Tunisia, 17th of December 2010: in the small town of Sidi Bouzid, the young vegetable and fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was held by a police patrol that harassed him and seized his merchandise under the charge of illegal street vending. After his failed complains and attempts to argue his case to the police and to the local authorities, the young man doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. The spark of his sacrifice flamed up a mutiny that would quickly spread in the Arab world only to become the so called “Arab Spring”. It created a chain reaction which caused, in 2011, after a series of protests, the fall of old and authoritarian regimes. In Tunisia, on the 14th of January the dictator Zine Al-Abidin Ben Ali fled the presidency and the country he had run for 24 years. On the 11th of February, Hosni Mubarak, who had presided over Egypt for 30 years, followed. After long and violent confrontations between the population and the opposition forces and after NATO’s military intervention, the Libyan leader Muammar Al-Ghaddafi was captured and killed by the rebels on the 20th of October 2011. In the Yemen, on the 3rd of June 2011, President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down from power. He would be assassinated in December 2017 in another attack led by the Houthi rebels. Civil unrests gradually started in other countries in Northern Africa, the Levant and the Arab Peninsula, such as Algeria, on the 22nd of February 2011. The protests led to the abrogation of the martial law that had lasted for 19 years and to a change in the popular mindset that only 8 years later, on the 2nd of April 2019, would remove from power the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Bahrain, March 2011 - the popular riots were suppressed by special operations forces from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan. In Morocco - due to the restlessness of the population - the monarchy agreed to a referendum to amend the constitution. In three Arab states - Libya, Syria (peaceful protests started on the 18th of March 2011) and Yemen - the “Arab Spring” has turned into civil wars that are still ongoing.
One may see that the “Great Arab Spring”, the largest of its kind in modern and contemporary Arab history, has consumed its militant developments in less than a year, with one exception - Egypt. Here, the first exercise of state power, claimed in November 2011 by the Islamist movement “The Muslim Brotherhood” was removed by a military institution whose commander, the field marshal Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi took over the state leadership from the former Islamist president Mohammad Morsi.
Eight Years Later: back to the “Arab Spring”
A decade passed since the first “spring season” of the Arab Middle East. This period was marked by hesitations, confrontations, by the so called “stolen revolutions” and, most of all, by its instability and lack of credibility. They are the reason why there have been rushed and timid attempts to social and economic reformation, institutional modernization and, most of all, to eradicate or diminish poverty and corruption. They gave birth to the hope that the aspirations, which determined the population to take to the streets and public spaces eight years before, would be fulfilled.
Equally unexpected and equally dynamic, a new revendicatory ”spring” broke out in the last month of the spring in 2019, driven by the taste of betrayed hopes and by the experience of the first modern Arab revolution.
From Algeria to Sudan
In the context of a surprisingly active mobilization that started in December 2018, on the 2nd of April 2019, the 80 years old Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika agreed, from his wheelchair, to give up running for president again and withdrew from public and political life.
On the other side of the African continent, Sudan: worn out from civil wars, land disputes, poverty and the dictatorship of general Omar Bashir - who had governed for 30 years, the country became, starting December 2018, the scene of widespread, massive and revendicatory popular protests generated, as was the case of other “Arab Springs”, by the unbearable fall of the living standards. The spark that started the fire was the decision of the regime to triple the prices of bread and other standard products, accompanied by massive arrests of social activists and political opponents. The move that decided the end of this process came from the military forces who, after hesitations, took the side of the protesters. On the 11th of April, general Bashir was arrested and the power was taken over by a Transition Military Council that also included members of the civil society.
Once again, both in Maghreb, west of Africa and in the East of the continent, economic factors extended to mainly political demands are at the very origin of popular movements. This, however, leaves room for the conclusion that, in both cases, we are facing the continuation and completion of the phenomenon that started eight years ago. In its turn, the phenomenon proves that the Arab world, with its Mashreq and Maghreb, far from being freed from a metaphorical season that is inconsistent with its unaltered realities, has only gotten to half of a long term process of reform. This reform aims at overcoming the deep structural crisis that the entire Arab world is going through. To put it strait, this means we cannot talk about a real and long lasting stabilization of the Arab world as long as it doesn’t go through a radical process of eliminating the real causes leading to this ongoing blockage.
That this is the way things are can be seen in the domestic developments in Egypt. Eight years after the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, six years after the first Islamist Egyptian president, and five years after the current head of state, Abd Al-Fatah Al-Sisi came to power (a military man), this country is still dealing with a strong separation of its society, a surprising and bloody dynamic of the fundamentalist terrorist phenomenon, a slow and unconvincing evolution towards social and economic progress and, at the same time, an authoritarian and repressive policy of the newly instated Cairo regime. This situation translated into a long series of revolts similar to those in 2011, which were repressed by force and with the cost of human lives. They all fall into the same pattern of social and economic demands evolving into demands for political reform and removal from power of the serving governance. After two years of such manifestations taking place almost all over Egypt, this past September witnessed a sudden revival of mass protests, free of political influence but reiterating slogans shouted years ago in public places during the “Lotus Revolution” - the name of the Egyptian Arab Spring eight years ago: irhal - “leave” and al-shaab iurid… - “the people wish…”. And the people wished for bread, jobs, a better life and the resignation of the marshal-president, Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi.
On the 3rd of October, the domino of protests moved from the country of Nile to the country of the “two rivers” - Tigris and Euphrates. We are referring to Iraq. The US invasion in the spring of 2003 left behind an imported “freedom” and “democracy” defined by the disintegration of state institutions, of the military and the national security forces, by a strong sense of belonging to Muslim confessions and deepening rifts between the Sunnis and the Shiites, as well as by the civil war. The national territory was turned into an ”Islamic caliphate”, with all the horrors and dramas the fundamentalist jihad brought along. Widespread corruption set in, the exercise of power was handed from one authority to the other, the same that took over and kept the state captive after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime almost two decades ago. They served an agenda of their own, their family, group, or clan, but also that of certain foreign regional and international powers. Last but not least, unemployment and poverty ruled over a country that sits on huge oil and natural gas reserves.
Appointed as head of the Iraqi government only a year ago and overwhelmed by the magnitude and the realism of demands, Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi decided that the only way to “discuss” with the protesters was to order the police forces to repress the demonstrations by force and use of live ammunition. His decision resulted in 100 people dead and other 4,000 wounded and, far from bringing peace to the country, opened the door for renewed social unrest. Iraq keeps on being a volcano with cyclical bursts threatening with a final eruption that would eventually destroy the volcano itself.
Late October, three weeks into the protests, the demonstrations kept on going, and so did the interventions of the security forces against the protesters - the number of dead amounted to 300. According to observers, the forces involved were, in most cases, pro-Iran Shiite militias, indicating a possible drift of the situation in Iraq towards new revolts along confessional lines.
Lebanon - More than a “WhatsApp Revolution”
Demonstrations in Beirut
On the 17th of October the government led by Saad Hariri adopted an extreme measure to impose a tax on social media (WhatsApp for instance), hoping to bring to the state budget 200 million dollars in revenues. This is but a small amount for the country’s treasury, as its public debt amounts to 150% of the GDP. The polarised confessional society, endemic corruption at the highest levels of the political, economic and banking sectors are the main causes for the disruption and regress eroding the stability and development of the Cedar country.
Lebanon was not touched by the waves of the “Arab Spring” eight years ago as it wasn’t the chessboard of significant protests either, a fact attributed by some analysts to the “bohemian and cosmopolitan nature” of the society, especially its younger population.
This is an invented explanation that doesn’t justify the magnitude of the protests that started on the 17th of October and extended rapidly all over the country - from the traditional Tripoli in the north, through Beirut, all the way to Sidon, Tyre and Nabatieh in Lebanon’s poor south. For the first time the protesters were united in waving the national flag with its secular Cedar of God instead of confessional or partisan flags. As was the case with other Arab countries, the focus of the intensifying protests shifted from economic and social demands to the demand to fundamentally change the political system. And we are not referring to the traditional confessional triad of presidency, legislative and executive, but to the confessional structure on which this system has been in function ever since Lebanon first showed on the map. This division makes sure that the country and its society actually operate according to the demographic and economic representation of the 18 known confessions. Hence the remark that Lebanon has rather been going through a deep crisis of governance, an unprecedented institutional, spiritual and moral crisis, at least in the period following its 15 year long civil war (1975-1990). The leadership in Beirut, almost the same - clans and the large feudal families they belong to, didn’t understand that it was time for radical changes and the old facade recipes that used to attract investors or ineffective foreign assistance did no longer work.
In Lebanon, under the pressure of the public protests, the leadership tried to employ the same old strategy of temporary solutions. Four ministers belonging to one of the most important Lebanese parties, “the Lebanese Forces”, Christians, quit their posts. The street’s response was decisive: “not four, not ten, but all of them” should leave. The list of reforms that Prime Minister Saad Hariri offered under the population’s pressure included had no less than 20 “reformist” measures, some of which are: establishing a 13 million USD fund to support the poorest families, cutting down the ministerial and parliamentary compensations by 50%, adopting, by the end of the year, of the amnesty bill, drafting a bill to fight tax evasion and recover stolen funds, establishing an authority to fight corruption, the abolition of the Ministry of Information and so on. The street’s reaction was very straightforward again: the protests will keep on going until the system is completely changed.
On the 26th of October - ten days since the protests began - Lebanon announced the creation of the “Coordination Committee of the Lebanese Revolution”, with branches all over the country, representing about 50 Lebanese occupational and social categories. In a first public announcement, the Committee issued a list of six urgent demands: the immediate resignation of the whole government and the formation of “a national salvation government” made of people from outside the governing system; the recovery of illegal fortunes of those in power since 1990 and bringing the corrupt to justice, including those living outside Lebanon; finding a solution to the problems that have brought the country to social, economic and financial collapse; reforming the election system and organizing early elections within six months; the Lebanese will continue their protests until their demands are met; the Lebanese Armed Forces are urged to refrain from repressive actions, or harming the protesters in any way. An attempt of the Lebanese Armed Forces to disperse the protesters and reopen the routes of communication blocked by the latter, in Tripoli, resulted in human victims. The protesters became more radical when the leader of Hezbollah delivered a speech where he criticised the demands of the population, openly threatening with a possible return to civil war should the protesters continue to ask for the government’s resignation (Hezbollah holds two ministries). It was the first time when the pro-Iran organization, lead by Hassan Nasrallah, was the target of severe public criticism and was accused of trying to turn Lebanon into a Persian Shiite “colony”.
On the 29th of November, the Prime Minister Saad Hariri offered his resignation; however, he remained in office to manage pressing issues until a new government would be formed. The situation is still unchanged, as the negotiations to form a new mixed technocratic and political executive are difficult.
Is the Arab world in the Middle East up against a new “Arab Spring”? It is difficult to really answer that if looking at it from a “black and white” perspective. What is relevant, compared to the first “Arab Spring” eight years ago, is the fact that today’s protesters, the romantics of the 2011 riots, are aware of the fact that they need to be political, without necessarily being part of the governing political structures. This time, the same protesters have stopped shouting the well-known patriotic slogans and have a more coherent approach on a perspective whose values weigh more than the “daily bread”, the price of WhatsApp services or the so called freedom; instead they go beyond, where freedom and bread must be provided with dignity. This cannot be achieved without redefining and rethinking the concept of state and society governance. As much as it is noble and complex, it is also difficult to implement at a time when, just like other countries and societies that have had their share of “Arab springs”, it can last for several decades.
The Arab Spring is still here, despite what the calendar shows.