Civil unrest on the rise, but a new Arab Spring is unlikely for now

In 2010, the now familiar spectacle of drought, floods, and high energy costs provoked a rapid rise in global food prices. Within a year, the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt were ousted as mass protests broke out across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region under the slogan of “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice!”.

Fast forward to 2022, and prices have risen at a similar rate to 2010 – provoking a rise in civil unrest risk across the MENA region and the globe in general. As our recent judgement-based forecasts show, however, increased civil unrest risk is unlikely to translate into another Arab Spring as governments hold discontent in check with heavy repression and cash transfers from the hydrocarbon-rich Gulf states.

Rulers have tightened their grip

Our forecasts cover five states across MENA of varying economic heft and government type to capture a snapshot for the region at large. Three of these countries – Tunisia, Turkey and Iran – are rated extreme risk in the latest edition of our Civil Unrest Index (CUI). Egypt and Saudi Arabia are rated high and medium risk respectively. But the consensus is that the probability of an ousting of a leader in any of these five countries remains unlikely to remote, ranging from 3% for Saudi Arabia to 14% for Tunisia. Given the socio-economic pressures that many of these countries are under, why is the risk of destabilising change so low?

The main reason is the increasingly repressive measures taken by governments across the region, that leave little to no space for public protest or civil disobedience. Indeed, all 20 MENA countries are rated either high or extreme risk in the latest edition of our Freedom of Assembly Index - which tracks the repression of protests, meetings and religious gatherings by state and non-state actors - up from 17 in 2017-Q3.

Egypt’s 2013 military coup, in which the elected president Mohamed Morsi was ousted, is a bellwether in this regard. One of the first acts of the new, military-backed government was a deadly crackdown on remaining supporters of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi in Rabaa Square, in which security forces are estimated to have killed at least 900 people. The government subsequently introduced a ‘protest law’ which banned gatherings of ten or more people, in effect outlawing demonstrations. The law has been ruthlessly implemented since.

In Iran, violent crackdowns on protestors by security forces are commonplace. Indeed, the routine use of deadly force against protestors is a key driver of Iran’s extreme risk rating on our CUI, where it ranks as the fifth highest risk country globally. Iran’s countervailing rating on our Government Stability Index, however, is low risk, a sign of how the government’s repressive measures maintain its grip on power. In Turkey, the intensifying restriction of press freedom sees it rated extreme risk, and the 22nd highest risk country globally, on the latest edition of our Freedom of Opinion and Expression Index.

In the wake of Egypt’s 2013 coup, Tunisia remained the only democratic success story of the Arab Spring. The failure of successive governments to deal with grinding economic crisis, however, paved the way for Tunisian President’s Kais Saied’s July 2021 autogolpe, in which the democratically elected leader usurped parliamentary authority to introduce presidential authoritarianism. A constitutional referendum in July, marred by poor turnout, secured Saied’s seizure of powers in law and put Tunisia’s democratic transition into reverse.

That Tunisia’s leader is at most risk of ousting (14%) should, however, come as no surprise. Saied’s options for resuscitating Tunisia’s moribund economy are limited, and a financial bailout from the IMF will likely require unpopular decisions, including cuts to public sector employment. Such a move would spark conflict with the UGTT, Tunisia’s powerful trade union confederation, which already staged a debilitating nationwide strike across Tunisia in June 2022.

Petro-states look to export political stability

While countries in MENA that are dependent on food and/or energy imports like Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey are struggling to make ends meet, energy exporters in the Persian Gulf are enjoying a cash windfall. This is a key reason for the remote risk (3%) of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman being ousted from power, as he ramps up spending on welfare to protect citizens from rising prices. Indeed, Gulf rulers are willing to employ this cash to buttress regimes elsewhere, in effect exporting petrodollar-fuelled political stability. Saudi Arabia, for example, deposited USD5 billion in Egypt’s central bank in March 2022.

There is clear self-interest in these cash transfers. Gulf monarchs, mindful of their own restive populations, are keen to prevent a repeat of 2011, when the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt inspired smaller-scale versions across the oil-rich region. More than anything, however, Gulf leaders wish to avoid a repeat of the mass uprising in Bahrain, which grew to the extent that Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops to help prop up its monarchy.

The pressure cooker

Blunt repression and oil-fuelled handouts might be holding discontent in check across MENA for now, but these strategies are unsustainable in the long term. Ultimately, if states are unable to raise living standards, the patience of citizens will be tested to breaking point. Even the oil rich Gulf will not be spared, as the global energy transition will eventually deprive them of hydrocarbon wealth.

Hamish Kinnear

MENA Analyst, Risk Insight