Last year, protests toppled the leaders of Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq. Only in Sudan did the protests lead to a genuine transition process, while it remains to be seen what the others may yet produce.
What is clear is that protesters have learned not to surrender the streets when a leader agrees to resign but to keep up the pressure until a process of transition has been agreed upon that will lead to a more transparent, accountable and open political system.
Protesters in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, demanding appointment of a leader untainted by association with the old regime, have stood their ground as governments and vested interests have sought to salvage what they can by attempting to replace one leader with another with close ties to the ruling elites.
Repression buys embattled regimes time at best. More often than not it reinforces the protesters’ resolve.
Harsh repression enabled the government of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, one of the Middle East and North Africa’s most brutal leaders, to quash last year’s protests. The question is for how long.
That question is all the more pressing given that protesters in the Middle East and North Africa, as in Hong Kong, are driven by a sense of “now or never”—a sense of having nothing more to lose.
The killing of more than 100 protesters in Sudan did not stop people from protesting until a transition process was put in place. The deaths of hundreds of protesters in Iraq and the injuring of thousands more failed to weaken their resolve.
Their resilience suggests a fundamental shift in attitude that goes beyond the sense of desperation associated with having nothing left to lose.
It reflects the evolution of a new assertiveness, sense of empowerment, and rejection of submissive adherence to authority that first emerged in the 2011 popular Arab uprisings that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.
Vested interests backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE rolled back the achievements of those revolts, with the exception of Tunisia, leading to the rise of el-Sisi in Egypt and to brutal civil wars in Libya and Yemen.
In some ways, the counter-revolution has backfired. The war in Yemen has severely tarnished Saudi Arabia’s image, focused attention on the dark side of UAE rulers and fueled the resolve of the 2019 protesters.
The last decade’s change in attitudes is also evident in Lebanon and Iraq, where protesters are demanding political and social structures that emphasize national, rather than ethnic or sectarian religious identities, in a world in which leaders advocate some form of racial, ethnic or religious supremacy.
Last weekend’s U.S. military strikes against Iraqi militias associated with Iran suggest that world leaders ignore the protests at their peril.
If protesters focused their demand for a withdrawal of foreign forces primarily on Iranian influence prior to the strikes, they now focus equally on the presence of U.S. forces.
The strikes also put at risk a stalling effort by Saudi Arabia to dial down tensions with Iran in the wake of attacks in September on two key Saudi oil facilities and U.S. reluctance to respond.
Reduced Saudi-Iranian tensions, coupled with changing youth attitudes toward religion, facilitate a moving away from debilitating sectarian politics that have long served to keep autocratic leaders and ruling elites in power.
Even so, fragile protest outcomes are likely to shape the Middle East and North Africa in the coming decade.
Successful uprisings like that of Sudan as well as stalemated ones like those in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq all run the continuous risk of being thwarted by power grabs by militaries and other vested interests that can produce harsh repression and even civil war.
The lesson of the past decade for the coming one is that waves of protest are not a matter of days, months, or even a year. They are long, drawn-out processes that often play out over decades.
2011 ushered in a global era of defiance and dissent with the Arab uprisings as its most dramatic centerpiece.
The decade of the 2020s is likely to be one in which protests produce uncertain and fragile outcomes at best, irrespective of whether protesters or vested interests gain the immediate upper hand.
Fragility at best, instability at worst, is likely to be the norm. To change that, protesters and governments would have to agree on economic, political and social systems that are truly inclusive and ensure that all have a stake. That is a tall order.
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident senior associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.
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