Thanks to the Martyrs; placard near army lines in Cairo, December 2011. (Credit: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr)
Thanks to the Martyrs; placard near army lines in Cairo, December 2011. (Credit: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr licensed under ) (via:

A decade on from 9/11, the Arab Spring provoked another round of repressive state security measures.

In their response to the popular uprisings of 2011, governments in the MENA region have typified global trends in the securitisation of space.

Multiple examples demonstrate the relationship between political, economic, cyber, and physical space, highlighting the fundamental need for economic freedom and showing how securitisation compounds the underlying problems which provoke it.

The securitisation of space

According to David Rapoport’s famous analysis, each of the four waves of terrorism in recent history has been followed by an increased focus on the securitisation of the state.

Rapoport states that newly implemented state security measures prove irreversible. This means each wave of terrorism provokes new measures which are kept in place after the wave of terrorism has been overcome. In other words, securitisation has an accumulative impact on the functioning of the state.

A variety of security measures have been implemented since 9/11: Increases in legal powers and capacities for intelligence gathering; intensified intel exchanges and border controls; reductions in political space; and a large build-up of military capabilities.

States tend to reduce their own vulnerabilities at the expense of a variety of strategic and operational spaces for non-state actors. Sometimes these measures are targeted at certain individuals and groups.[1]

But some security measures affect all citizens. For example, increased monitoring of non-governmental organisations; border and flight security; government checks on religious activities; and intrusive access to mail and telephone communication. Data suggests the wave of post-9/11 securitisation is greater than has ever been seen before.

The focus on state security, in reaction to the challenge to the state’s monopoly on the use of violence, will impact the relationship between the average citizen and state security arrangements. In cases where the social contract is of a vertical nature – where the state is supposed to look after the security of its citizens – the impact will be of a different nature than cases where the social contract is horizontal. In the latter case, citizens have little or no security expectations of the state.

Strengthening state security may be justified in terms of protection against an alien other.  But it does not contribute to a perception of increased security. On the contrary, it reduces the sense of security.

Securitised spaces

Multiple spaces have been affected by the response to 9/11. Links between political, economic, cyber, and physical space can be seen in a few examples from Western countries’ responses to terrorism and also countries which experienced the Arab Spring.

Both in Europe and in the Islamic world, street furniture, bins in railways stations, and airports have been altered to reduce vulnerabilities. Streets in European capitals have new obstacles in place. Islamabad has been dramatically changed to reduce the potential for attacks. Surveillance cameras have become a normal ingredient daily life all over the world.

In Morocco, places of worship are physically closed after the hours of prayer[2] to prevent people from gathering and exchanging political views. In some Arab Spring countries, central city squares have been closed to public gatherings for the same reason.

The layout of our cities has become securitised. But there is much more. Many governments have reduced the space for political actors to operate and organise.

The potential for critical and oppositional voices has been limited. This happens through regulatory and legal tools. The number of outlawed NGOs is remarkable. Influenced by the Patriot Act[3] in the US, many governments have outlawed or limited NGO operations.

This reduces the risk of problems with the US Government and reduces the space for political opposition at the same time. Reductions in space for political opposition are thus justified by counter-terrorism.

Broader restrictions on NGOs also reduce the operational space of organisations working in conflict resolution and humanitarian assistance. The 2017 Freedom House report explains that this increasingly effects the development arena, not just critical voices.

Organisations required by-nature to work with warring factions and rebel groups, because of their very mission (be it conflict resolution or humanitarian assistance), feel the impact of these measures directly. This limits capacity for conflict resolution.

Securitisation does not only affect physical space and political space. It also effects cyberspace. In some countries, social media restrictions occur in response to government criticism. In many countries, intelligence services check emails for undesirable content.

This may very well serve to trace illegal activities. But state surveillance is increasingly intruding on the space of private communication.

Since the implementation of measures against the financing of terrorism through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the effects of securitisation have also been felt in ‘economic space’. Strict ‘know your customer[4] “regulations have led to the realisation by private financial institutions of their inability to ‘know every customer’s details”, especially in numerous conflict-ridden environments. The result has been the de-banking of entire communities, if not whole countries.[5] This obviously has a negative impact on the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Last, but certainly not least, securitisation has now also invaded our thought space. As policies to reduce the threat of terrorism increasingly focus on preventative action, this has led to policies like Countering Violent Extremism and the Prevention of Violent Extremism. This has led people with ideas that go against the grain of official government ideology being labelled ‘radical’.

Radicals are identified by security and intelligence agencies, listed, and monitored. For example, in France alone, 15,000 individuals are listed and followed.[6] In the absence of a proper definition of the term ‘radical’, this development has far-reaching implications because most legal definitions of terrorist offences increasingly include ‘preparatory’ actions.   

The Arab Spring and restrictions on space

The civil uprisings in the MENA region were facilitated by use of a variety of ‘spaces’ still open to activists. Long before 2011, reduction of space had become a popular recourse for governments, but a few spaces of activity were still accessible.

In many cases, Friday prayer was a starting point for demonstrations and political gatherings. The physical space of the mosque became a key point of reference.

Maxwell Gladwell explains in The Tipping Point that when a sufficient number of individuals take a risk, the individual risk is reduced. The collective decision to rebel becomes a cover for the individual. The mass is the hideout in which the individual can ‘disappear’ from the government radar.

Mosques, where people gather naturally on Fridays, provided precisely this safety in numbers during the Arab Spring.

The mobilising force of social media was greater still, offering a stronger guarantee of anonymity.

But perhaps nothing was more important than the symbolic value of the city squares. Tahrir Square in Cairo, Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, and Green Square in Tripoli, to name just a few. These public spaces benefited from a lack of state surveillance which was exploited by those who gathered in numbers which reduced the vulnerability of the individual protester.

Since 2011, state responses to the Arab Spring have reduced the potential for these public spaces to act as centres of protest. In addition, surveillance of cyberspace and religious gatherings has intensified.

It was in fact restrictions on access to political and economic space which led to the Arab Spring in the first place.

Space for political participation has never been championed in the MENA region. Due in part to the widespread threat of Islamist political ambitions throughout the MENA region, restrictions on political expression have long been the norm. A strong sense of exclusion has been the result.

However, the need for legitimacy in the eyes of the majority has meant state interference in religious affairs was minimised with respect to mosques. This is why mosques in many countries were a place political organisation and mobilisation could take place to a certain extent, certainly compared to controls and restrictions on other locations.

But the most pressing source of anger was the sense of economic exclusion throughout the MENA region. Access to economic space was limited for the majority of the region’s populations. This was – at least partly – due to elites’ fears of Islamist economic agendas. In Tunisia for example, anybody suspected of connections with the Ennahda movement faced employment restrictions.[7]

Economic space before the Arab Spring

In Tunisia, more than half of the commercial elites were personally related to Ben Ali. According to Mohammed Dhia Hammami in The New Arab, “the parallel evolution of the dictatorship and the private sector under Ben Ali led to the construction of a socio-economic network that monopolised control of production at the expense of all other Tunisians.”

In Egypt, Mubarak’s business architecture was based on the business connections of his son Gamal. The network was referred to as ‘the family.’[8] This family was exclusive, ‘for members only’, and competed with the military for economic power in Egypt.

In Algeria, “an opaque body of generals, politicians and politically-connected businessmen” captured the country’s hydrocarbon wealth.

In Libya, connections to the Gaddafi family were essential for access to the country’s oil income.

In Morocco, the Mazkhen network influences around the Palace’s economic preferences and interests and includes a network of businessmen moving between the public and private sectors.

The pattern throughout the region s of majority economic exclusion in favour of an elite minority, connected to political and military structures of power.

In other words, the access to both economic space and political space in the MENA region was limited. The fear of Islamists’ political and economic agendas was –at least in part – what justified those in power limiting broader access to these spaces.

The worldwide post-9/11 tendency to reduce state vulnerability through securitisation and limits on space has become another obstacle to economic progress. To explain this, it is important to have a look more closely at what is necessary for economic growth.

The requirements of economic growth

In his article, Eight essential conditions for economic development, the president of the Asian Development Bank, Takehiko Nakao, identifies the most vital conditions for accelerating economic growth.

The physical and public space of infrastructure is number one. But for infrastructure to be created, governance of public space must be void of corruption. Predictability, transparency, and accountability are necessary to secure a ‘good governance’ environment that ‘makes things happen’ for the benefit of the whole. Governments which reduce the space for civil society to criticise their actions, making themselves less accountable, creating political dynamics which hamper conditions conducive to economic growth.

Nakao also mentions ‘social inclusiveness’ as key. This is important to social stability. Investment in human capital creates the basis on which the economy can thrive. Inclusion and mass education require access to quality educational facilities and subsequent opportunities. This implies equal access to economic space.

To induce access to education, opportunities, and social inclusiveness, well-functioning political space is essential. Power needs to be checked. Whether political, economic, or military, checks and balances must be in place. To guarantee this, democratic political oversight is necessary.

Last, but certainly not least, intellectual space that permits innovation is fundamental. ‘Out of the box’ was the 2017 term. ‘Radical thinking’ would have been the term in the 1970s. The terminology changes but the idea behind the terms does not. Economic growth requires innovative minds to be allowed space to act.

Securitisation is moving society in the opposite direction. The spaces which allow for differences in opinion and vision are being limited.

Nakao mentions ‘vision’ as one of his eight conditions for growth. The space to continuously and collectively develop vision is the political and social space. It has an important role to play.  Both operational space and innovative space need to be ensured. Good governance aimed is the oil in the machinery. Unfortunately, analysis of ‘good governance’ in the MENA region and elsewhere in the world is not encouraging.

The Freedom House Report 2017

Key findings from the most recent Freedom House report can help us understand both the state of human rights and political freedoms worldwide, and assess the changes in the MENA region since the Arab Spring. A few general findings are as follows:

  1. Setbacks to political rights, civil liberties, or both, occurred in numerous countries rated ‘free’ by the report, including Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Tunisia, and the United States.
  2. Of the 195 countries assessed, 87 (45%) were rated free, 59 (30%) partly free, and 49 (25%) not free.
  3. The Middle East and North Africa region had the worst ratings in the world in 2016, followed closely by Eurasia.

The report explains that in 2016 a net decline in freedom of expression and political space occurred in 67 countries. Ratings improved for only 37 countries, meaning 2016 was the 11th consecutive year of worldwide net decline in freedom of expression and political space.

The decline was not only due to autocratic or undemocratic states. Nearly one-quarter of the countries registering declines in 2016 were in Europe.

A few examples of what reduced political space looks like in practice are as follows:

  • In Kenya, 500 NGOs were deregistered in 2014 and another 959 in 2015.[9]
  • In Pakistan, 3,773 NGOs were deregistered in Pakistan in 2017.
  • A well-known 2015 extension of legal powers in Kazakhstan enabled the state to regulate the funding of NGOs.
  • Legislation introduced in Russia in 2012 obliged foreign-funded NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’.

Similar regulations or deregistrations were seen in Egypt, Somalia, Panama, Laos, Zimbabwe, India, the UK, and the US.

New regulations are often framed as ‘necessary for the preservation of state sovereignty or national security’;[10] In other words, as a counter-terrorism measure.[11]

The MENA region since the Arab Spring

Freedom House offers a nuanced answer to the questions of whether the popular uprisings of 2011 improved conditions for economic progress. But the general picture is not at all positive.

The majority of Arab Spring countries are still struggling with the consequences of the political instability the uprisings created.

In Yemen, Syria, and Libya a protracted crisis is preventing progress. Foreign state and non-state actors have invaded the region, some out of national interest and security concerns, and others to advance agendas which pre-existed the uprisings.

A few positive repercussions can be found, but it requires a heavy dose of optimism to think they will ever predominate. The majority MENA countries have followed international trends in strengthening state security. A mixed picture can be seen from a few of Freedom House’s case studies:


Genuine improvements can be seen in Tunisia. Since the revolution, the Tunisian government has improved its record on transparency. A 2011 decree requires internal documents from public institutions to be made publically available. The 2014 constitution established the right of access to information, along with an independent commission to monitor compliance, and there have been numerous other signs of progress:

In January 2016, protests over soaring unemployment erupted in Kasserine Governorate and spread to cities around the country after a jobless man was electrocuted while standing on top of a power conductor to protest his removal from consideration for public-sector jobs. The protests subsided by late February, and observers credited the police with demonstrating greater restraint than in previous years.

In June 2016, the Tunisian parliament adopted a robust gender parity law for candidates in local elections.

In November 2016, the Truth and Dignity Commission held two public hearings on national television and radio, offering victims of human rights abuses under the former regime a chance to share their testimony.

A newly adopted investment code and the establishment of an independent Supreme Judicial Council are also signals of improvement.

Nonetheless, the picture is mixed.

Although the constitution guarantees the rights of assembly and peaceful demonstration, and public demonstrations on political, social, and economic issues regularly take place, a controversial counterterrorism law adopted in 2015, alongside successive states of emergency in response to terrorist attacks, has imposed constraints on public demonstrations.

In March 2016, the state adopted a freedom of information law, but it was criticised by watchdogs for its security-related exemptions.


President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who first took power in a July 2013 coup, continues to govern Egypt in an authoritarian fashion, although the election of a new parliament in late 2015 ended a period of rule by executive decree.

Serious political opposition is virtually non-existent, with both liberal and Islamist activists facing criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

Terrorism persists unabated in the Sinai Peninsula and has also struck the Egyptian mainland, despite the government’s use of aggressive and abusive combat tactics.

In April 2017, the government cracked down on demonstrators protesting a deal to transfer the sovereignty of Egyptian islands to Saudi Arabia. Dozens of people were beaten and arrested.

In November 2017, parliament passed a highly restrictive bill on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that effectively criminalised any civil society activity lacking the approval of a new regulatory body dominated by security agencies. The measure had yet to be signed by the president at the year’s end.

The overwhelmingly pro-government parliament elected in 2015 generally rubber-stamped legislation and without providing an effective check on the government of President Sisi.

According to Freedom House research, the authorities harshly restricted freedoms of speech and assembly for activists across the political spectrum, and the new NGO legislation passed in November threatened to further curtail the operations of independent civil society groups. The media were also targeted, with law enforcement agencies harassing and sometimes jailing journalists who reported on political opposition of any kind. Arbitrary travel bans increasingly affected academics and others seeking to visit or leave Egypt.


Political affairs in Algeria are dominated by a closed elite from the military and the ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN). President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been in office since 1999, and although there are multiple opposition parties in parliament, elections are distorted by fraud and other forms of manipulation.

Restrictive laws curb criticism in the media and suppress street protests. Other concerns include rampant corruption, the threat of terrorist attacks, and occasional violence between Arabs and Berbers as well as between Algerians and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Freedoms House makes further mention of restrictions on freedom of assembly, aggressive controls on immigration, and increased control of the media.


The picture across the MENA region is grim. With the exception of Tunisia, hardly any improvements in conditions required for inclusive development and economic growth have been seen since the Arab Spring.

The undeniable global trend towards state-centred securitisation is accompanied by increasing reductions in access to political, economic, and cyberspace. Unfortunately, the MENA region is no exception to the trend.

In fact, the MENA region’s subjection to terrorism and other forms of violence which challenge the position of elitist state structures and interests has provoked state responses which outstrip the impact of securitisation in other regions.

Securitisation does not guarantee inclusive economic development. On the contrary. It reduces inclusivity, access to economic empowerment, and investment in human security. It only contributes to the further empowerment of networks like ‘the family’ in Egypt and similarly exclusive groups across the region.

A word of warning: Because securitisation contributes to the exclusion and alienation of certain social groups, it further undermines the legitimacy of the state. Where the social contract between government and citizen is weak or even absent, this is magnified.

Exclusion and alienation from the state is one driver of radicalisation and recruitment into violent organisations. It is important to be aware of the risks. Securitisation does not necessarily lead to security.

[1] UN, EU, and national terrorist listings target groups and individuals that are suspected of terrorist activities or links to terrorist organisations.

[2] Private communication Rabat, September 2017

[3] 18 U.S. Code § 2339A – Providing material support to terrorists | US

[4] Know your customer (KYC) is the process of a business identifying and verifying the identity of its clients. The term is also used to refer to the bank and anti-money laundering regulations which govern these activities.

[5] Private communication with the governor of the National Reserve Bank of South Africa.

[6] Private communication with the head of the Counter Radicalisation Policy Unit in Paris.

[7] Understanding The Political Economy Of The Arab Uprisings, edited by Diwan Ishac

[8] North African Politics: Change and Continuity, edited by Yahia H. Zoubir and Gregory White.

[9] Also see: Country Reports on Terrorism 2015 Africa Overview

[10] Closing Civic Space: Impact on Development and Humanitarian CSOs, Global trends in NGO Law; VOLUME 7, ISSUE 3.

[11] The National Security Economics of the Middle East: Comparative Spending, Burden Sharing, and Modernization, By Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan/CSIS March 2017.

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