United we stand: anatomy of five revolutions

Mike Phipps reviews A Region in revolt: Mapping the recent uprisings in North Africa and West Asia, edited by Jade Saab, published by Daraja Press (Ottawa) & TNI (Amsterdam)

We are nearly ten years on from the Arab Spring, a series of uprisings across the Middle East. When it began, argues Jade Saab in this important new book, it “was presented to the world through an orientalist lens… the awakening of the backwards Arab world.”

For the west, it provided retroactive justification for the invasion of Iraq: “All democracy in the region needed was a nudge in the form of an illegal invasion and a million dead civilians.”  This narrative allowed reactionary regimes in the region to paint the uprisings as western plots to destabilise their countries.  Both these interpretations were bolstered by military interventions in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

These military interventions upped the stakes considerably for any nascent popular uprising.  If movements called for the fall of the regime, the regime could respond: “Do you want to become another Syria?” Yet the uprisings continued, and it is not too hyperbolic to refer to the last couple of years as a Second Arab Spring.

This second wave is the focus of this book.  The demands raised by these uprisings go beyond a change of political leadership: they call for a fundamental restructuring of society. The countries in question share similar political economies with an emphasis on extractivism and speculative investment. The spoils of these activities bypass ordinary people, fuelling the migration of skilled labour out of the region and massive rates of unemployment, especially among young people.

They also share a common problem: “Debilitating national debt means that foreign finance has a vested interest in maintaining ‘stability’ in the region.”  So unlike during the 2011 Arab Spring, “Western nations have refused to withdraw support from the various ruling classes in the region even though the intensity of protests has reached similar levels.”

There has also been an absence of international solidarity in some cases. The influence of Cold War bi-polarity that licenses some socialists to support repressive regimes because of their supposed ‘anti-imperialism’ is challenged in these essays, mostly written by members of the Alliance of Middle Eastern and North African Socialists.

Iran is a case in point. A recent ‘Letter Against US Imperialism’ by leftist intellectuals denounced protestors, who took to the streets to oppose the corrupt theocratic regime. On 15th November 2019, over two hundred thousand people in mostly working-class areas rose up in over a hundred cities and rural regions during four days of protest against a 300% rise in the price of petroleum. The protestors were predominantly unemployed and students, with many women in the forefront. The Iranian government responded with a shoot-to-kill policy, killing 1,500, and arrested over 7,000 people.  These protestors deserve our solidarity.

The parallel state of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps owns 80% of the economy and acts as a force for repressing labour, youth, women and oppressed minority struggles in the country. Iran’s military interventions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen and its nuclear programme squander billions of dollars.  Add to that US sanctions which have reduced Iran’s oil sales from 2.5 million barrels a day to 300 to 600,000 after July 2018, and the Iranian economy is on the brink of collapse, with 60% of the population unemployed and below the poverty line.

Attempts by the regime to stoke nationalist sentiment following the US assassination of General Qassem Soleimani backfired when, in retaliation, it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian plane over Tehran, killing all 176 passengers. Once again, students were in the forefront of protests, bravely raising anti-government slogans.  Only the global pandemic, much more severe in Iran than elsewhere because the authoritarian regime hid its full impact, curtailed the protests.

In Iraq, the roots of the recent protests lie, as chapter author Zeidon Alkinani correctly observes, in the US-led invasion and occupation of 2003, which introduced a sectarian quota system for elections and the distribution of government posts. This fuelled a “significant political and cultural system of identity polarisation,” which saw the country succumb to major sectarian violence in the ensuing years.

What was significant about the protests in the south of Iraq from 2018 on and in Baghdad the following year was their disdain for sectarian affiliation. They focused on 15 years of the corrupt sectarian government’s failure to provide basic services like clean water, or jobs for graduates.  Fierce state repression against peaceful protestors provoked country-wide anger.  In Baghdad, young protestors, with many women to the fore, took over Tahrir Square, an act which was emulated in cities elsewhere. 

Following a massacre of 24 protesters in Nasriyah, Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation on 29th November 2019. The involvement of Iranian-backed militias in the violent suppression of the protests – nearly 800 killed and 30,000 injured – fuelled increased hostility to Iran. But in fact the protestors were demanding an overhaul of the entire sectarian constitution which had made the militias so powerful.

This point needs underlining. One can over-emphasise, as the author perhaps does, the involvement of forces like the adherents of Muqtada al-Sadr, who lent support to the protests when it suited them.  But the overwhelming majority of protestors were independent of any political party, transcending religious, gender and regional divides.  As one protestor declared: “We want those in power to be put on trial, and we want to choose from a new pool of people who have nothing to do with the traditional parties that have blood on their hands.”

As I have noted elsewhere, “Millions have taken part. On Tahrir Square, Baghdad, bakers, restaurateurs, doctors and nurses and hairdressers have all offered their services free of charge. In the process, a genuinely popular, secular movement is battling against the corrupt sectarian system of governance that the US occupation has bequeathed to Iraq.”

So it was significant when, last December, Iraq’s parliament passed a new electoral law that transitions elections to a first-past-the-post system, which allowed voters to select individuals rather than use party lists, which have become the creatures of ethnic and religious patronage. Notwithstanding continued repression and the complication of coronavirus, these protests are unlikely to disappear as long as the economic and political rationale for them continues to exist.

The sectarian system of governance in Iraq has been long-established in Lebanon. But here too it is precisely younger people who are far less defined by their religious or ethnic identity. And given the role of social media tools in the spread of the Arab Spring protests, what single act could be more provocative than to introduce a tax on the use of Whatsapp? But that’s exactly what the Lebanese government did in October 2019.

The contrast in outlooks was revealed in the response to wildfires that ravaged the country that month. While civilians of all backgrounds, including from the Palestinian refugee camps, banded together to try and put the fires out, government politicians scapegoated different minorities for starting them.

Frustrations at government incompetence – and the new tax in particular -fuelled huge protests which shut down much of the country.  The conditions for these had been developing over a long period as successive governments imposed austerity and practised corruption.  But what was new was the unprecedented solidarity against the political class.  As different party leaders tried to co-opt the movement, protestors responded by banning the display of any party flags and even expelling several politicians and known media personalities with party affiliations from the spaces they had reclaimed.

Four key demands crystallised: the resignation of the government; the formation of a smaller body of technocratic representatives; the freezing of all previous politicians’ assets; and a new secular electoral law in preparation for early elections. In response, the prime minister announced a limited reform package, which the protestors immediately rejected. Meanwhile the army declared it would stop any act of violence against protesters and refuse to forcefully remove protesters or clear roadblocks.  A general state of civil disobedience continued, along with a de-facto general strike and a carnival mood in the squares.

Hours after supporters of the Shia Amal Movement and Hezbollah had rampaged through downtown Beirut, attacking everyone in their way, the Prime Minister resigned on 29th October. This was a victory, but it also underlined a key weakness in the movement: its avowedly non-political status which led to the demand for a transitory technocratic government, giving the impression that Lebanon’s problems were purely scientific and could be easily remedied through legal routes. This was not so.

By November, the screws were tightening on the protest movement. Banks introduced unofficial capital controls, the army was forcibly opening roads, there were more attacks by Amal and Hezbollah on the protests and increasing denunciations in the media.  A new government was formed by the usual backroom deals and protests against it were repressed ruthlessly, followed by a blanket media blackout. COVID-19 gave the government the perfect cover to enforce a lockdown.

The book has an important chapter on Algeria.  When one recalls the murderous violence with which the military regime established itself from 1992 onwards – 200,000 people died in the civil war that followed and tens of thousands disappeared – it is clear that the current protests demonstrate a remarkable bravery. Yet millions have taken to the streets in the uprising that began in February 2019, sometimes twice a week or more. As chapter authors Hamza Hamouchene and Selma Oumari argue, “What makes this movement unique is its huge scale, peaceful character, national spread, including in the marginalised south, and massive participation from women and young people who constitute the majority of Algeria’s population.”

The uprising was sparked by President Bouteflika’s plan to run for a fifth term, and economic and political corruption amid growing pauperisation, unemployment and austerity. Despite millions on the streets every week, not a single Algeria-based TV channel covered the protests, such was the fear of the military.

The movement sustained unity across different classes and succeeded in forcing Bouteflika to resign. An active boycott of the electoral charade of December 2019 was followed by new protests when the results were announced.  There is also an open anti-colonial element to the uprising, with the imperialist pillage of the country’s resources clearly highlighted in protestors’ demands.  Only the worsening COVID-19 situation forced the suspension of the mass protests, a breathing space exploited by the authorities to crack down on activists.

One country heading in a more positive direction is Sudan, which has had civilian rule for only eleven out of 64 years of independence.  Events of the Arab Spring were followed closely in Sudan, a country where state brutality was operating at unprecedented levels.  The declaration of independence by South Sudan in 2011 triggered a rapid deterioration in the economy, as most of the oilfields were in the South. Government-imposed austerity led to strikes and protests which were brutally repressed.

 In 2018, popular protests against skyrocketing prices drew the support of the banned Sudanese Professionals Association, which organised a weekly schedule of marches and initiated a ‘Declaration of Freedom and Change’ which united most of the opposition political forces.  The movement defied the government’s state of emergency and pitched battles ensued with the security forces.  Unrest among soldiers led to the military removing al-Bashir’s dictatorship from power in April 2019 – but this was just a start.  Violence against protesters continued under the new Transitional Military Council, culminating in the all-out attack on the Khartoum sit-in which saw mass rape by soldiers and over 100 protestors killed.

The international outcry and renewed protests, however, forced the military to negotiate a real transition, and a constitutional charter establishing a period of co-governance was signed. A new government, led by an ex-UN economist, has reformed the budget more towards education and health instead of security and defence, dissolved the ruling party and scrapped the most repressive laws.  While in many areas, violent militias are still intact, thousands of resistance committees across the country remain strong and well-coordinated.  Their great strength is their youth – 61% of the population is under age 25 – and their diversity: they are not organised on a religious or ethnic basis.

There are several factors that unify these protests, despite the wide geographical gap: their youth, their ethnic and religious diversity, their hostility to establishment politicians, their understanding of the need to reclaim public spaces and to engage international support – and especially their timing. The COVID-19 crisis may have cut short their mass character for now, but in none of the countries covered have these movements suffered a lasting defeat. Watch this space!

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