This review looks at government responses to violent protests in a selection of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Focusing on the 2011 Arab Spring protests, it finds that the initial response of most regimes was violent repression – Tunisia where the president stepped down, and Morocco and Jordan where the respective monarchies promised reform, are the only exceptions. However, the consistent failure by MENA governments to address the socioeconomic as well as political underlying causes of citizens’ grievances – in other words, their failure to genuinely accommodate protesters’ demands – leaves them vulnerable to renewed protests. That is what is currently happening in most of the countries reviewed. But this time round, unwilling to carry out the kinds of radical reforms needed, virtually all regimes are responding with violent repression.
Government responses to violent protests can fall into the following broad categories: non-response, accommodation, non-violent repression and violent repression. This review examines which of these were used by governments in select countries in the MENA region, and the long-term effects of these: were citizens’ grievances addressed, did reform take place, did regimes survive, and did protests die down over the long-term? It also looks at the role of international actors, specifically whether they exerted influence on governments to respond in a certain way.
The countries covered in this review are Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. They were chosen to be geographically representative (spread throughout the MENA region) and because they illustrate a range of government responses to violent protests.
Given the time constraints implicit in a limited review of this nature, it was impossible to cover government responses to violent protests in each country over extended periods of time. Hence the approach taken has been to focus on one or more sets of violent protests that were especially large-scale/significant, and assess the response to these. In most of the countries included in this review, those were the Arab Spring protests of 2011 (the exception is Iran, in which it was the protests following the 2009 presidential election results). The fact that most countries experienced protests around the same time facilitates comparison between their responses. Moreover, almost a decade has elapsed since those protests, and this provides a good perspective to assess what the long-term effects of government responses in each case were. It is also interesting to note that most of the countries covered in this review are currently experiencing significant public protests. This too allows comparisons to be made, both between individual country government’s responses then (in 2009/2011) and now, and between different countries now. This review draws largely on grey literature and media articles.
Key findings are as follows:
- Of the six countries reviewed, only one government response can be considered as genuine accommodation: Tunisia. Jordan’s is best described as nominal accommodation, while Morocco’s fits best into non-violent repression. Other responses (in Egypt, Iran and Iraq) all fall overwhelmingly under violent repression.
- The typical initial response by most governments to the 2011 Arab Spring/2009 Iranian elections protests, even Tunisia, was violent repression. Only Jordan and Morocco did not resort to violence (or only limited use of force). Tunisia’s switch to accommodation came about because violent repression wasn’t working.
- There were differences in the demands being made by protesters in 2011. Thus in Tunisia and Egypt the call from the outset was for regime change (the ouster of Ben Ali and Mubarak respectively). But in Jordan and Morocco people were demanding reform rather than regime change.
- Government responses can lead to changes in protesters’ demands, typically by making them more radical. This is seen where governments fail to keep reform promises (in such cases demands tend to change over the long-term), or if governments respond to protests with great brutality (in which case, demands can shift from reform to regime change very quickly). Examples of the former are being seen in Jordan and Morocco, where after years of failing to address citizens’ needs, protesters are now calling for regime change. An example of the latter is Iraq, where the government’s uncompromising crackdown on protests in 2019 led to demands changing from improved services and jobs, to a radical overhaul of the political system.
- Tunisia is the only country where accommodation led to genuine political reform – the ouster of the old regime and its replacement with democratic institutions, demonstrated by the conduct of successive free and fair elections. In the case of Jordan and Morocco, accommodation only comprised ‘tweaking’ with the system, while actual power remained with the respective monarchs. In the case of Egypt, where Mubarak did step down, he was quickly replaced by another ruler with military roots – hence, as in Jordan and Egypt, power has remained with the same groups.
- The failure to carry out genuine reform, or in Tunisia’s case the failure to address socioeconomic grievances, means that all countries are facing renewed protests. The intensity of these varies from country to country, but in all cases the initial government responses (in 2009/2011) did not lead to long-term stability.
- The cases reviewed here show that violent repression only works to end protests temporarily, and can often be ‘counterproductive’, in that it fuels greater anger and continued protests. Protesters’ resolve and determination increases the more repressive regimes become and the more brutal the treatment meted out to them.
- Social media is a powerful tool for protesters – seen in Tunisia, Iraq and Iran in particular. Governments recognize this, because their responses increasingly feature measures to control social media or restrict access through internet outages.
- Various factors influence the actions of governments and protesters. One factor that has worked to the advantage of incumbents, e.g. in Jordan, Morocco and Egypt, is fear of the alternative. Conflict, violence and instability in countries like Syria and Libya – and the fear that the same could happen in their countries – can weaken domestic protests.
- The role of the international community varies, but it is rare to see significant pressure being applied on regimes to accommodate protesters’ demands. In some cases, there is tolerance of human rights violations because the international community too is worried about the alternative – their national interests are served more by stability and the status quo, than by genuine democratic reform. This can facilitate governments which resort to violent repression.
- All the countries reviewed are unstable and in an unpredictable position. Virtually all are seeing what appear to be irreconcilable pressures: demands for radical change by protesters, versus determination by regimes to stay in power and to use increasing violence to do so. The situation in these countries is not sustainable over the long-term: either regimes will have to give in, or they will end up with large-scale social unrest and civil war.