The genie is out of the bottle

The Arab world is one gigantic pressure cooker. For the most part the lid of repression is on, but it is boiling over with increasing frequency. Whether in Lebanon, Iraq or in Algeria, where people are rising up against political despotism and corruption. By Karim El-Gawhary

By Karim El-Gawhary

We have seen how the lid was lifted this year in Algeria following the toppling of the dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a country now in the throes of weekly demonstrations demanding an end to the entire "Bouteflika system".

Or in Sudan, where long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted and the protest movement managed to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the military – to date the sole rulers of the nation – which should in three years lead to a civilian government and democratic elections.

And even in Egypt, a country ruled by an omnipotent repressive apparatus, people dared just a few weeks ago to take to the streets for the first time against the former head of the military and President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

A long-term process of upheaval

All this shows one thing above all else: politics in the Arab world cannot be described with the seasons of the years along the lines of "the Arab Spring has become the Arab Winter". What we’re experiencing on our doorstep in the southern and eastern Mediterranean as well as in the Middle East, is a long-term process of upheaval.

Even the beginnings of this insurgency can be described as a process. The reality is much more complex than the story of the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself alight in Tunisia and with this single act, this beat of a butterfly’s wing, triggered a hurricane that swept across the entire Arab world.

Take the example of Egypt: what sparked the rebellion against Mubarak? Was it 25 January 2011, when people began streaming onto Tahrir Square? Or the New Year’s Eve before that, when Muslim and Coptic youngsters took to the streets following an attack on a church in Alexandria to protest at the regime’s inability to provide adequate protection for the nation’s churches.

Protests against Hosni Mubarak on Tahrir Square in Cairo, 2011 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Aufstandsbewegungen als stetig wiederkehrender Umbruchsprozess in der arabischen Welt: "Wenn der Dschinn erst einmal aus der Flasche ist, schafft es kein arabischer Autokrat, kein Militär und keine konfessionelle Partei, diesen wieder dorthin zurückzuholen. Dann nimmt der Prozess des Umbruchs seinen Lauf – wobei er sich an keine Jahreszeiten hält", schreibt Karim El-Gawhary.

Or did the uprising begin the previous year, when the young man Khaled Said was beaten to death by policemen in Alexandria and the Facebook campaign "We are all Khaled Said" spread like wildfire throughout Egypt. Or was the catalyst the protest movement "Kifaya" (Enough!), a small group of political activists demonstrating against Mubarak since 2004?

Social factors as a trigger for the rebellion

And precisely because this movement for political change in the country does not have a determinable starting point, it also has no end point. The old systems may continue to try and keep the lid on these protest movements by repressive means, but thus far they have not succeeded in completely eliminating the prevailing contradictions.

And these are currently being inflamed by the growing economic and social problems. After all, the traditional Arab autocratic or confessional political systems all have one thing in common: they open the door to corruption and the self-enrichment of whichever elite happens to be in power, while most of the country is left economically and socially with its back to the wall.

In Egypt, a third of the population has to live on € 1.50 a day. In Lebanon, a third of the population is below the poverty line. In addition to this, corruption is rife. Transparency International ranks Sudan as the sixth most corrupt nation in the world, seven places ahead of Iraq and with Lebanon not far behind.

The other recurring reason for the discontent can be seen in the non-functioning state services – whether in regard to the sporadic power supplies in the extreme heat of the Iraqi summer, the refuse crisis or the inadequate digital infrastructure in Lebanon, which is comparable with that of a third world nation in a country that presents a gleaming facade to the rest of the world.

Rejection of confessional and political trench warfare

The youth unemployment rate in Iraq is 20 percent. This is particularly dramatic because 60 percent of the population is under 24. The numbers are similar in other Arab nations, where predominantly young people are taking to the streets because they feel they have no future perspectives. The distinctive feature of these protest movements is their spontaneous character and – perhaps with the exception of Sudan – the lack of any organisational structure. Besides, many demonstrators refuse to be politically absorbed by the traditional parties of their nations.

Protesting against Saad Hariri's government in Lebanon (photo: Getty Images)
Protest gegen das System des politischen Stillstands: Seit knapp zwei Wochen kommt es im Libanon zu Massenprotesten gegen die Regierung von Ministerpräsident Saad Hariri. Auslöser waren angekündigte Sparmaßnahmen und Steuererhöhungen der Regierung. Inzwischen fordern die Demonstranten den Rücktritt der Regierung und ein neues politisches System. Libanons Politik wird bestimmt durch ein Proporzsystem, das die Macht zwischen den konfessionellen Gruppen aufteilt. Das Land erlebt eine Wirtschaftskrise und hat weltweit eine der höchsten Schuldenquoten.

It is also interesting that the protest is not only directed at the Arab autocrats, but – in the case of Lebanon and Iraq – against orders in which confessional groupings and parties dominate the political landscape. For decades, people there have been told that their religious identity is a decisive factor in politics – whether that identity be that of Sunnis, Shias or Christians.

But now, people are realising that these very same religion-based political parties are lining their pockets, creating a confessional buddy economy where ministries are owned by confessional parties and have become self-services stores for these.

Now, people in these very same nations are uniting to demonstrate for a functioning state, for political accountability for those in government and against either own confessional leadership. Economic and social needs are of utmost importance in the discourse on religious identities.

Repression: the rulers' knee-jerk response

The responses from Arab states only serve to highlight their weaknesses. They resort to repression. In Iraq, the very same Shia militias denounced for mismanagement by protesters in the Shia areas of the country fired on demonstrators.

In Egypt, the regime is in a such a panic over any kind of dissent that a few weeks ago, the police began stopping large numbers of people on the streets and demanding access to their phones. Anyone found with anti-government material on their phones is taken away for questioning, as well as anyone refusing to unlock their devices.

Egyptian human rights organisations are reporting more than 4,000 cases of these "mobile phone arrests". The Arab regimes face a fundamental problem here. Repression works, but it also has an expiry date, especially if economic and social problems remain unresolved.

Regardless of whether in the case of Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Sudan or Egypt, the same thing always applies: the regimes, the confessional parties and their security apparatuses are no longer the ones deciding what people think and also express. First and foremost through social media, the critical political debate has for a long time now taken on a life of its own, migrating straight from the Internet to the coffeehouse.

And if the genie is now out of the bottle, no autocrat, no military and no confessional party will be able to cram it back in. Then, the process of upheaval will run its course – regardless of the season.

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon