable authoritarian order. They represent a fragile arrangement that could crack in the near future.
The years since the Arab uprisings of 2011 have been disappointing ones for proponents of democracy. Not only have Libya, Syria, and Yemen been racked by civil war, but those governments that remained stable have for the most part preferred repression and surveillance to reform. In Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, and elsewhere, governments have restricted basic freedoms and cracked down on civil society. Many countries have imprisoned human rights defenders, and some, such as Bahrain, have revoked the citizenship of government critics. Still more have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to impose curfews, restrictions on movement, and heightened surveillance. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has used the messaging app ToTok to spy on millions of people.
Last year, coups in two countries called into question the region’s only remaining success stories. In July, the president of Tunisia, Kais Saied, suspended Parliament, fired the prime minister, and declared that he would rule by decree. He also ordered the arrest of members of Parliament and journalists who criticized his actions. In October, the army chief in Sudan, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, made a similar power grab, suspending the country’s transitional government, appointing a new cabinet, and granting the security services new emergency powers to hunt down Sudanese citizens resisting military rule.
This trend toward authoritarianism has been reinforced by the United States’ gradual disengagement from the Middle East. Over the last decade, Washington has let its expansive goals of democratization and regional transformation fall by the wayside, replacing them with a more modest set of priorities—namely, ensuring regional stability, keeping Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, and combating terrorism that threatens the U.S. homeland. The United States’ diminished presence in the region has given regional powers more space to pursue their authoritarian interests, and unsurprisingly, they have prioritized their own survival over the well-being of their people.
The trend toward authoritarianism has been reinforced by the United States’ gradual disengagement from the Middle East.
As Washington has pulled back, Russia and China have also moved to fill some of the void, threatening to turn the Middle East into an arena of great-power competition. Moscow has become deeply enmeshed in the Syrian conflict in particular, achieving significant diplomatic and military results at a relatively low cost. It has also increased its sway over other parts of the Arab world, especially North Africa, where it has used arms deals and mercenaries to advance its interests. The war in Ukraine has shifted Moscow’s focus back closer to home, but it would be premature to expect even a militarily stretched and internationally isolated Russia to turn its back on the Middle East.
China has also deepened its relationships with countries across the Middle East and North Africa, expanding economic and trade partnerships and building infrastructure, energy, finance, and technology initiatives. It has forged multilateral diplomatic agreements, including the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, and bilateral military agreements with Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Arab governments have welcomed China’s growing presence in the region, in part because it allows them to diversify their relationships with great powers as the United States pulls back, and in part because Beijing shares their antipathy toward democratic values.
In this context, a host of middle powers have also become more proactive about securing their interests in the region. The UAE, once a relatively minor regional actor, is now an influential player in Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa, often lending financial and political support to authoritarian governments and armed proxy forces at the expense of democratically elected or reform-minded leaders. Likewise, Turkey, which only a decade ago sought closer ties to Europe, is now an active player in North Africa and the Levant. It is carving out an ever-expanding zone of influence by backing mainly Islamist proxy forces in Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Qatar has also gotten into the game, alongside Saudi Arabia, which has long used its petrodollars to buy influence in the region. And, of course, Iran continues to exploit divisions in many Arab countries to augment its influence.
Not surprisingly, as authoritarian powers have pursued their interests farther abroad, they have often done so at the expense of democracy and human rights. Under the guise of “stabilization,” they have contributed to the fragmentation of some countries and undermined democratic transitions in others—most recently in Sudan and Tunisia, where the coup leaders received support from some Gulf countries. Other regional powers, including Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE, have begun to normalize relations with the Assad regime in Syria, even though it stands accused of war crimes. Their stated rationale is to curb Iranian influence in the Levant.
Once again, citizens in the Middle East are being asked to choose between freedom and stability. But unlike the last generation of Arab autocrats, who could at least claim to offer economic and social benefits in exchange for political obedience, the new crop of authoritarian leaders can promise neither prosperity nor stability. Faced with increasing economic headwinds, some owing to the pandemic and others to unfavorable long-term energy and climate trends, Arab states are increasingly incapable of holding up their end of the authoritarian bargain. Lebanon and Iraq are both in dire economic straits. Libya, Syria, and Yemen are mired in civil war and facing serious humanitarian crises. Even relatively stable countries such as Egypt and Tunisia are struggling economically, while the Gulf states, once unfathomably rich, must contend with the looming end of the oil era. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have given them a temporary respite, but eventually their rentier systems will become unsustainable. Across the region, ratios of public debt to GDP are rising while spending on public services is falling.
Lacking the means to co-opt society, some Arab governments have undertaken megaprojects intended to highlight the strength and grandeur of the state without delivering any actual services. Egypt is a prime example. The cost of a planned new administrative capital, owned primarily by the army and the Ministry of Housing, could reach upwards of $60 billion. Public spending on this and other nationalistic projects that aim to depict progress have driven Egypt’s ratio of public debt to GDP up to an astronomical 88 percent. To a lesser extent, Tunisia’s government has also pursued the politics of symbolism while ignoring economic realities, stoking popular discontent that in some ways mirrors the national mood in the lead-up to the revolution that began in 2010.
Once again, citizens in the Middle East are being asked to choose between freedom and stability.
Environmental challenges, including warming temperatures and water scarcity, will only make it harder for Arab countries to grow their economies and provide for their citizens. The Middle East is warming at twice the average global rate, fueling food insecurity, urban migration, and competition over resources. Eleven of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the world are in the region. And according to the World Bank, water scarcity will cost governments in the Middle East and North Africa between seven and 14 percent of their GDP by 2050. Increasing desertification and drought are pushing people toward cities, putting pressure on infrastructure and heightening tensions among communities. Between 2007 and 2010, for instance, droughts drove 1.5 million people from northeastern Syria to the west of the country, contributing to a dramatic increase in the urban population. This did not spark the uprising of 2011, but it did accelerate declining living conditions and fuel popular discontent. Today, conflict in Libya, Syria, and Yemen is contributing to the flow of refugees into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Somalia, Tunisia, and Turkey, sparking competition over scarce resources where local authorities have struggled to accommodate newcomers. In time, these population pressures are all but certain to stoke political and socioeconomic discontent.
Unable to provide for their citizens, Arab countries have grown more reliant on intimidation. This, in turn, has reinforced a regionwide culture of impunity. As Arab countries begin to normalize relations with the Assad regime in Syria, they do not seem interested in holding Syrian officials accountable for their horrific crimes. Nor does there appear to be much interest in resolving the refugee problem, which the Syrian regime will likely use as leverage to speed up the process of normalization. As long as Assad’s regime remains in power without a credible political solution, millions of refugees will be unable to return home. And as long as Syrian officials escape justice, authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East and beyond will have little incentive to refrain from committing similar crimes against their own people.
The new autocratic order settling over the Middle East is destined to be unstable. Far from the “durable authoritarianism” that many scholars once saw in the region prior to the 2011 uprisings, the blend of domestic repression, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, and international meddling that has taken hold in Arab capitals is likely to produce greater instability, more violence, and a resurgence of extremism.
Hollowed out by corruption and mismanagement and buffeted by adverse economic conditions, authoritarian governments in the Middle East are struggling to deliver the socioeconomic benefits that once pacified their publics. Armed actors, whether national security services or private militias, are playing an ever more important role in many countries—both economically and politically. Ordinary people, meanwhile, are being squeezed by growing violence on the one hand and dwindling resources on the other—just as they were prior to the Arab uprisings of 2011, and in Iraq and Syria, prior to the rise of the Islamic State.
To this political tinderbox, Russia and China have added heightened great-power tensions while Iran and the Gulf countries have stoked conflict and weaponized sectarian identities in pursuit of greater regional influence. Sunnis across the Middle East are bristling at Iran’s expansionist policies, having watched Syrian forces backed by Iran and Russia and a U.S.-led coalition against ISIS destroy four major Sunni cities—Mosul, Raqqa, Homs, and Aleppo. The Middle East’s authoritarian turn should reassure no one. Rather, it should serve as a warning of the greater instability to come.