Recent mass protests in several Arab countries have called into question suggestions that civil wars, brutal crackdowns, and military coups and interventions have quelled popular willingness to stand up for rights in the Middle East. The protests, although focused on specific social and economic demands, fundamentally have the same objectives—dignity, social justice and greater freedoms —as popular revolts four years ago that toppled four autocrats.
The civil wars in Libya and Syria, Saudi military intervention in Bahrain and Yemen, the Gulf-backed military coup in Egypt, and the rise of Islamic State seemingly put hopes for a democratic transition in the Middle East and North Africa to bed. The struggle against jihadist extremism and the violence of counter-revolutionary forces had buried any chance of renewed civic protest.
Protesters in Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt are voting down that notion with their feet. Lebanon’s protest slogan, “You Stink,” refers to much more than the piling up of garbage on the streets of Beirut and a government that can’t even run an efficient waste management system. It refers to a form of governance across the Middle East and North Africa that is characterized by systemic corruption, a total lack of transparency and accountability, and a willingness to brutally suppress dissent.
The Lebanese protests go even further. They constitute evidence that sectarian divides between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, often at the expense of non-Muslim minorities, are artificially manufactured by autocrats, ruthless in their effort to ensure survival of their regimes. Members of the 18 sects that make up the Lebanese mosaic suffer equally from the pungent smell of uncollected garbage and associated health hazards.
The initial heavy-handed Lebanese security force response to the protests suggested that Arab leaders had learned little from the experience of 2011. Police brutality, egged on by suspected provocateurs among the demonstrators, fueled the protests, much as in Bahrain four years ago and later in Syria, in what transformed a popular revolt into a brutal civil war. The Lebanese, with memories of a bloody civil war that wracked their country from 1975 to 1990, are steadfast in their demands, yet determined to keep their protests from getting out of hand.
In a similar vein, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have spilled in recent weeks into the streets of Baghdad and southern cities like Basra every Friday to protest corruption and demand improvements in basic public services. Sunnis and Shiites are among the protesters in a country that has been at war for much of the 12 years since the US toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Iraq has been shaped by sectarian politics since then, has seen its minorities brutalized and forced to leave, and has lost significant territory to Islamic State—the most brutal expression of sectarian hatred. Yet Iraqi protesters chanted “Sectarianism is dead” and “They are stealing from us in the name of religion!”
Much as the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor sparked the Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, the Iraqi protests were fueled by the killing by security forces in July in Basra of a young protester, Muntather Al-Halfi. Iraqi artist Nibras Hashim told an online news service,
“We are tired of the conditions that we are forced to endure in Iraq. Politicians have no understanding of the daily struggles people face. Some high-ranking officials?are protected by their privileged status and they don’t care about our situation? Our fundamental rights to essentials such as education, health, housing, work, food, access to potable water, and electricity have been compromised since Saddam Hussein’s regime fell 12 years ago. Politicians made them believe that all this was due to religious divisions. These protests are a political awakening, a revival of people’s consciousness. It’s also a symbol of unity: During the demonstrations, we march together, both those who are secular and religious, Sunni or Shiite. Together, we form one body with no particular group coming out on top.”
Unlike Lebanon and Iraq, Egypt is a rather homogeneous society with a Coptic minority which has largely beensupportive of the repressive regime of General-turned-President AbdelFattah Al Sisi. Nonetheless, militant soccer fans and students have staged 807 anti-government protests between October of last year and June of this year, according to Democracy Index.
Even the feared and despised police force has joined the fray. Security forces were called in to quash protests in defiance of Egypt’s draconic anti-protest laws by low-rank police officers in several Egyptian governorates, protesting to demand better employment benefits and bonus payments.
The Interior Ministry accused the policemen, the bottom of the heap of the 1.7 million strong Egyptian security forces, of supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, whose democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi was removed from office by Al Sisi.
Separately, tax authority employees have demonstrated against the introduction of a new civilservice law designed to streamline Egypt’s unwieldy bureaucracy.
Leaders in Lebanon and Iraq have responded in more conciliatory terms. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi promised to root out corruption and streamline his government. Lebanon’s cabinet put its paralysis on full display when it met to discuss the crisis. Rather than announcing immediate steps to rid Beirut of its garbage, it referred the issue to a ministerial committee.
The renewed protests may not immediately topple regimes as they did in 2011, but they do reflect fundamental changes in the Middle East and North Africa. Frustration over corruption and incompetent and repressive governments are bubbling at the surface. The largely short-lived success of the 2011 revolts has not extinguished a deep-seated desire for change and a willingness to take to the streets.
Major political figures and groups, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Hariri Future Movement, Iraqi Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani and Iraqi Shiite militias, have either declared their support or joined the demonstrations. The wide support is both an asset and a liability with established groups linked to governments likely to want to manipulate the protests to serve their political purpose.
Moreover, like most protest movements, demonstrators in Lebanon and Iraq agree on what they don’t want: continued corruption and a government that cannot provide public services. Unfortunately, there is no consensus on how their goals can be achieved or what system of government will work. The protesters further lack the capacity to influence powerful political groupings that have their own agendas.
Nonetheless, the protesters are sending a message to the region’s rulers and their international backers. The peaceful protests and extremist jihadism are two sides of the same coin, expressing the deep-seated discontent of restless populations toward inefficient, corrupt, and arbitrary rule. The likes of the Islamic State can only be defeated if as much attention is directed towards governance issues as toward military campaigns and repression.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.