The last year has seen major protests — some leading to the resignation of top officials — in many Middle Eastern and North African states. This has raised speculation about whether these protests constitute an “Arab Spring 2.0.” While the 2019 protest movements are, in many ways, a new wave of demonstrations in the wake of the 2011 revolutions, there are also important differences that will play a role in shaping the region in the next year.
The recent increase in significant protest movements in the region is part of a global trend, as the last year has seen an increase in the number of protests worldwide. From Hong Kong to Chile, people are increasingly making their voices heard on the street, highlighting growing disillusionment with the failure of governments to meet people’s needs and the lack of opportunities to pursue change within the regular political system.
From Iran to Morocco, most countries saw significant protests in 2019, some of them historic in scale and impact.
Protests in Sudan began in December 2018 in response to economic austerity measures and soon expanded to call for the removal of Omar Al-Bashir, the country’s president of 30 years. Sudan’s military removed Bashir from power in April, but protesters had learned lessons from other countries’ experiences and refused to go home. They continued to demand a transition to democracy. The military cracked down in June, leading to more than 100 deaths. However, the protest movement continued, leading to an August agreement between the military and the protesters for a three-year transition period.
In Algeria, protests began in February in opposition to plans for Abdelaziz Bouteflika to seek a fifth term as president. Bouteflika resigned in April, but the protests have not led to fundamental change in the Algerian regime.
In September, Egypt experienced significant protests in response to subsidy cuts and perceptions that the government is spending money on vanity projects. The government responded with the largest wave of arrests since Abdel Fattah El-Sisi came to power in 2014. The protests had ended by early October, but the economic and political grievances remain unaddressed and further protests are likely in the future.
Several other countries — including Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen — experienced significant protests in 2019, though not on the same scale as some of their neighbors. In Gaza, Palestinians demonstrated against Hamas in the March 14 movement, which ended following a Hamas crackdown. The Great March of Return protests along Gaza’s border with Israel, which began in March 2018, also continue.
While North Africa experienced historic protest movements early in 2019, the final quarter of the year saw the most impactful ones in the Middle East.
Demonstrations in Iraq began in early October and originally protested against corruption, unemployment, poverty and the lack of basic services. When Iran participated in a crackdown on the protesters, their focus expanded to also oppose Iranian involvement in Iraq. Protesters are now demanding an end to the country’s political system, which was created after the 2003 US-led invasion. The crackdown has been harsh, with more than 400 deaths reported. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in November, but the demonstrations continue.
In Lebanon, protests in multiple parts of the country began in mid-October after the government attempted to impose a tax on WhatsApp. As in other countries, the tax represented a small spark that ignited far more significant underlying grievances about corruption, unemployment, an economic crisis, and a lack of government services. These quickly expanded to include opposition to the country’s confessional political system. Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepped down in October, but protests continue, with demonstrators chanting “all of them means all of them” and calling for a sweeping away of the political elite.
In mid-November, Iranians launched one of the largest protest movements seen in the country since the 1979 revolution. A poorly implemented hike in gas prices was the spark, but the protests highlighted deep anger over an economic crisis, corruption, the government’s inability to provide sufficient services, and a lack of social and political freedom. US sanctions on Iran are a major source of the economic pain, but much of the anger was directed at the government’s inability to more effectively manage the impact. The government crackdown was historic in scale, with a near-total internet blackout lasting several days, more than 200 deaths, and mass arrests. The harsh response has ended the protests for now, but the underlying causes are unlikely to change.
Each country had specific issues that led to the protests, but there are striking commonalities.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Each country had specific issues that led to the protests, but there are striking commonalities. In all the countries, economic grievances were a major factor, as young populations struggle to find jobs and meet basic needs. Anger over corruption and a lack of faith in government were also major factors. Inequality and a sense that only people with close connections to the ruling class have a shot at employment or business opportunities added to the mix. In several cases, long-time rulers or long-standing regimes appeared stagnant and disconnected from normal people.
Protesters’ grievances also included political concerns; in some cases, they were calling for a fundamental change to the country’s ruling system. This is particularly notable in Lebanon and Iraq, where the systems reflect long-standing sectarian divides. In Iraq, the majority of protests came from Shiite communities in opposition to Shiite leaders — demonstrating that, even in Iraq, sectarian identities have limited power. In Lebanon, the protest movement has explicitly tried to transcend sectarian identities.
The latest wave of protests has also highlighted objections to Iran’s regional influence. Iraqi demonstrators strongly expressed opposition to Iranian involvement in their country. Lebanese protesters included Hezbollah among the governing actors they opposed. Iranian protesters then chanted against their government’s involvement in other parts of the region, saying “only Iran is worth dying for.”
Most protest movements remain unorganized and leaderless. With the exception of Sudan, their lack of organization has so far undermined their ability to drive long-term political change. They are often vague on what they want to replace the current system.
There are many similarities with the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Economic grievances and demands for basic rights are core drivers. The region’s population is still very young and young people are demanding fundamental political and economic changes. Social media still plays a role in organizing protests, but governments have also learned how to exploit social media. Most, though not all, protests have been peaceful, even when they face violent government responses.
However, protesters have learned some lessons from the past. One is that removal of a single political leader will not lead to the changes they want — in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq, protesters have continued to maintain pressure on governments to implement deeper change. Other lessons include the value in transcending sectarian divisions and the importance of relying on their own abilities and not international support.
In the region and around the world, protesters and governments are adapting. Protest movements in different countries are learning lessons from each other, as they try out tactics and strategies. Many governments are updating old repressive strategies with new technology and increased resources.
These factors — as protesters get better at organizing protests and governments get better at undermining opposition — are likely to lock much of the Middle East and North Africa in a frustrating cycle in 2020. Most governments, especially in quasi-democracies like Iraq and Lebanon, will fail to both meet protesters’ demands and to fully suppress dissent. Ongoing grievances will continue to drive people into the streets.
However, most protest movements in 2020 will fail to fully overthrow the systems they oppose or to make major strides toward creating more effective political and economic systems. This is particularly true for protest movements that rely on social media and fail to build the internal organization, leadership, policy goals, and strategies that could help them translate street power into real change.
There also is a risk of radicalization. When governments fail to meet people’s basic economic and personal security needs, and fail to allow them space to pursue higher-level human needs and interests, then people will look for a way to change things outside of the government. Protests are the primary, peaceful way for people to do that. If repression closes that outlet, or if protests constantly fail, then some individuals might turn to more violent means.
The next year is likely to see ongoing cycles of protest, including the potential for increased violence by governments and by opposition. There is a way out of this cycle. Protesters could organize, develop practicable demands, and articulate a clear vision for the future. Governments could then take quick and decisive action to address these demands, including tackling corruption and reforming political systems.
Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch.