15 May 2015

After the Arab Spring: What does the future look like for the Middle East and North Africa?

In a new study from FOI, research scientists analyse the security dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa and the challenges facing the region over the next 5-10 years. They conclude that the region is probably heading towards increased instability, a situation that will entail increasingly clear consequences for Europe as well.

The Middle East and North Africa (the MENA region) is currently undergoing a period of fundamental change. The process started four years ago with the so-called Arab Spring. The general mood at that time was euphoric and many hoped for a wave of democratisation. But subsequent developments have pointed in other directions. Mikael Eriksson and Samuel Bergenwall, both scientists at FOI, are the authors of the report entitled “Mellanöstern och Nordafrika i ett 5–10-årsperspektiv” / "The Middle East and North Africa in a 5-10 year perspective". The report is in Swedish with an English abstract.

“It is very difficult to predict how the situation will develop. But the general tendency that we see in the region is towards increasing security challenges, with armed conflicts and a reversion to authoritarian rule,” says Mikael Eriksson who holds a doctorate in political science. The situation in the MENA region will, in all probability, also entail increasingly clear consequences for Europe. We have already witnessed some of these: the recurring problem of ‘foreign fighters’ who bring with them to Europe the tensions from the conflict areas in the MENA region. The situation in Syria has also given rise to complex areas of impasse in the international sphere, not least in the UN.

In recent years the popular uprising in Syria has developed into a situation of civil war involving many different actors, both state and non-state, which has made finding a political solution even more difficult. In particular the situation has strengthened the extremist movement IS (Islamic State) in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Due to the emergence of IS, many countries have been forced to focus increasingly on counter-terrorism and power sharing rather than on democratic processes.

The challenges to be faced in the MENA region are primarily about the creation of long-term structural solutions: properly functioning institutions, social contracts between citizen and state and the distribution of resources between different population groups. But it does not stop there: in the longer term even greater challenges await, such as climate change and lack of water. These challenges may in turn create new tensions.

All this sounds predominantly gloomy but there are some rays of hope. The majority of the countries in the region have introduced constitutional changes entailing clearer political representation. More voices have made themselves heard in the cause of women’s rights. In Tunisia, where the revolt began, constitutional changes have been successfully introduced and there is now increased dialogue between political leaders and the population at large. This is an example that many would wish to follow. Mikael Eriksson even feels able to talk about a cautious optimism:

“There has been speculation in some quarters that MENA may eventually find itself in a situation not unlike that which existed prior to the start of the revolts. But that is unlikely to be the case. Even if we were to see a reversion to authoritarian rule in certain countries, so many new processes have come into being, and so many new actors have come into play, that there is no prospect of a return to the original state of affairs. The so-called ‘wall of fear’ that was demolished in the Arab Spring no longer exists. People now dare to challenge and protest in quite a different way.