A new generation has learned lessons from the failed revolts of a decade earlier.
Ten years later, it is easy to see the Arab uprisings only as a failure. Democracy remains undefined in the Middle East, dictators are even more entrenched and wars have devastated entire countries. But in the midst of despair and fear, a new cohort of protesters and activists has taken to the streets since 2019, in places like Iraq, Sudan and Lebanon. This new generation has learned an important lesson from its predecessors: a revolution can help to overthrow a regime, but it cannot build a state. They are organizing themselves, learning about electoral politics and laws and planning the state they want to build – a state that serves citizens, not governors. Most importantly, they learned from the setbacks of 2011 that what lies ahead is a long hard job, not a quick race to victory in an election.
However, in addition to all the usual challenges that activists and dissidents face around the world, one is emerging as a major obstacle for those in the Arab world: they are being hunted one after the other, shot in the street or in their homes, in the forcibly disappeared or went to prison, both men and women. Some make international headlines, while others make it to local news only. Across the Arab world and even Afghanistan, a rising generation of promising new leaders and their mentors, all of whom have a role to play in shaping the future of their countries, is being decimated – and no one knows how to prevent this methodical silencing. wholesale.
Much of this boils down to the culture of impunity that reigned for a long time in the region, spurred in part by decades-long Western support for dictators. The stability that these dictators ostensibly provided, however, was an illusion, based on repression and torture, that fueled anger, extremism and migration. Leaders in the United States and Europe would contest by asking what the alternative was for the dictators, autocrats and militias who ruled the Arab world. But too often, potential alternative leaders had already been killed or were languishing in prison. And there cannot be a progressive or liberal alternative that is ready and organized, capable of emerging instantly from the darkness of the dictatorship.
As the Biden government develops its policy for the Middle East, it must pay close attention to these nascent protesters and political movements, not just as part of a human rights agenda that successive American governments advocate, and not in an effort to promote regime change or even more revolutions – but because these demonstrations are more like a civil rights movement: They are not simply demanding a revolution as the protesters did in 2011; they are demanding reforms, an end to corruption and sectarianism. In other words, governance, the rule of law and justice. In Iraq, the cry that echoed across the country from October 2019 until the pandemic was “We want a nation”.
In March 2011, just after the fall of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, I traveled with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cairo. After a morning visiting Tahrir Square, she sat down with the young revolutionaries who had achieved the impossible: to end the 30-year regime of an American-backed dictator. The meeting was closed to the media, but his team transmitted some of the conversation to us later. Clinton asked these young Egyptians how they were preparing for the next parliamentary elections and was shocked by the response. They were revolutionaries, she was told; they did not do politics. With their success, they were convinced that the momentum of the revolution would lead them to victory at the ballot box. Of course, they lost, first to the much better organized Muslim Brotherhood, and then to the deep entrenched state, with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi taking over in a coup in 2013.
Still, I was not surprised by the answer. In the Arab world, politics has always been a bad word or a death sentence. In Algeria and Iraq, Egypt and Syria, being in politics usually requires being in cahoots with the dictator; build connections with the powerful; genuflection and acquiescence with its abuses, corruption and clientelism; and running empty slogans about geopolitical battles that make voters hungry. Anyone with integrity stays away. Those who courageously try to change the system on their own are on a quixotic mission. No one in my extensive circle of friends in Lebanon is in politics and certainly no one would have considered running for election – until recently.
A workshop organized in March by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace brought together activists from the 2011 and 2019 classes, from Egypt, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia and Algeria. (I am a senior non-resident member of Carnegie, but I did not participate in organizing the workshop.) During a fascinating virtual discussion, group members shared their common challenges and lessons from the past decade. The new facility around virtual panels and workshops because of the pandemic promoted greater connectivity across borders, allowed for significant exchanges beyond what Facebook or Twitter offered – Clubhouse, for example, is huge in the Arab world – and allowed those facing bans travel or safety concerns in participating. The surprising aspect of the conversation was the pragmatism they shared about the way forward and the fact that everyone seems to have accepted that trying to change the system from outside, simply as revolutionaries, would not work. They must change, the consensus seemed to be, of activists to, in essence, get their hands dirty and join the political game in the hope that, if they come together in sufficient numbers, their impact will grow and the contamination of “Dirty politics” will disappear .
Without a doubt, they will work in a manipulated system, everywhere. Electoral laws, gerrymandering and pre-selection of candidates favor those who are part of the system. Elections are canceled or postponed on a whim. Independent candidates are persecuted. There will be more murders.
No party is to blame for the deaths, arrests and repression of this new activist class in the Middle East. In Iraq and Lebanon, the killings are the work of militia groups linked to Iran and outside state control. During the protests in Iraq, which began in October 2019, at least 500 protesters were shot dead, some by Iraqi security forces, but many by snipers and men in black plain clothes and masks. Last year, at least 30 prominent activists and civil society representatives were killed in planned murders attributed to Shiite militias loyal to Iran. Lebanon’s murder wave is older, starting in 2005 with a systematic effort to target progressive, political thinkers and journalists, effectively beheading a nascent political leadership that could present a viable alternative after years of Syrian occupation and challenge the role of Iran and its local ally, Hezbollah. The murders continue today. Even if it wanted to, the United States could not protect all activists from potential killers in a country like Iraq or Lebanon.
Elsewhere, under more dictatorial regimes, such as those in Syria and Egypt, violence and enforced disappearances are mainly the work of the state, although in areas beyond the control of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, anyone who poses a challenge to Islamic militias that control territory were also killed or kidnapped. Egypt has become a republic of fear under Sisi, with 60,000 political prisoners languishing in prison – including secular activists and Islamic thinkers, as well as journalists, ex-lawmakers, men and women, young and old.
Seeking accountability requires a different course in each case. In Iraq and Lebanon, pursuing militias is almost impossible unless the state finds a way to assert its authority. Seeking justice in countries with corrupt judicial systems is an exercise in frustration, so that people resort to courts outside the Arab world, either by the principle of universal jurisdiction, or linked to the accused’s citizenship or residence.
And yet, all of these efforts to build governance and the outlines of future post-autocratic states will be in vain, unless Washington reshapes the way it views the region and its understanding of what can provide lasting stability, prioritizing accountability with partners and adversaries, while not individual protesters, but the civil rights movement and governance concepts. The Biden government, understandably, will suspect a repeat of the 2011 turmoil, but so do people in the Middle East.
But there are some reasons to be hopeful. Changes in electoral laws in Iraq, for example, could lead to small victories for young reformist candidates in October’s parliamentary elections. During the Carnegie workshop, Mohammad Ilwiya, a dentist in Najaf who is active in the protests, described the formation of new non-sectarian national political parties, bringing together Iraqis from across the country and sectarian divisions, potentially generating new enthusiasm and increased electoral participation.
In Lebanon, at least a dozen new opposition groups that have emerged from years of protests are actively preparing for next year’s legislative elections. Although they are still struggling to present a unified front against a entrenched and corrupt political establishment formed in part by former warlords and Hezbollah, their effervescence is promising and includes the first effort of a kind of political action committee in the Middle East. , Rumo One Nation, which hopes to help bring opposition groups together, support candidates and mobilize voters, while raising funds in Lebanon and across the diaspora to support campaigns.
Sudan, the most successful example of the 2019 achievements class, will hold elections next summer. Although progress is still imperfect and tenuous, the transitional civil-military government introduced rapid and notable changes, including the 30-year repeal of Islamic law, thus separating religion from the state and appointing the country’s first chief justice. Although Sudan did not have protests in 2011, Sudanese protesters who took to the streets in 2018 and deposed Omar al-Bashir were part of the biggest change process in the region, learning from previous revolutions. At a recent online forum, activists in Lebanon spoke with Sudanese revolutionaries to learn from their experience.
During the discussion on Carnegie, Zine Labidine Ghebouli, a young Algerian academic currently at the University of Glasgow, wavered between disappointment that the 2019 protests had not yet taken place and the hope that this would be the beginning of a process.
“Street pressure may force the state to make some concessions, but it will not change the system,” he said. “We often expect the solution to come from abroad in Algeria and perhaps also in other Arab countries. But it won’t and we don’t need it. If we are able to demand freedom, we are able to build our nations. ”But to do that, they first need to stay alive.