Transcending the Uprisings in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan, and Egypt: A Reawakening of the Arab Political Consciousness

January 22, 2020

 

The revolutions of 2011 represented the largest shake-up of the political, economic, and cultural landscape of the Arab world since the establishment of the modern Middle East. Assuming the moniker of the “Arab Spring” to reflect the parallels in democratization waves of Eastern Europe and Latin America, the revolutions displayed a similar domino effect, beginning in Tunisia followed by Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. The uprisings, radical in their aim, targeted some of the most despotic and dictatorial regimes in the world. Beyond the individual revolutions, however, the Arab Spring was exceptional in creating a broader, transcendental awakening of the regional political consciousness. The collective generation and absorption of media allowed for the establishment of new norms that reflected these revolutionary themes. In turn, the rulers of these countries, fearing the potential of their own people to turn against them, clamped down in their own polities, consolidating power and further banning any opposition. 

 

In a self-fulfilling prophecy, many of the leaders of the Arab world, both in countries that experienced uprisings and those that didn’t, warned of the potential of ensuing chaos. Utilizing the age-old “strong man” fallacy that the West often used towards them, they argued that the Middle East required strong rulers to keep internal stability and order. The disintegration of revolutions into counter revolutions, insurgencies, and civil wars seemingly led their prophecies into fruition, and served as a backdrop for increased state repression. Beyond the regime-level, the chilling effect of the Arab Winter permeated individual and society-level discourse. The wars that compounded Syria, Libya, and Yemen, coupled with the failures of the revolutions in Egypt and Bahrain, reinforced the narrative among Western and Middle Eastern commentators, politicians, as well as the societies themselves, that change was inconceivable and only brought with it war and destruction. These new norms served as a form of self-censorship for would-be dissidents, and if they didn’t, the states’ agents did not hesitate to remove them. The chilling effect turned the Arab Spring into an Arab Winter, a reinstating of a pre-Arab Spring status quo: strong man rulers, lack of political freedoms, corruption, and precarious (in)stability. The Arab Spring was dead, the regimes of the region effectively argued — pacifying their people, once again, by fear. 

 

And yet, over seven years later, new anti-government protest movements arose in Jordan, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, and most recently, in Iraq and Lebanon. Yet, the coverage and analyses of these protests, both in the West and in the Arab world, have been short-sighted and inattentive, often examining movements in isolation to each other and in isolation to the time period they are situating themselves in. Rather than being viewed as intricately connected to the past revolutions of the Arab Spring, as a repudiation of the myth of the “death” of the Arab Spring and the need for dictatorial regimes, or as a potential springboard for a new political discourse on the Middle East, each is separated as a “unique” event, against a “rogue” system, or, more often, as due to “bread-and-butter” economic grievances. 

 

Following this point of view, the Sudanese revolution was against a particularly rogue dictator, the Algerian revolution was against an aging president, the Jordanian protests were against an economic policy, the Egyptian protests were an abnormal disruption in reaction to corruption, the Iraqi revolution is expected turmoil in a violence-stricken country, and the Lebanese revolution is in response to proposed WhatsApp taxes. Yet, of paramount importance and repudiation to this viewpoint is the circulation of the famous demand and slogan that defined the Arab Spring: “الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام‎”/ “The people want the downfall of the regime.” The phrase, originating in the  2011 Tunisian Revolution became a cornerstone demand in subsequent revolutions in the region, highlighting collective grievances against autocratic, abusive, and corrupt regimes. Even as Western and Arab news stations covered them as singular events against singular policies, the protest movements themselves highlighted the transcendental nature of their struggles by propagating artwork, chants, alliances, and rhetoric that linked their movements to the successes of each other and to the ideals of the Arab Spring. Beyond the citizens of these countries themselves, nationals of the surrounding Arab countries and the Arab diaspora have similarly coalesced around this narrative, allowing for a collective reawakening of the Arab political consciousness that had been quelled by the Arab Winter.

 

At the same time, these movements do not follow an exact pattern to form an “Arab Spring 2.0,” as some have proposed. It is clear that the nature of these movements differ from the 2011 revolutions. While the revolutions of the Arab Spring targeted extremely abusive personalist dictatorships and were relatively coordinated in their movements and their close temporal proximity, the past and present movements in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Algeria, with the exception of Sudan and Egypt, targeted more hybrid regimes that aren’t entirely tied to one leader. Some ongoing revolutions, such as in Lebanon and Iraq, simultaneously transcend and target post-war sectarian divisions and political systems, opening themselves up for less centralized state violence and more violence by state or sect-allied paramilitaries and militias. In Jordan and in Egypt, protests were effectively co-opted and repressed by concessions and state terror. In Algeria and Sudan, successful revolutions have removed the heads of state, and continue to push for system-level change and transition. 

 

Nonetheless, the root grievances that brought forth the Arab Spring, abusive political systems that breed state violence, corruption, sectarianism, and economic crises, continue to bring forth these more recent movements, and, if left unaddressed, will only produce more uprisings. The failure to see these movements in tandem with each other, and to instead reduce them to dissatisfaction with bread prices or new tax policies, dismisses the methods in which these movements have built off of each other in rhetoric, tactics, and demands. More consequentially, such analyses ignore the fracturing of the Arab Winter and the repressive spell brought on by the autocratic regimes of the region. The reawakening of the Arab political consciousness, and the onslaught of protests and revolutions it brings serves as a reminder of the precarious nature of “stability” in the Middle East, and the inability of the status quo to serve as a permanent pacification of indigenous calls for system-level change.

 

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