'The Arab Spring did not die': A second wave of Mideast protests

Hashem Osseiran with AFP bureaus
·6-min read

The Arab Spring uprisings are nearly a decade old and moribund but protests in four new countries last year revealed that the spirit of the revolts that lit up 2011 is still alive.

"The emergence of the 2019 wave of the uprisings in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq showed that the Arab Spring did not die," said Asef Bayat, an expert on revolutions in the Arab world.

"It continued in other countries in the region with somewhat similar repertoires of collective action."

The countries swept up by the latest revolts had initially stood on the sidelines as a contagion of uprisings gripped Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen in 2011.

But in 2019 they led calls for an end to the same regional economic precariousness, corruption, and unresponsive governance that fuelled the Arab protests years earlier.

"The main drivers of the Arab Spring... continue to bubble under the surface of Arab politics," said Arshin Adib-Moghaddam of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

"2011 yielded 2019 and 2019 will merge into a new wave of protests," said the author of the book "On the Arab Revolts and the Iranian Revolution: Power and Resistance Today".

- Algeria -

Memories of Algeria's 1992-2002 civil war had left many wary when protests swept the region in 2011, despite a wave of demonstrations that broke out in January over rising food prices.

The trauma of the civil war "prevented the Algerians from going out in the streets" in major protests, said Zaki Hannache, a 33-year-old activist.

"We followed with enthusiasm the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, but we were scared."

On February 22 last year, fear gave way to anger as President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's plans to run for a fifth term after 20 years in power prompted demonstrations in key cities.

The uprising, which would later become known as the Hirak protest movement, echoed a resistance to the kind of long-standing dictatorships that spurred the protests in Egypt and Tunisia nearly a decade ago.

"We learnt from the Arab Spring," Hannache said.

The Algerian army, like its counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, withdrew its support for the regime, causing Bouteflika to resign on April 2, 2019.

The euphoric moment echoed the early victories of 2011, but activists this time around were more cautious.

Even after securing Bouteflika's resignation, the weekly protests persisted, targeting a total overhaul of a political system that has been in place since Algeria's independence in 1962.

It was only in March this year that the Hirak suspended demonstrations, due to social distancing required by the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the most important Arab Spring lessons, Hannache said, came from Syria, where an initially peaceful uprising spiralled into one of the deadliest conflicts of the 21st century.

"We learnt that the only option was to keep the movement peaceful," Hannache said.

"Our revolution lasted long because we remained peaceful."

- Iraq –

The 2003 US invasion had long rid Iraq of dictator Saddam Hussein by the time the Arab protests started toppling seeming invincible regimes like dominoes.

"We saw the Arab Spring uprisings as an opportunity to rescue democracy in Iraq," said Ali Abdulkhaleq, a 34-year-old activist and journalist.

"We had come out of a bad regime by force," he said of the US-led occupation.

In February 2011, Abdulkhaleq helped create the "Youth of February" protest group that organised weekly rallies in Baghdad's Tahrir Square to denounce the then government of Nuri al-Maliki, which was corroded by corruption.

"The people demand the reform of the regime," the crowds chanted, stopping short of calling for the entire leadership to be taken down.

The movement, after a few months, rolled back. But February 2011, Abdulkhaleq said, marked a turning point.

"An Iraqi rage was unleashed and the people started to know that there is space for protest," he said.

Protests broke out again almost every other year, but anger finally boiled over in October 2019.

An unprecedented nationwide uprising demanding a complete political overhaul forced the government of then-prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign.

The coronavirus pandemic and the violent repression that killed nearly 600 demonstrators have all but snuffed out the movement.

Yet Abdulkhaleq argues that "the triggers that could spark a new revolution or uprising still remain."

"The threat to the political leadership... still stands."

- Sudan -

The advent of the Arab Spring lit a revolutionary spark in Sudan in 2011, said Mohammad al-Omar, a 37-year-old activist.

"At the time, youth pressure groups started forming and organising small and scattered protests," he told AFP.

However Omar al-Bashir, who had led the country since 1989, maintained a tight grip and the formal opposition was fragmented, he said.

Omar said the clearest indication of the "influence of the Arab Spring uprisings" on his country came in 2013.

Khartoum lifted petrol subsidies, leading prices to skyrocket and people to take to the streets, revealing the revolutionary fervour brewing beneath Sudan's surface.

"The circle of opposition to the regime started to widen," he said.

Protests broke out again five years later over soaring food prices and continued into 2019.

On April 11, 2019, the army announced it had put Bashir under house arrest.

Military and protest leaders signed a "constitutional declaration" in August and a sovereign council was formed for power-sharing before transition to civilian rule.

"Sudan's movement was much more organised" than the Arab Spring uprisings, Omar said.

The activist, who was imprisoned over his role in protests that toppled Bashir, lauded the role of Sudan's professional trade unions in leading the street movement towards change.

He cited "their insistence on maintaining the peaceful nature of the movement despite attempts by security services to drag them into violence."

- Lebanon -

Imad Bazzi, a Lebanese activist and advocacy expert, has been pushing for political change since 1998.

The Arab Spring uprisings, he said, fuelled his momentum.

"They gave us hope," the 37-year-old told AFP.

A system of governance that divides influence along confessional lines has kept in power a hereditary political class, comprising mostly of warlords from Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

"When I saw that in Tunisia and Egypt change was happening, I thought: why wouldn't this happen in Lebanon too?", Bazzi said.

In February 2011, a jobless Bazzi started organising the first series of protests inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt but which paled in comparison.

The movement petered out within a month without effecting much change, but Bazzi said it set the stage for a grassroots renaissance in the decade that followed, leading to a wave of protests in 2015 over a garbage management crisis.

It culminated in October 2019, when a government decision to tax WhatsApp calls sparked an unprecedented nationwide movement demanding the wholesale removal of the ruling elite.

The movement took aim at the entire political class, forcing the government of then-prime minister Saad Hariri to bow to street pressure.

A year on, the political leaders targeted by the 2019 uprising remain in power and Hariri looks set to return as premier.

But, for Bazzi, the episode marked the third chapter of a revolutionary process that started in 2011 and continues to this day.

"It's a continuous thing," he said.

"The waves come one after the other and they are all connected."

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