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  • Hanna Bajwa

Understanding the new wave of Middle Eastern protests

The first Arab Spring began in 2011 due to civil unrest and ended in 2013 with either Arab governments quashing the protests with force, money, or both; or because the Arab public saw what happened in Libya, Syria, and Yemen and did not want their own situation to deteriorate into civil war.

So what is this new about the Arab Spring 2.0?

This new wave of protests focuses on the same issues, however protesters have learnt from their past and are seeking new goals and means to achieve these. So what have they changed? After previously failing to achieve regime and structural changes, they are seeking to essentially start their political parties and figures from scratch. This has been particularly clear in the reaction to the Lebanese government’s suggested reform plan to placate the protesters. The response has been, “We might like the message, but we don’t trust the messenger.”

Secondly, the protests are now, mostly, peaceful and although in Algeria and Sudan in particular, the military has used brutal and repressive tactics for decades, but the protesters so far have refused to adopt violence in any way which has allowed them to maintain widespread support. The only exception to this is Iraqi protests where hundreds have been killed and injured due to clashes between protesters and the military. Lastly, the protesters are rejecting divisions in politics that virtually guarantee antidemocratic rule and rather promoting a decidedly non-sectarian message, especially in Lebanon where they have deeply entrenched sectarian political systems, in which religious or ethnic identity is the basis of politics, create divisive and bitter conditions that erode the national cohesion necessary for democratic reforms.

The unrest began in April when Sudanese protesters helped usher longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir out of power, and then stayed in the streets to demand civilian rule. In Algeria, the aged autocrat Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced out in April as well, and demonstrators have continued to show up daily to press for systemic change. September saw scattered protests in Egypt against the corruption of the state and its military chiefs. In Lebanon, unlike other middle eastern countries, it does not export oil, but protesters say the political elite still manages to consume most of the country's wealth, leaving average people without access to jobs, health care and basic government functions, like steady electricity and trash collection. In regards to the protests in Iraq, what was originally a call for reform has become a high-pitched scream for the resignations of key politicians. Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi has said he will step down when a replacement is found, but so far promises of reform have not materialised. Like in Lebanon, the government is having difficulty doing anything at all while the country is in turmoil. In Algeria, protests have been a weekly affair since February however candidates for the coming election were part of the old regime, he said, and not viewed as legitimate reformers. Like Iraq and Lebanon, Algerian protesters are calling for the dismantling of the entire political system and want elections that are not organised by the current leadership.

All these protests across the Middle East share the same expression of anger towards their government due to failures to deliver basic services while the political elite enrich themselves. The protesters have also learnt and emphasise that for real political change, the entire decrepit system of rule and repression must go. Nowhere has this message resonated more than in Iran.

When the protests came to Iran, the country’s leaders saw them for what they were: the biggest threat to the regime since the Green Movement protests of 2009. The Iranian government has taken steps towards shutting down the internet and hiking up gasoline prices however this just fuelled the anger of the citizens so it didn’t take long for the protests to assume a strongly anti-regime cast. While Trump administration sanctions have played a major role in the sharp deterioration of the Iranian economy, anti-American slogans have been in short supply on Iranian streets; the regime itself is receiving the blame for the country’s troubles. This is why the government responded with historic levels of violence against its own citizens.

What can we expect to see from these protests? In Sudan, the revolution is still in a critical phase especially after recently clashes with the military but with the polarisation within the population is successfully mitigated, the protests will prove successful, especially as they have already demonstrated some successes. In Algeria, their peaceful tactics has allowed the legitimisation of the movement however the lack of leadership in these protests may prove a problem. If there is a creation of a leadership structure, there would be assurance of a replacement to take power if the regime falls. In movements such as Sudan and Algeria, if the regimes lead to civil war ultimately everyone fails and this also leads to failed states – probably the worst outcome the countries can face. In Iran, the government quickly responded to the protests, by shutting off the Internet and using brutal force against protesters, killing an estimated 143 people. So within a week, the demonstrations stopped and the government declared victory and this result shows the governments’ confidence regarding the weakness of its population and also demonstrates how the government has learnt from recent protests in Tehran in 2017-18.

The wave of these protests can be expected to continue throughout the Middle East until either the regime fails and is replaced, or in cases such as Iran: the government will win again and we can expect for some protests to occur again in these countries. The instability of governments in this region may never end and therefore, an Arab Spring 3.0 will not be surprising.

Image: Unsplash

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