10 years after the Arab Uprisings: legislators discuss ongoing hope for change and structural reasons of insecurity in MENA region

19 March 2021

Video of the meeting can be found at the bottom of the press release

On Thursday, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly held a high-level webinar with prominent experts on the ramifications of the 2011 Arab Uprisings a decade after protests first broke out across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Discussions focused on the internal political and socio-economic challenges facing MENA countries as well as the broader geostrategic changes taking place in the region today. 

“We have gathered to find out, together, what we can do, at our parliamentary level, to support the citizens and governments of the region on their way to peace, stability and democracy,” French lawmaker and Chair of the Assembly’s Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group (GSM) Sonia Krimi said opening the meeting.

The meeting involved some 30 national legislators from NATO member states as well as parliamentarians from the Middle East and North Africa.

The first session chaired by Canadian Parliamentarian Jane Cordy, reviewed the state of domestic politics in the MENA, highlighting both challenges and opportunities for MENA governments in the next decade. Ms Cordy set the scene by noting that the wave of popular uprisings that swept the region generated high hopes for its democratisation. However, she also stressed that, 10 years on, the dissatisfactions at the root of the 2011-2012 uprisings remain largely unaddressed, as evidenced by the eruption of new protests in Algeria, Iraq, Sudan, and Lebanon, among others.

Dr. Maha Yahya, Director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, noted that there is still significance resistance to change within existing regimes and institutions. Nevertheless, the revision of the old social contract will be inevitable down the road as the current trajectory of socio-economic and political evolution is unsustainable. “The central question is whether Arab leaders can get ahead of the changes that are coming”, Dr Yahya stressed. She also called for more active Western support for improvement of governance, education and economic development of the region, because “what happens in the MENA region, does not stay in the MENA region”. 

Dr. Luis Martinez, a research director at the Centre for International Studies (CERI) at Sciences Po Paris, drilled down on the case of Tunisia. He stressed that the nascent Tunisian democracy led to political instability, but also enabled the historic compromise between opposing political camps. Despite achievements, Dr Martinez also noted the government’s inability to meet socio economic expectations led to gradual disillusionment with democracy, manifested in lower voter turnouts and low trust in political parties. A purely political revolution without an economic component is insufficient, the speaker concluded.

Chaired by Sonia Krimi, the second part of the meetings focused on the current security situation in the MENA region. Dr Joost Hiltermann, programme director for the MENA region at the International Crisis Group, noted that drivers of conflicts in the region are both internally generated, such as religious or governance questions, and externally imported, including colonial and post-colonial interventions. He pointed out that most MENA conflicts include a combination of both types of drivers, which significantly complicates their resolution. For instance, prioritising the fight against ISIS could lead to the unintended aggravation of tensions around the Kurdish issue, Dr Hiltermann said.

Dr. Jean-Loup Samaan, an associate professor at the United Arab Emirates National Defense College, argued that NATO’s UN-mandated operation in Libya in 2011 marked the end of the era of ambitious Western interventions in the region. This strategic fatigue shifted focus from eliminating the fundamental problems of the MENA to merely mitigating their impact on the West. Limiting its role in the region to train-and-advice assistance to local partners is convenient for the Western countries, but it also means that the impact of assistance remains extremely modest. It also enables other external actors, such as China and Russia, to become more assertive, Dr Samaan said.

Both Dr. Hiltermann and Dr. Samaan were pessimistic with regards to resolving any of the various conflicts in the region anytime soon. Managing, containing and mitigating the impact of these conflicts is the most that can be achieved under the circumstances, they argued. 

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