In February there are a lot of Spring-related anniversaries: it’s two years since Mubarak resigned, one year since the Port Said massacre, two years since the beginning of protests in Libya, and one year since Saleh resigned in Yemen. Plus, with the political guignol going on in Tunisia (still unresolved as of this writing, and perhaps I’ll have something to say about that next week) it’s not surprising that a lot of people are going into a reflective ‘what did the Arab Spring ever do for us’ mode.
It’s a fair question: in the last two years Egypt’s economy has plunged and now seems to be on the verge of collapse. The Libyan government controls limited territory and is powerless to disarm its population. Tunisia, previously the political darling of North Africa, has now been swept up in the same multipolar confrontation that is causing such problems in Egypt. In Yemen, the Saudi-sponsored ‘solution’ only showed that a year-long popular uprising failed to either properly dislodge the government or to shake up Washington’s world map (on which Yemen has the word AL-QAEDA written over it in large letters). Everywhere else, things failed. In Bahrain, Algeria, Kuwait, and Sudan, the movements were suppressed. The Syrian situation is a clusterfuck (that’s a technical term). All in all, it’s easy to dismiss the past two years as a dreadful mistake.
But this was never going to happen quickly, and anyone who thought it did knew nothing about revolution or the history of the Middle East. In our haste to compare the Arab revolts with the collapse of Communist government in Eastern Europe, with the (somewhat limited) spread of democracy in Africa during the early ’90s, with the synchronised end of various autocratic governments in Latin America throughout the 80s and 90s, Western journalists and analysts have forgotten how exceptional those events really were – and how exceptional the Arab revolts are.
From one perspective, it’s obvious how exceptional they are because otherwise they wouldn’t be news. But there isn’t a common way of visualising or measuring how politically unprecedented something is. And all this gives me an excuse to play around making graphs, so here we go. Notes on methodology are at the bottom.
1. Government Turnover
The chart below (click to enlarge) shows the rate of government turnover per year since 1950 in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The blue line is executives (almost all heads of state except in Lebanon since 1990 and in Iraq since 2005) and the green line is any other position, almost all prime ministers. They are included because during times of instability, heads of state are prone to fire their governments and arrange new ones (just look at Jordan). Since this measures not only the number of positions where there has been turnover but also the number of times the post has been replaced during the year, there is a large spike in non-executives in 2003-04, when the Americans appointed a transitional Iraqi government with a different Prime Minister every month. The orange line represents the data with Iraq counted as 1 each year between 2003 and 2007.
At first glance it might seem like this tells us a lot about relative instability over time. The spike in executive turnover in 2011-12 is at first promising. However, all that a study of how many political positions changed hands tells us is… how many political positions changed hands. The spike around 1999 is almost as great as that at 2011, yes it was not caused by revolutionary feeling but by the coincidental deaths of three kings and the appointment of the Algerian President Bouteflika. Among non-executives, the rate of turnover is generally too unpredictable to actually be useful – all we can see is instability until about 1972 as states are established, then a period of calm, and then less stability from about 2002. This information could be easily gleaned from a cursory glance at a written history of the region. Let’s take another angle.
2. Average Years in Power
For the rest of these charts, we’re looking at the average number of years that the region’s leaders have spent in power in each year. Obviously this graph does tend to go upwards with the passage of time.
Again, this graph has some flaws. By taking the average number of years, the process is extremely vulnerable to the effects of the introduction of new countries (hence the dips at 61 and 71), and the American invasion of Iraq is wiped out by the fact that every other government stayed in power that year, although the continuous stream of new Iraqi politicians does push the line down subsequently. The graph would also seem to suggest a previous Arab Spring taking place between 1999-2002. This is, again, due to the deaths of King Hassan II (Morocco), King Hussein (Jordan), and King Isa (Bahrain). That the pattern for these years matches exactly the pattern in the last three years is not encouraging.
Here we have the data from the MENA (in blue) compared to Sub-Saharan Africa (green), the Caribbean (red), and South America (yellow). Two things stand out here: (1) how much higher the Middle East is than anyone else since about 1983; (2) this confirms that the graph is highly susceptible to individual changes in leadership even when the structure remains the same: the sudden drop in the Caribbean in 2008 is the point when Fidel Castro stepped down. What we need is an analysis of power structures.
3. Average Regime Years in Power
Normally I don’t like to use the word “regime” when talking about individual governments unless they’re the Charles Taylor type; it’s more academic than “dictator” (for which I prefer ‘autocrat’), but it’s the kind of word which people spit. However, when used in a general sense, I don’t have any problems with it. So, with that in mind, what happens if we look at the amount of time a REGIME has been in power.
At last, a result! The blue is our previous data related to the turnover of individual leaders. Green is the turnover in regimes. From this we can see that as an average, the data is still vulnerable to new states in 1961 and 1971, as well as the unification of Yemen in 1990, but that it doesn’t hamper the main impressions, which are: (1) virtually every Middle Eastern nation except Lebanon had the same regime in power between 1980 and 2011; (2) the events of the last two years have resulted in a downward trend unparalleled in the history of independent Middle Eastern states.
Now, does this mean it’s like the collapse of military governments in South America or the end of Communist Europe (which are below: green is regime and blue is individual)? Not at all. It’s a lot less voluntary than the end of military rule (most military governments don’t last very long – Brazil was an exception) and far less sweeping than 1989. But these things happen so infrequently that it’s difficult to extrapolate from one place to another. All you can do is respect how unlikely it all was – and spend days making lots of lovely charts.
I got the details of individual leadership changes from Wikipedia (which tends to be right about these things thanks to armies of political obsessives like me); for the analysis of different autocratic regimes, I used Geddes, Wright, and Franz: Autocratic Regimes Code Book (pdf), with the following alterations:
– I added Qatar and Bahrain, which are ignored by the Code Book because of their size.
– I updated Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as well as adding in the Egyptian interim military government headed by Tantawi.
– Originally, Ba’thist Syria since 1963 is coded as one regime. I prefer to code it as two: 1963-66, and since 1966, as the coup led by Salah Jadid caused the base of people from whom the leadership was drawn to significantly alter.
– The countries included in the MENA are: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Yemen, South Yemen (to 1990), and Saudi Arabia.