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Arab Protests: A Wicked Dance Between Rulers and Subjects
Arab Protests: A Wicked Dance Between Rulers and Subjects

Arab Protests: A Wicked Dance Between Rulers and Subjects

Originally published in Valdai Club

A new wave of popular protests has jolted an already deeply unsettled Arab world. Nine years ago, uprisings across the region signalled a rejection of corrupt autocratic rule that failed to deliver jobs, basic services and reliable infrastructure. Yet regime repression and the protests’ lack of organisation, leadership and unified vision thwarted hopes of a new order. As suddenly as the uprisings erupted, as quickly they descended into violence. What followed was either brutal civil war or regime retrenchment. Tunisia stands as the sole, still fragile, exception.

The past year’s uprisings shook countries – Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon – that their predecessors had passed by, showing a continuity in roots and purpose. They have in common their anti-establishment sentiment and anger at elites incapable of meeting citizens’ basic needs. But each has its own internal focus and dynamic.

In Algeria, people converged on urban squares when an aging and ailing president announced he would pursue a fifth term in office. In a move to prevent a popular movement from bringing down not just the leader but the entire regime, the military stepped in, replacing the president, targeting some particularly corrupt figures in his entourage, appointing an interim government and organising presidential elections. The protesters have rejected such moves as insufficient, and many have stayed in the street, calling for a more systemic overhaul.

Even if things calm down in these countries, the basic drivers for mass uprisings remain.

In Iraq, popular grievances, on display almost as an annual ritual in the past few years, burst out into the open in early October following the demotion of a popular special-forces general, a hero of the fight against the Islamic State. The streets in predominantly Shiite areas filled with people calling for a corrupt and inept government to go. They met with success – the prime minister and his cabinet resigned – but also with a violent response from security forces and paramilitary groups, which killed hundreds. Yet the protests have continued, squeezed by tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which are turning Iraq into a battleground for their own dispute.

In Lebanon, a tax on WhatsApp use triggered a storm of protests that soon targeted the entire ruling elite for having brought the country to the edge of financial ruin. As in Iraq, the demonstrations’ tenor has been non-sectarian – a breath of fresh air in two countries where sectarian politics have dominated so long and done so much damage. In Lebanon, politicians have openly acknowledged their own role in precipitating their country’s financial implosion, but have resisted stepping aside. In a way, and incongruously, they have been enabled by the protesters themselves, who like elsewhere in the region have failed to put forward an alternative vision, a leadership, organisation or a plan of action.

Even if things calm down in these countries, the basic drivers for mass uprisings remain. They may even have worsened as a result of the violence that has already rained down. Yet, while the people in the squares may have been intimidated to retreat in some instances, their threshold for pain may be rising, along with their anger. This wicked dance between rulers and subjects is likely to determine the region’s shape for years to come.