By Kareem Gerges
Since the beginning of the last decade, when millions of people rose-up in revolutions against corruption and dictatorship across the Middle East, demanding their legitimate human rights, there was a widespread atmosphere of optimism and excitement for fundamental reforms. There was immense enthusiasm and hope for a brighter future. However, regretfully, these hopes soon faded away, particularly when the region’s ruling elite demonized and terrorized peaceful protests, effectively transforming the peoples’ legitimate and peaceful demands for human rights into repression and/or armed conflicts, causing unfathomable suffering, pain and destruction. This situation has been witnessed in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.
However, when witnessing Tunisia’s bumpy yet hopeful democratic experience, as well as the ongoing revolts in Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan, toppling long-time dictators and challenging corrupt systems, and when examining how protestors are learning and adapting from the mistakes of prior revolts, these evidences show that people across the region still believe in a vision of the Arab Spring. A vision for a new social contract between the ruler and the ruled, founded on respect for human rights, social justice and democratic principles. These are not mere utopian ideals. They represent the values of the vision that hundreds of thousands of people across the region have fought and even sacrificed their lives for.
On 11 April 2019, after several months of braving tear gas, detention and bullets, tens of thousands of Sudanese people managed to overthrow and arrest longtime dictator and war criminal Omar al-Bashir, after his three-decade rule, through a largely peaceful revolution. Building on widespread frustration against corruption, high unemployment and inflation rates, the revolt was ignited in December 2018, when officials removed a wheat subsidy, causing the price of bread to triple overnight. Following Bashir’s removal, and after nearly nine months of violence, the revolt’s civilian leadership succeeded in pushing the military ruling elite to reach a three-year power-sharing agreement in August 2019, effectively bringing Sudan a step closer to the ideals of its revolution.
In Lebanon, protests erupted in October 2019 when the government announced new taxes on gasoline, tobacco and calls made through Whatsapp. The protests rapidly transformed into a nation-wide revolution, crossing sectarian and class divides. It is revolting against decades-old corruption, poverty and sectarianism that crippled the country into economic recession, high unemployment and lack of basic services, such as the provision of clean water and electricity. So far, the protests succeeded in bringing down the government. And although a new government was announced, the Lebanese people continue to courageously protest, in spite of violence ignited by thugs and security forces, with the further aim of pushing for fundamental reforms to revive the country, beyond a mere cabinet change.
Although global mainstream media paid great attention to Iraq after the US assassination of General Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis on 3 January 2020, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been in the midst of a nation-wide revolution, since October 2019, revolting against foreign interference, corruption and sectarianism. Iraqis have been courageously demonstrating for months, braving open fire and violence from thugs and security forces, that has caused hundreds of deaths. Furthermore, Iraqi demonstrators have superseded sectarian divides, calling for an end to American and Iranian interference, and for a sovereign and just homeland. Demonstrators have succeeded in forcing then-prime minister Abdul Mahdi to resign, and on 1 February 2020, Tawfiq Allawi was appointed by the president as Iraq’s new prime minister. Through a social-media video, Mr. Allawi expressed his gratitude to the sacrifices and bravery of the protestors, promising to hold those responsible for killing demonstrators accountable and to fight corruption.
It is worth mentioning that, alongside men, women have played a pivotal role within these demonstrations, revolting against patriarchal systems that help sustain and perpetuate the region’s corrupt regimes.
With the notable exception of Tunisia – which witnessed a peaceful and democratic transition of power with the election of Kais Saied as president in October 2019 – the regressive transformations particularly within Libya, Syria and Egypt, are widely referred to as signs of the Arab Spring’s failure. However, that conclusion is far from the truth. It is true that the Arab Spring’s common fundamental demands of freedom, justice and human dignity, did not fully materialize. Nonetheless, that does not necessarily mean that these movements were absolute failure or worthless. It is necessary that when examining and reflecting on these movements we move beyond a binary judgement of success versus failure. Even within countries that are considered as an Arab Spring failure, one can find many people persevering and fighting for positive change and reform, such as the excellent journalistic team of Mada Masr, the alternative and independent media source in Egypt, as well as many respected human rights activist, including the renowned human rights lawyer Mahienour El-Massry.
It is important to examine these revolutionary movements, or what has become known as the ‘Arab Spring’, within historical contexts and patterns. These movements did not erupt over-night. However, since the region’s states gained independence during the 20th century, such movements have been part of historical civilian grass-root struggles in demand for human dignity and rights, albeit with complex contextual differences. It is also necessary to remember that change is slow and non-linear; it takes time, with a lot of failures yet with many successes, as well. Removing one figure from power is not a guarantee for the downfall of a corrupt regime, as the region’s authoritarian ruling elite have built, over several decades, a complex and entrenched corrupt systems.
As such, no one should expect civil movements to bring forth immediate positive change. At the same time, everyone should support or participate in these movements as much as possible, contributing towards whatever incremental and small successes may be achieved, while keeping the revolutions’ ultimate vision and hopes in sight.
This article was first released in the latest publication of the Graduate Press, entitled “Revolutions”. Download the Spring print edition here.