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Arab Spring lives on as protests give way to new forms of activism

Arab Spring lives on as protests give way to new forms of activism

The uprisings that swept across the Arab world from late 2010 are, to put it mildly, faltering.

Egypt has returned to authoritarianism. Syria is a bloodbath. It is getting harder to decipher what is actually going on in Libya and Yemen. We cling to Tunisia as a glimmer of hope, but the outcomes for the protesters who took on authoritarian regimes across the region seem underwhelming, to say the least.

So what are all those Arab youth activists going to do now? Members of the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt are caught between authoritarianism and the Muslim Brotherhood. The non-violent Local Coordination Committees in Syria watch as extremists take over a revolution they helped to start. And, for the most part, the protests have stopped.

Is this the end of the Arab Spring?

Lina Khatib and Ellen Lust, writing for the Project on Middle East Democracy, argue against such pessimism:

While many are already speaking of an 'Arab winter,' we need to be careful not to assume that the lack of street demonstrations and overt activism represents a void of activist engagement.

Far from effectively ending activist engagement, changing contexts and relationships spur activists to innovate new strategies and change their demands. What was successful at one point in time—indeed, even powerful enough to bring down long-standing leaders—is ineffective and even counterproductive in rapidly changing contexts.

Research I carried out in Jordan, published today in a new Lowy Institute Analysis, supports such an assessment. [fold]

While an uprising proper did not occur in Jordan, something like 6000 demonstrations took place there between 2011 and mid-2014. The Jordanian monarchy, no doubt disturbed by the outcomes of protests in other parts of the Arab world, attempted to co-opt protesters by announcing a series of political reforms including constitutional amendments (the most significant changes to the constitution since 1952), the establishment of a constitutional court and independent electoral commission, the transfer of some of the monarchy's powers to the parliament, and revision of the controversial election law (which gerrymanders constituencies to favour the monarchy's supporters). King Abdullah II also announced that through 'successive parliamentary cycles' the 'transition to parliamentary government will deepen.'

A few years down the track, little of consequence has actually happened. While the January 2013 elections saw 'marked improvements in procedures and administration', the presence of 'systematic distortions' marred the result. The King still has the power to overrule the legislature and dismiss the prime minister (and indeed parliament itself). The election law continues to value some votes more than others

Despite the slow pace and limited scope of reform, domestically-focused protests since November 2012 have been smaller and more disjointed. Why are the Jordanian youth — especially its liberal segment — no longer taking to the streets?

In Jordan's Youth after the Arab Spring I argue that among a myriad of other factors, a sense of 'regional relativism' assists in keeping Jordan stable.

Jordanians have experienced the turmoil related to the Arab uprisings first hand, with more than 600,000 Syrian refugees officially residing in their country, equivalent to about 10% of Jordan's population. This has placed intense strain on Jordan's resources and social fabric. In addition, divisions over the Syrian civil war have polarised Jordanian politics, split opposition movements, and increased the risk of instability. 

This results in a 'culture of stability' in which activists know what they want their country to look like but are, understandably, wary of the potential volatility. According to one activist, there now exists 'a situation where lot of people think that reform and stability are mutually exclusive.' 

Still, everyone I spoke to agreed that despite the lack of substantive reform and the fear of instability, the political conversation in Jordan is now more open. There seems to be more space for young people to express themselves and to discuss topics that would have been taboo before 2011. And youth activists are exploring this opening in creative ways. 

Broader socio-political demands, difficult to implement and that carry the potential for instability or violence, have given way either to more targeted and achievable single-issue campaigns or to future-focused endeavours such as platform development and civic education. According to one activist I spoke to in Amman:

We have learnt a lot from what has happened in the region. We witnessed the failures on television. So instead of planning revolution we are exploring models...we need to develop successful and ethical models that people can look to and say, 'that is a good idea.'

The protests may have subsided and the world's attention is focused on more sinister developments in Middle East. But the youth activists who helped launch the Arab uprisings will also be important for the region's future, and we should keep an eye on what they're up to.

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