Arab Spring 2.0

The Middle East's fearless protesters

The upheavals of the past year in the MENA region are arguably as momentous as those of the Arab Spring in 2011. Yet perhaps the biggest difference is that our interest seems to have evaporated. Why? Essay by Jannis Hagmann

There was a lot going on in 2019: Turkey's Syria offensive, Trump's impeachment, the Arab Spring, Greta in New York ... wait, what spring? Hasn't it been several years since the days when people in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries rose up and hounded their long-standing rulers from office? Remember how back then we just couldn’t get enough of news from Tahrir Square in Cairo and about the mass demonstrations in Damascus, Tripoli and Tunis?

Nine years ago, in December 2010, the Tunisians sparked the Arab Spring. In only a few weeks, the uprisings had spread across the Middle East and North Africa. "Down with the regime! It is the people's will!" the angry masses roared at their autocratic rulers, and a number of heads of state ended up stepping down. In the meantime, the initial euphoria of many observers has given way to disillusionment.

Nevertheless, events that unfolded throughout the region in 2019 come close to the historical upheavals of that time. The biggest difference, perhaps, is that our interest seems to have dissipated. No longer do we look on with a mixture of enthusiasm and empathy as demonstrators in the town squares of Baghdad, Beirut, Algiers and Khartoum persevere in the face of tear gas, gangs of thugs and sometimes brutal armed violence.

 A far-reaching political turning point

Three weeks ago, when the Iraqis forced Prime Minister Ali Abdel Mahdi to resign, they made history. In all but one case, popular uprisings in the Arab republics of the region have led to the overthrow of the president or head of government (while the Arab monarchies have been largely spared). The exception is Syria, where the Assad regime has held onto power with the help of poison gas, foreign mercenaries and massive support from the Russian Air Force.

Mahdi's resignation followed that of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri a month earlier. In Lebanon, too, people had flocked to the streets in October to force an end to the entire political system and all of its horrific excesses of sectarianism and corruption. It was a trifle that ignited all the pent-up frustration and caused an explosion of rage immense enough to develop into a full-scale uprising within just a few hours: the announcement of a tax on WhatsApp calls that would have hit Lebanon's poor particularly hard.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Forced to resign: in Iraq, people have been protesting against mismanagement and corruption since the beginning of October, so that Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi finally felt compelled to hand in his resignation at the beginning of December. With one single exception, in the decade, popular uprisings have now led to the overthrow of the president or head of government in all Arab republics in the region (while the Arab monarchies were largely spared)

The protests in Algeria and Sudan were likewise triggered by specific socio-economic and political grievances. The Sudanese protest movement, which began in response to rising petrol and bread prices, soon turned against the regime of Omar al-Bashir, who had been the head of state for almost 30 years.

In Algeria it was the announcement of the state leadership, hardly surpassed in its audacity, to re-elect Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had ruled for 20 years, for a fifth term of office. When the 82-year-old finally gave in to the pressure from the streets in April, he barely managed to hand in his resignation from his wheelchair.

The endurance of the protest movement

Today both Bashir and Bouteflika are but fading memories. There is cautious optimism in Sudan, where the military and opposition have agreed on an interim government before the elections take place in 2022. In Algeria, massive protests flared up again in the run-up to the elections in mid-December, as all five presidential candidates were cadres of the old regime. It remains to be seen in the coming weeks just how persistent the protest movement can be. In any case, the victor, Abdelmajid Tebboune, is already experiencing plenty of pressure.

The final balance sheet for 2019 shows two overthrown dictators, two deposed heads of government and several smaller protests in Egypt and Jordan – and yet these developments have made few headlines compared to 2011. No new "spring" was proclaimed, no new "Arabellion". It certainly might have something to do with us getting used to such news. Mainly, however, our current indifference can be attributed to three factors that were not the case in 2011.

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