Wrapping Up the Arab Spring (2011-2013) Part 6: Frontier Areas of the Arab Spring: Iran, Israel, Mauritania, Turkey

Paul Williams via Flickr
Paul Williams via Flickr

While the Arab Spring rocked much of the Arab world, upending the regional political order, states in the periphery of the region also saw some effects. All of the states covered in this article are at most marginally part of the Arab world, and saw effects more due to geographic proximity than shared political patterns.

The domestic impact of the Arab Spring in Iran was limited, with the Green Movement’s protestors making only a token appearance. The country is occupied with its own affairs, such as the presidential election of 2013 that allowed Hassan Rouhani to assume the office. Tehran still influenced the regional events in several ways, though. First, the Iranian government was quick to try to frame the region-wide protests as a continuation of its own Islamic Revolution of 1979; this notion was broadly rejected by protestors. Second, events in Iran, as many argue, have affected the Arab Spring. The mass movement of the ‘Green Revolution’ in 2009 was the first in the region in which the use of social media was prominent. People across the Arab World remembered the resilient protesters in Iran and how they managed to organize mass rallies despite widespread repression and censorship. Third, Iran intervened strongly in Syria, supporting both Bashar al-Assad in Damascus as well as Hezbollah in its effort to fight the rebels. Tehran fears losing its major Middle Eastern ally and conduit to Hezbollah, and thus influence in the region. It is particularly worried about Saudi and Qatari support for the mostly Sunni rebels in Syria.

Israel faced some protests in mid-2011. This social movement was not really connected to the Arab Spring, instead addressing issues of  rising living costs in the densely populated country. Much more attention, besides the domestic situation, was paid in Israel to the rapidly evolving regional environment. The rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo was seen very skeptically and consequently the recent coup d’état by the Egyptian military was welcomed. Another major concern for the Israeli government is the situation in Syria, where it fears that the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime would create a dangerous power vacuum, which might be filled in by radical forces. Some observers, however, have also highlighted the opportunities presented by the Arab Spring. According to them, Israel should seize the moment by overcoming its negative perception of the events and embracing them as windows of opportunity. As for the Syrian case, the regional implications could lead to closer ties with Turkey and Jordan, as these two states fear spillover effects and a insecure neighbourhood. Independent from the events of the Arab Spring, Israel was focusing on the peace process and a new round of negotiation with the Palestinians, while at the same time aiming to garner international support against Iran and its nuclear program.

In the course of the Arab Spring Mauritania has witnessed its own wave of protests. Starting in 2011 and carrying on until 2012 the public demands included political and economic reforms from President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz who gained power with a military coup in 2008. Unlike other countries, the issue of slavery was prominent as well. Although illegal, it is nevertheless widespread in the country and protesters accused the government of practising slavery against its own political enemies. In September 2011 protests erupted again, this time against the government’s new census specifically. Here, the Sub-Saharan African part of the population felt discriminated against, as the regime made it more difficult to prove citizenship. These issues have not been solved. In fact, the regime did not give in, but responded with arrests and further repression.

Turkey was in many ways affected by the Arab Spring. Indeed, there were no anti-government protests in 2011 sparked by those throughout the region. Only in late May 2013 did demonstrations erupt in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, as protesters raised the issue of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style of governing. Police answered with tear gas and human rights abuses. On the regional level, however, Turkey and its ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) tried to take advantage of the revolutionary mood by supporting opposition movements. Ankara tried to seize the opportunity to increase its regional influence by supporting the Tunisian government and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. However, while people referred to Turkey and the AKP as a role model during the protests, their interest in Turkish advice decreased after during the transitional period. Besides this involvement, Ankara was also severely affected by the situation in Syria. This crisis did not only test the AKP’s ‘Zero Problems with Neighbours‘ approach to foreign policy, but also resulted in the posting of NATO forces along the frontier, border clashes and bombings like those at the town of Reyhanlı in May 2013, leaving at least 42 people dead. Turkey’s foreign policy in Syria struggles to find a coherent line – similar to several other actors.