The Middle East's fearless protesters

The upheavals of the past year in the MENA region are arguably as momentous as those of the Arab Spring in 2011. Yet perhaps the biggest difference is that our interest seems to have evaporated. Why? Essay by Jannis Hagmann

Essay by Jannis Hagmann

There was a lot going on in 2019: Turkey's Syria offensive, Trump's impeachment, the Arab Spring, Greta in New York ... wait, what spring? Hasn't it been several years since the days when people in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries rose up and hounded their long-standing rulers from office? Remember how back then we just couldn’t get enough of news from Tahrir Square in Cairo and about the mass demonstrations in Damascus, Tripoli and Tunis?

Nine years ago, in December 2010, the Tunisians sparked the Arab Spring. In only a few weeks, the uprisings had spread across the Middle East and North Africa. "Down with the regime! It is the people's will!" the angry masses roared at their autocratic rulers, and a number of heads of state ended up stepping down. In the meantime, the initial euphoria of many observers has given way to disillusionment.

Nevertheless, events that unfolded throughout the region in 2019 come close to the historical upheavals of that time. The biggest difference, perhaps, is that our interest seems to have dissipated. No longer do we look on with a mixture of enthusiasm and empathy as demonstrators in the town squares of Baghdad, Beirut, Algiers and Khartoum persevere in the face of tear gas, gangs of thugs and sometimes brutal armed violence.

 A far-reaching political turning point

Three weeks ago, when the Iraqis forced Prime Minister Ali Abdel Mahdi to resign, they made history. In all but one case, popular uprisings in the Arab republics of the region have led to the overthrow of the president or head of government (while the Arab monarchies have been largely spared). The exception is Syria, where the Assad regime has held onto power with the help of poison gas, foreign mercenaries and massive support from the Russian Air Force.

Mahdi's resignation followed that of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri a month earlier. In Lebanon, too, people had flocked to the streets in October to force an end to the entire political system and all of its horrific excesses of sectarianism and corruption. It was a trifle that ignited all the pent-up frustration and caused an explosion of rage immense enough to develop into a full-scale uprising within just a few hours: the announcement of a tax on WhatsApp calls that would have hit Lebanon's poor particularly hard.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Zum Rücktritt gezwungen: Im Irak protestieren die Menschen seit Anfang Oktober gegen Misswirtschaft und Korruption, sodass sich Ministerpräsident Adel Abdel Mahdi schließlich Anfang Dezember dazu veranlasst sah, seinen Rücktritt einzureichen. Mit einer einzigen Ausnahme haben in den Zehner Jahren nun in allen arabischen Republiken der Region Volksaufstände zum Sturz des Präsidenten oder Regierungschefs geführt (während die arabischen Monarchien weitgehend verschont blieben).

The protests in Algeria and Sudan were likewise triggered by specific socio-economic and political grievances. The Sudanese protest movement, which began in response to rising petrol and bread prices, soon turned against the regime of Omar al-Bashir, who had been the head of state for almost 30 years.

In Algeria it was the announcement of the state leadership, hardly surpassed in its audacity, to re-elect Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had ruled for 20 years, for a fifth term of office. When the 82-year-old finally gave in to the pressure from the streets in April, he barely managed to hand in his resignation from his wheelchair.

The endurance of the protest movement

Today both Bashir and Bouteflika are but fading memories. There is cautious optimism in Sudan, where the military and opposition have agreed on an interim government before the elections take place in 2022. In Algeria, massive protests flared up again in the run-up to the elections in mid-December, as all five presidential candidates were cadres of the old regime. It remains to be seen in the coming weeks just how persistent the protest movement can be. In any case, the victor, Abdelmajid Tebboune, is already experiencing plenty of pressure.

The final balance sheet for 2019 shows two overthrown dictators, two deposed heads of government and several smaller protests in Egypt and Jordan – and yet these developments have made few headlines compared to 2011. No new "spring" was proclaimed, no new "Arabellion". It certainly might have something to do with us getting used to such news. Mainly, however, our current indifference can be attributed to three factors that were not the case in 2011.

Firstly, the upheavals in 2019 occurred in countries that seem so far away and indeed foreign to us. Or have you ever visited Algeria on holiday? Gone diving in the Red Sea in Sudan? The opinion leaders of the media are just like you. Many journalists specialising on the region learnt Arabic in Cairo, perhaps travelled to Tunisia and Syria. But Algeria or Sudan? No chance. And who actually cares about a country they have never seen? Politically as well, there are no close ties between Germany and Sudan or Algeria – quite unlike France, incidentally, with its colonial history in North Africa. In that country, Algeria dominated newspaper headlines for weeks.

Algeria's former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Politisch abservierter Langzeitdespot Abdelaziz Bouteflika: In Algerien war es die in ihrer Dreistigkeit kaum zu übertreffende Ankündigung der Staatsführung, den seit 20 Jahren herrschenden Abdelaziz Bouteflika für eine fünfte Amtszeit erneut zur Wahl aufzustellen. Als der 82-Jährige dem Druck der Straße im April schließlich nachgab, schaffte er es kaum noch, sein Rücktrittsgesuch aus dem Rollstuhl heraus zu überreichen.

Secondly, a feeling of resignation seems to prevail when it comes to Arab uprisings. After 2011, there followed a counter-revolution from 2013 onward. The military regime in Egypt was restored; Libya, Yemen and Syria descended deep into war; IS set up its regime of terror. Disappointed, many people turned away.

A realistic viewpoint

Yet perhaps there is a positive side to this resignation: the naive euphoria that seized many observers in 2011 has given way to a more realistic point of view. Didn't we particularly relish the sight of young people in Cairo or Damascus who wanted to be like us in the West? The changeover was ultimately much more difficult than we had hoped, or at least our expectations were not immediately met.

The next shock came in 2015 with the "refugee summer", when it became brutally plain that change brings instability – in this case so great that it literally washed up on our European shores. Not only right-wingers have come to understand that the revolutions in the Arab world represent a profound turning point for the societies there, one that is accompanied by protracted political crises right on Europe's doorstep. Rather than a passion for revolution, Europe has been gripped by a longing for peace and order.

Finally, the third factor is that the global political zeitgeist has left its mark. Now that unpredictable egomaniacs are calling democracy into question here in the West, no one is prepared to talk about the "democratisation" of others anymore. The desire to see regimes fall seems to have passed. It is hard to imagine any German politician still seriously advocating a deployment of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan today, based on the argument that the West must liberate Afghan women and bring democracy to Kabul.

An appeal to the autocrats of the Arab world

Furthermore, no U.S. president since 1945 has relegated the idea of democracy to such a minor role – to put it mildly – as Donald Trump. The missionary-interventionist zeal of George W. Bush's neocons had already come to an end when Obama took office in 2009. Rhetorically, though, Obama continued to pay lip service to the traditional U.S. ideal of global democratisation. His sympathy with those around the world striving for dignity and freedom was beyond question. In his historic speech in Cairo in 2009 he warned the Arab autocrats: "You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion." The autocrats had no idea at the time what was in store for them in the coming decade.

U.S. President Donald Trump (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Arabiens Autokraten als beste Option für den Nahen Osten: Donald Trump kann mit der Rolle Amerikas als Förderer von Freiheit und Demokratie nichts anfangen. Unmissverständlich hat er gezeigt, dass er nicht auf der Seite der unzufriedenen Massen steht. „Mein Lieblingsdiktator“ nannte er Ägyptens Militärherrscher Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – ausgerechnet jenen Mann, der im Kernland des Arabischen Frühlings jeglicher Hoffnung auf Wandel ein Ende bereitete und das demokratische Projekt am Nil begrub.

Trump has no use for America's role as a champion of freedom and democracy. He has demonstrated beyond a doubt that he is not on the side of the discontented masses. He once called Egypt's military ruler Abdul Fattah al-Sisi "my favourite dictator" – of all people, the man who put an end to any hope of change in the country that was the heartland of the Arab Spring and buried the democratic project on the Nile. Perhaps Trump is more honest than Bush or Obama, or at least he makes no secret of the fact that he sees as the best option a Middle East held together by autocrats.

Deprived of fundamental rights

The future of the region, however, will ultimately be decided on the streets of Algiers, Cairo or Baghdad. The past decade has shown that it is impossible to hold back the forces pushing for change in conservative societies and calcified political systems in the Middle East. So far, not much has actually changed. Only four percent of the people in the region live in countries that are considered "free" according to the freedom index published by the U.S. organisation Freedom House (Israel and Tunisia). An overwhelming majority are deprived of fundamental rights.

So there is reason enough to protest. Whether in the long run the uprisings represent a new wave of democratisation, or whether authoritarianism is indeed changing under the pressure from the streets will probably not be conclusively answered next year or the year after.

But one thing is certain: while the early 2000s went down in history as the years of the "war on terror", the 2010s heralded the beginning of a process that could well take decades to fully unfold in the Arab world and – as Egypt has shown – will follow neither a straightforward course, nor necessarily bring about the desired results. And this is precisely why the fearless protesters in the Middle East and North Africa who are not willing to give up their hope of a life in greater freedom and dignity deserve our support – and a bit of patience.

Jannis Hagmann

© 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor