The Arab Spring was not an event, it was the beginning of a long and ongoing process of transformation, says Weatherhead Center Associate Hicham Alaoui.
By Michelle Nicholasen
Hicham Alaoui was a young prince—only seven years old—in 1971, when he witnessed a devastating military coup unfold against his family inside the Moroccan royal palace. The assailants did not succeed in overturning the 350-year-old monarchy, then under the rule of his uncle, King Hassan II, but Alaoui saw his own father wounded, and dozens more in the palace killed. This indelible experience would set the backdrop for a spiritual and political reckoning that would take him far outside the strictures of the monarchy, and on to the international stage.
Over the years, as he became more outspoken in his advocacy for reform, relations with his family deteriorated. Twenty years ago, he parted ways with the monarchy, and recently formally asked the king to be relieved of his title, eschewing his position in the royal line of succession. Today, as a scholar and doctoral candidate in oriental studies at Oxford University, and a Weatherhead Center Associate, Hicham Alaoui is an activist for democratic reform in the Arab world.
The Weatherhead Center asked him about the turning points in his life that led to his dissent and to share his insights on the failures and hopes of the Arab Spring—and the momentum that still exists for change in the region.
Q: In addition to the traumatic event in your childhood, what other pivotal moments in your adult life led to your decision to leave the monarchy?
A: I think there were many inflection points that led to this rupture. Certainly when I started to get a Western, liberal education that stressed critical thinking, I was exposed to the histories and civilizations of the world. And also my professional life took me around the world. I felt that my experiences complemented the Islamic ethics I was infused with in my youth. In my personal life, the death of my father in 1983 brought me closer to my uncle King Hassan II, in that I became a member of his household, and that posed a lot of questions about my role.
My uncle was a man of big stature and very strong character. We got along tumultuously, but we managed to work through many interpersonal crises through a combination of dialogue, mutual respect, and muted affection.
Q: After your uncle King Hassan II died, there was widespread hope for a transformation from an absolutist reign to a constitutional monarchy under your cousin, Mohammed VI, but it did not come to pass. Why?
A: There were huge expectations for profound political change that did not materialize. The king himself had briefly toyed with the idea of devolving power to institutions, but quickly abandoned it, and the political elites went right along with him, either opportunistically or complacently. I knew the system very well from within, and it needed more than wishful thinking.
In the end, instead of a democratization agenda, he opted to pursue state developmentalism. This new policy yielded significant infrastructure for the country, but ultimately failed to generate sustainable economic growth and equitable distribution of resources due to the absence of the rule of law.
Back then, I called for gradual democratization, one that was resolute and had clear landmarks. So obviously when Morocco started departing from that direction, my voice, along with others’, became more and more problematic.
Q: You and your cousin King Mohammed VI are only one year apart in age.
A: Yes. We were the best of friends and grew up together. But he has the imperatives of the state and I have the drive of my convictions.
I was no longer dealing with a father figure, I was dealing with a different dynamic in the relationship. My presence was more provocative and challenging for the new king than for his father, for a variety of reasons. When Morocco didn't take the direction of constitutional monarchy, it became clear that living in the same space would become impossible, because I wasn't going to abandon my convictions or my advocacy.
Q: What was the breaking point for you?
A: Slowly things built to a crescendo, and then the security agencies got involved. When I realized my situation was no longer being managed by the king himself, I understood that things had changed definitively for us, and for all time. At first it was painful, but in hindsight I realized that it lifted all ambiguities.
Q: Was there retaliation against you?
A: I experienced what many activists and critics have gone through. Security services essentially did everything to implicate me in plots against the king and against the security of the state. I am still the target of vicious press campaigns, imaginary plots, economic strangulation—all “authorized” by the royal palace. Last but not least, I have the gold medal in ostracism in Morocco—public servants who associate with me are punished. But I’m among the fortunate ones. Others have landed in jail or lost their lives for resisting absolutism since independence from France in 1956.
Q: Even though there is a definitive rupture between you and the monarchy, and you now live in the United States, you still return to Morocco. You are not an exile, you are a dissident. If yours were a different country, say Saudi Arabia, your situation may have ended badly.
A: Be careful what you ask, because the story’s not finished. I’d like to think it’s different in Morocco. Paradoxically, in our history there has been a lot of violence—beheading of princes, scholars, ordinary citizens thrown on the gallows, and so forth. But over the last fifty years, our society has pushed back and has built a kind of pluralism.
However, the essential soul of traditional monarchism in Morocco has cruelty in its DNA. Although the regime is constrained, it still lashes out sporadically. In fact, since 2011 we’ve seen a deterioration in human rights in my country. Whereas prior to 2011, the regime viewed opposition groups as political adversaries, it now sees them as hostile enemies. Today journalists risk jail and freedom of expression is drastically curtailed. The regime may well return to the widespread abuses of the past, as it faces popular pressure and uncertainty. The important thing is for one to have resolve and be prepared for any eventuality.
Q: Let’s turn to the Arab Spring, the wave of mass uprisings that toppled dictators in six Arab countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, and Sudan) between 2011 and 2019. It raised the world’s hopes for real transformation in the region. But after the first set of uprisings, the momentum stalled, and authoritarian and military leaders ascended to power or countries fell into civil war. Today, Tunisia is the only country in the region with a clearly democratic system. At the highest level, why did the Arab Spring fail?
A: In its first iteration, the Arab Spring imploded due to geopolitical intervention of certain countries within the Arab world that wanted the democratic experiment to go off the rails. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt did everything to make this fail.
Secondly, it also failed because many of the social movements that spearheaded this change were content with observing and not translating their demands into concrete policy, and by not becoming institutional political actors. They basically brought about the fall of dictators but they didn't transform into political parties.
Q: In your lectures, you break down the Arab Spring into three phases. Can you describe them?
A: The first phase of 2011–2012 brought the youth into the streets. In this initial phase, governments were discombobulated and attention fell on popular movements that drew upon new technologies and symbols to resist authority and demand freedom.
In the second phase, elections were held and Islamist parties came into power in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya.
The third phase of counterrevolution exploited the failure of many popular movements and opposition forces to effectively organize politically. This phase was spearheaded by counterrevolutionary regimes like Saudi Arabia who had become petrified about the spirit of these democratic uprisings spreading like a contagion into their societies. This reactionary coalition poured vast resources into subverting democratic experiments, as in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen, sometimes through diplomatic campaigns and sometimes through military force. Counterrevolutionary regimes also saturated their own societies with promises of economic prosperity and order as a way of drawing stark contrasts with the turmoil and disruptions prevalent with the mass uprisings, in hope of preempting potential unrest at home.
Today, popular dissent has become resurgent due to the recognition that authoritarian regimes simply cannot deliver upon their lavish promises. Today’s activists are devoid of romanticism, and more strategic in calculating their mobilization techniques. We are seeing less of a groundswell movement, but rather forms of resistance that conform to each country’s particular circumstances.
In response, autocratic governments have become more repressive and brutal, because they now realize their space for maneuvering has diminished. Promises of future democratic reform are no longer credible, and rulers lack the capacity to sustain economic growth and job creation. The next wave of revolutions has already begun, as we see now in Sudan, Iraq, and Algeria. There, protesters are not backing down even in the face of the worst threats of violence, because they know the stakes are high.
Q: The 2011 uprisings led to the toppling of several dictators in short order—Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya—and this was unprecedented. Why did the activists back down in light of such remarkable victories?
A: The youth, who spearheaded the movements, stepped back and started observing instead of participating and then of course it stopped there.
They basically said, “no, we are not going to build or join political parties.” They said, “we're going to remain leaderless.” They refused to legitimize government institutions and rejected any concept of vertical, top-down organization. Why? After seeing decades of corruption, they had inherent doubt of politics. Politics was dirty, it was corrupt. For them, maintaining their idealism was to basically stay untainted.
They might continue going to rallies and so forth but they couldn’t craft coalitions. They couldn’t come up with positions either for or against policies and so they could not influence politics. You can build pressure by getting people on the street but eventually if that pressure cannot find the pathway into the political system then you're completely marginalized.
Q: And in a leadership vacuum, military factions took control?
A: In some cases, the military moved in because they were supported by the counterrevolutionary countries, and in other cases, the military moved in because many sectors in the society wanted order—they wanted an end to the chaos. That is what happened in Egypt. There, the military was so powerful it was poised to step in the moment the newly elected Mohammed Morsi faltered; it just needed an excuse. And he did make some mistakes. The military deposed him, sending him to jail, where he died while awaiting trial.
Q: Do you think there will be future uprisings in the region, and will activists learn from their past mistakes?
A: Yes, but seeing positive results will take a long time. Since 2011, I’ve defended the idea that the Arab Spring is a process, not an event. It may take ten to twenty years, and some countries, like Libya or Yemen, will have a very difficult time getting out of the civil wars they're in.
But the democratic activists of today are less naive than the protesters of 2011–2012. I think opposition parties will organize now and will be less triumphant and less romantic. They are thinking more about the long term and the long haul. That's the thinking across the region now.
The youth are learning but they're not the only ones. There’s also the middle classes and the disenfranchised classes. The new thing is that the sentiment for change is cutting across all classes. The middle classes feel they’ve been left out of the prosperity; and the lower classes feel that they have been completely marginalized. We are seeing wider coalitions being built.
On the other hand, I think regimes are also playing for keeps. Regimes are going to be much more resistant to change and more aware that they risk demise, and they're going to be more recalcitrant and more ferocious against opposition movements.
Q: New and widespread protests have recently erupted in Iraq and Lebanon, and this certainly supports your view that the Arab Spring represents a process, not a point in time. Is there anything new about these two developments?
A: A major shift worth noting relates to the recent uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon. In both countries, people are revolting against a system that favors elites and engenders corruption and nepotism.
But the key gatekeepers for the status quo in both countries are close to the Iranian regime. So the revolt has even touched Iran. This is the biggest development since the first wave of 2011. Iran is being deprived of the excuse of blaming reactionary Sunni regimes, because Shi’ia communities are also revolting in the streets. This is the novelty: Iran is now finding itself in the counterrevolutionary camp, with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the coalition paramilitary Hachd al-Chaabi in Iraq acting as its arm.
In other words, Iran is no longer aligned with the “oppressed” or the masses wanting change in the Arab Spring and is thus opposing the direction of history. Accordingly, it is losing its comparative advantage, as it seems to be mirroring the actions of Saudi Arabia in its respective sphere of influence.
Hence, the greater landscape of the Sunni-Shi’ia divide is being transformed, making the Saudi/Iran conflict less salient. People are now having the same common struggle—the struggle against the system. This is an early manifestation of deep democratic yearning that may alter the geopolitical landscape.
Q: Did religion play a role in the Arab Spring?
A: If anything, the Arab Spring has proven that Islamism is not a fatality in the politics of all of these countries. The Islamists have not led these movements. They have come to power because they were better organized. But once they come to power they're not given a blank check. Religion erected in the form of governance with religious edicts and so forth is perhaps something of the past now. We have to separate religiosity—the idea that religions should play a role and hence be present in the public sphere—from the aspect of fundamentalist groups running the country unhinged. It’s clear that it's not the case anymore. There is a deep yearning for accountability and pluralism.
Q: Is there anything Americans get wrong when they think about the Arab Spring and the transformations happening in the Arab world?
A: What they get wrong, I think, is this sense of “oriental exceptionalism,” that Arabs have a kind of attraction to autocratic regimes.
The corollary to that is, well look, the Arab Spring failed because the youth came out, but a majority of people like autocrats, are enamored with autocrats. There’s something in their history and religion, in their psyche, that makes them more attracted to that. I think that's very wrong. If anything, that so-called Arab exception has been shattered.
Q: Many of us remember the successes of the revolutions in the early 1990s—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, etc.—that dismantled communist regimes in Eastern Europe. To the West, it felt like a vindication of liberal democracy. Why did that sweep of revolutions thirty years ago succeed but the Arab Spring did not?
A: There are strong similarities. Both were enormous expressions of popular frustration and anger with authoritarian regimes that had become morally bankrupt and economically enfeebled. Both waves of mass uprising reflected the long historical accumulation of injustices and grievances by generations of citizens. Both spread by diffusion, meaning protest movements and opposition leaders drew inspiration, strategies, and symbols from one another across borders. And both shocked the world: neither political scientists nor policy makers predicted that these autocratic states would be shaken by revolution.
However, there are sharp differences. The 1989 revolts expressed the collapse of an entire system and ideology, namely communism, and the single-party state, that stemmed from the exhaustion of the Soviet Union, which was the natural center of gravity for the communist world. In the Arab world, however, there is no imperial locus of power or geopolitical heavyweight whose singular decay would unleash the breakdown of dependent autocracies in a domino-like fashion.
The revolts in Eastern Europe achieved democratic reforms because the countries in the Eastern bloc, for the most part, were left alone. In fact, they were given all the incentives to join Europe. And Russia was basically too weak to intervene. The Yeltsin government was in shambles. The Soviet Union was transitioning from an empire and it was so caught up in its own problems that it basically didn't look westward. If anything, NATO and the EU were expanding.
In the case of Poland, the forces for change organized into political parties. The people went into elections in solidarity and led the state. They were not observers. Václav Havel [former president of the Czech Republic] was not an observer.
In the Arab region, counterrevolutionary countries have thrown in billions of dollars to prop up military coups and dictators. They’re propped up not only financially but also militarily.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Russia are all intervening militarily in different places—not in coordination necessarily, but based on their own agenda.
The effect China will have on the region is still uncertain, given its belt and road initiatives. We know that the Sudanese regime would have fallen much earlier if it wasn't for the Chinese that propped up the Sudanese government for a long time.
Finally, we cannot discount the influence of the West. It embraced the fall of the Berlin Wall, treating each revolutionary breakthrough in Europe as a moral victory for liberal democracy. In the Middle East, the West greeted the Arab Spring uprisings with skepticism and even fear; it had long grown accustomed to dealing with friendly autocrats as a matter of strategic course, and many dreaded the perils of what they thought was the inevitable alternative, Islamism. Many Western policy makers incubated assumptions about what chaos and extremism would be unleashed if their preferred dictators fell. Ironically, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Q: How do you characterize US foreign policy in the Middle East?
A: In brief, this is how I compare the past three presidents. With the invasion of Iraq, Bush enforced hegemony directly “on the ground,” whereas Obama exhibited a kind of “hands off” political dominance in the region while focusing more on Asia/Pacific. Trump imposes hegemony “at a distance” by giving an open mandate to some autocratic regimes to basically run the Middle East, with no restraint. The result is a chaotic foreign policy with no clear objectives.
The US has inflicted huge damage to its standing in the region. It will take time and a Herculean effort to restore its prestige and trust.
Q: Morocco is one of the few remaining monarchies in the Arab world, and it has enjoyed centuries of legitimacy and public affection. But in the last few years, this has begun to shift, as people have become more vocal about social inequities and clientelism. How did Morocco avoid the Arab Spring?
A: Morocco sidestepped the Arab Spring by calling early elections and introducing some constitutional amendments, but once the pressure receded, the regime returned to its old ways.
Q: What is the current sentiment toward the monarchy today?
A: There are two claims about the present situation—first, that the fundamentals are sound and Morocco is plowing along at its own pace. Even if a crisis were to emerge, it could be addressed within the existing institutional framework. The other claim is that things are tenuous at best. I agree with the latter. We’re seeing the emergence of different forms of popular protest, from boycotts to anthems in soccer stadiums, which could indicate the country is close to a turning point. If a rupture happens, it can be positive, or it can very well succumb into violence. The future is pregnant with possibilities.
Q: How can Morocco backpedal from the present situation?
A: One of the fundamental problems is that the monarchy has discredited all forms of political parties by co-opting them in many ways—by giving them small spaces to work in but with no real power, and by holding predictable elections that ensure a narrow coalition in Parliament. So, it's a kind of shallow and toothless pluralism. The last entity to be completely discredited are the Islamists, or PJD, the Justice and Development Party, who led the government after 2011.
Assuming that the monarchy is willing and able to restore trust in its democratic intentions, and backtrack from the political polarization it has stoked, it still must deal with the fact that it has discredited all official political parties. The challenge would be to elaborate an honest discourse to engage with political forces that are not only antisystemic, but have yet to organize in any coherent way as formal opposition.
If the foundations for a new course were to be laid out, there would be little patience for gradualism due to the alarming inequalities that characterize the socioeconomic landscape. Arab Barometer that shows that 44 percent of the population now wants immediate and drastic change. More than 40 percent of the population hopes to emigrate. And when you look at people who are under age thirty, that number goes up to 70 percent.
Q: What role do you envision for yourself in the future?
A: I’m a realist. During the reign of Mohammed VI, my life in Morocco has been at a complete impasse. I know that home is here, in the United States, where I have been able to stay physically safe and mentally at ease. Here I’ve been able to open rich intellectual horizons as well as pursue my own endeavors. I would not change it for anything.
I do not know what the future holds, but I can say this much: the future of Morocco belongs to the youth in our country, who are already shaping it with courage and intelligence. For thirty years I’ve said that I will not relinquish the freedom to think and articulate my views, come what may. That is something I’ll defend until the very end. Whatever the price.
—Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs
Weatherhead Center Associate Hicham Alaoui is a DPhil Candidate in Oriental Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford. His research interests focus on democratization and secularization in the post-Arab Spring.
- Photo of Hicham Alaoui. Used with permission by Hicham Alaoui
- IMG01538-20110219-1757 in album Post Mubarak Graffiti, Mona, February 19, 2011, (CC BY 2.0)
- Yemeni protests: a typical day at Sana'a University. Started with a few hundred in February to several thousands in March and hundreds of thousands in April. Wikimedia user: Email4mobile, 4 April 2011, (CC BY-SA 3.0).