In the last 22 months long-established regimes have been toppled in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, while the Yemeni president has left office under a transition deal and the Syrian regime is embroiled in a virtual civil war which it is likely ultimately to lose.

Some view the eruption of popular protests after 40 years of autocratic continuity in the region as the result of an accumulation of problems reaching a tipping point. Others suggest a paradigm shift, often highlighting the role of the new social media (although in reality, social media mainly represented an important mobilizing tool for demonstrations in some places).

Problems of regime corruption and incompetence on the one hand and poverty and unemployment on the other certainly did accumulate; while the advent of satellite TV (as well as social media) broke the state’s news monopoly and allowed Arabs to see for the first time how far behind they had fallen behind.

As Christians, we might also point to the powerful effects of the prayers for change of Egyptian and other churches in the region over many years. We might also see the remarkable and new bravery shown by protestors, who speak of being liberated from fear itself after years of relative acquiescence and a sense of powerlessness, as evidence of God’s common grace at work in providing them with courage.

Far-reaching consequences

Whatever their causes, these events represent a major discontinuity after years of stasis, the consequences of which will be felt in the region for many years to come. They also came as a surprise to most inside and outside the region, highlighting the ‘why now?’ question. Timing of change is always the hardest element to predict, but there are lessons that can be learned.

Change in the Arab core of the Islamic world will inevitably have ripple effects through the rest of it. If democracy can take root there, it is possible anywhere. This might go some way to answering questions of whether Islam is compatible with democracy and of whether ‘Arab exceptionalism’ is still a sustainable proposition. It is therefore important, for example, in Egypt to understand whether a real change is happening or whether the army (‘deep state’) ‘allowed’ the revolution in order to ensure its position as the Mubarak regime weakened and has been in charge of events all along; or alternatively whether the revolution is being ‘hijacked’ by Islamists (as in Iran after 1979).

Who is next?

One obvious question is ‘Who is next?’. After Syria, the most likely Arab republics to see revolutionary change are Sudan and Algeria. In the latter case, many of the socioeconomic problems that drove the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are prominent: high youth unemployment, housing shortages, inflation, little trickle down or visible spending from Algeria’s vast hydrocarbons wealth, opaque and crony politics and economy, too much power in the hands of shadowy generals and security chiefs.

However, Algerians are averse to more unrest after a decade of bloody civil war, the president is moderately popular and is credited with bringing some measure of peace and reconciliation after it, and Algeria’s Islamist parties performed poorly in recent elections (mainly because they had been co-opted by the regime rather than suppressed, as elsewhere).

Generally the monarchies are faring much better than the republics, partly because these regimes have some legitimacy and partly because many of them have money to throw at the problem. The Jordanian and Bahraini regimes are not in immediate danger, although the outlook there remains tense.

Transitions outlook

The progress of the transitions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya will obviously be key. Egypt’s fraught process, with further elections due after the promulgation of a new constitution and many feeling disenfranchised by the outcomes so far, will be watched particularly closely elsewhere in the region.

The upheavals in the Arab world represent a secular shift which will take years to unfold through many ups and downs — the struggle between the military and the Islamists in Egypt being but one obvious example.

The progress of the transitions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya will obviously be key. 

Unless an Alawi coup or another game-changing event ends it, Syria’s continuing conflict could render the country a Lebanon-style theatre for regional conflicts to be played out, or a failed state divided into petty fiefdoms (some regime-held and some possibly controlled by jihadists) where any emerging political power is likely to be Sunni Islamist. Its spillover also risks destabilizing neighbouring countries.

Islamists’ economic challenge

Elsewhere, governments’ ability to tackle the socio-economic problems will be key in deciding the other ‘What Next’ question: how those countries which have already overthrown the old guard will fare:

  • New governments face exaggerated popular expectations from populations looking to them to deliver on growth and jobs.
  • The populist responses in several countries – increasing subsidies, public sector jobs and wages – reverse the IMF style economic reforms underway before and are fiscally unsustainable.
  • This is especially so after the economic disruption caused by the uprisings and amid a global downturn, especially in the EU which is North Africa’s main trade partner.
  • Foreign investment is going to be hard to attract back.

So their handling of the economy will be a big test for Islamist parties, who have not so far had to move much beyond the slogan ‘Islam is the solution’. If, as is more likely than not, they fail to deliver sustainable jobs and services, institutions and rule of law, education and reforms, they too will be discredited, rather like the Islamic Republic in Iran.

Islamist impulses and minorities

While Islamist parties range from genuine post-Islamists to out-and-out Salafists, traditional Islamist impulses over political power and treatment of minorities will be hard to resist. In the most pessimistic scenario, they will seek to retain power regardless of further elections (‘one man, one vote, one time’). The sceptics’ view that their protestations of attachment to democracy were purely tactical would thus have been vindicated.

However, this is unlikely to happen in practice unless they infiltrate the armed forces and other power structures sufficiently.

In any event, many more voices will probably be added to those already being heard (in Egypt at any rate) who are saying that they would prefer the military to rule rather than elected Islamists, presumably returning Egypt to pretty much what it was before Mubarak’s fall – or perhaps, more optimistically, eventually to a model of military-guided democracy as practised until recently in Turkey.

The irony is that minorities, who understandably feel they were better protected by Mubarak-style strongmen, were still in reality poorly served by them. Mubarak himself neglected them, and others such as Assad and Saddam provided a false security through enforced religious tolerance, while cynically exploiting sectarianism as part of their survival strategy.

Lessons learned

Christians played a disproportionately large leadership role in the first Arab Awakening of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The key for all minorities will be to shed the ‘bunker’ mentality and engage in the new political space, however dispiriting the prospects of their securing their dreams of equal treatment and religious freedom in an Islamist-dominated immediate future. The election results in Libya seem to show that it is possible for more secular parties to defeat Islamists in free elections. Church leaders will continue to play a key role in encouraging this and providing wisdom.

Another lesson arises from the fact that the uprisings came as a surprise. Some advance warning might have been provided by better monitoring of the key issues in play in Tunisia and Egypt affecting both the longevity of the regimes themselves and the continued willingness of the population to endure hardship and oppression. By identifying such issues and intentionally and regularly monitoring changes in them through trusted contacts on the ground, we are less likely to be caught out next time.

If this last 22 months has taught us anything, it is that the young, educated people who formed the nucleus of the Tahrir square protestors are a minority in a largely deeply conservative, pious and patriarchal society, whose traditional sectarian mindset is in many ways still unconducive to sustainable electoral politics.

If this last 22 months has taught us anything, it is that the young, educated people who formed the nucleus of the Tahrir square protestors are a minority in a largely deeply conservative, pious and patriarchal society, whose traditional sectarian mindset is in many ways still unconducive to sustainable electoral politics.

For that to change, and to prevent people from being exploited by populist extremists or military men offering security, long-term policies to reduce poverty and illiteracy are needed.

Possible responses

This suggests that appropriately focused and delivered aid and lobbying from both inside and outside these countries could help develop an education system which reaches more children and, equally important, encourages independent thinking rather than conformity and rote learning. Access to satellite TV and the internet is starting to change society, and programmes to increase internet access could therefore advance the process. When asked, Arabs usually identify corruption as the number one problem in their societies, opening doors to help here too.

Outsiders could also assist in training in political engagement to build national citizenship identities at the expense of the sectarian, tribe and family identities, which helped the old autocracies survive for so long. Out of this, states based on citizenship and diversity could emerge. Where appropriate, the international community could help to strengthen democratic political forces — whether genuinely moderate Islamist or nonancien regime secularist — and economic development to avert potential social chaos during the transitions.

For the risk of the Islamist-dominated governments failing is that what follows could be chaos, greater poverty and perhaps a military coup, rather than an orderly transition to government by elected secular parties.

All political ideologies so far tried have failed in the Arab world, which seems to have a yearning for a ‘strongman’ (whether in the form of a national dictator or a neo-Ottoman order in the  region) to solve its problems. Perhaps this despairing and fearful mindset, which is a form of idolatry, provides new opportunities for the gospel in a period which is likely to see great insecurity.

Local Christians have a key role to play in shaping their societies, however daunting the odds. God seems to be stirring the Middle East, both through these upheavals and the growth of BMB churches. Perhaps he is also allowing Islamists to take power and then to fail, in order to show Arabs that Islamist ideology is not the solution. The key therefore might be to seek to discern how God is at work in the region and how he wants each of us to play our part. As one Christian leader in the region put it: ‘If you keep your Kingdom focus, this is a great time for Christian ministry; if you lose it, all you want to do is leave’.


Arab Human Development Reports 2003, 2004, 2005, 2009: New York: United Nations Development Program Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development.

World Bank reports on Middle East and North Africa of 1995, 2008 and 2011: Washington: World Bank.

David Taylor

David Taylor serves as the Editor of the Lausanne Global Analysis. David is an international affairs analyst with a particular focus on the Middle East. He spent 17 years in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, most of it focused on the Middle East and North Africa. After that he spent 14 years as Middle East Editor and Deputy Editor of the Daily Brief at Oxford Analytica. David now divides his time between consultancy work for Oxford Analytica, the Lausanne Movement and other clients, also working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the Religious Liberty Partnership and other networks on international religious freedom issues.