The mass protests, the outrage that spilled onto the streets of Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon every day might have been surprising. For most of the Middle East’s pundits, openings for popular uprisings in Arab countries have closed since the failure of the Arab Spring nearly a decade ago.
The sudden flare-up of protests in the three Arab countries, and before that in Sudan, was shocking, especially for successfully removing from power their respective leaders and continuing to push for more drastic reforms in their dysfunctional political systems.
For many, the new wave of protests that have swept over the Middle East and North Africa is Arab Spring Part2 and could even be more promising in delivering long-aspired changes to the region’s entrenched systems of power.
Perhaps the only people not shocked are Algerians, Iraqis, Lebanese and Sudanese. In the chaos, they have seen a reckoning. The promise that after decades of stagnation and conflicts there is hope for anew transition to democracy and development.
As Al-Ahram Weekly writers try to explain in this special end-of-the-year issue, this is a historic turning point that requires new thinking about the region.
Some years ago, it seemed difficult to imagine that new uprisings would erupt in the near future after the disappointing end of several revolutions in 2011, signalling a perpetual deadlock or what many would have billed as “Arab exceptionalism”.
Yet, once again, from Algeria to Iraq, the peoples of the Arab world are in open rebellion. The magnitude of the street protests that have rocked cities in these Arab countries has also been explosive.
These fresh protests were largely triggered by dire socio-economic conditions, unbridled corruption and a sense of political alienation that promoted outright demands for regime change and system overhauling.
In Iraq and Lebanon, two countries inflicted by sectarian conflicts and foreign (Iranian) hegemony, a renewed sense of patriotism stirred by the uprisings’ anti-sectarian discourse has also taken hold, giving them a geopolitical spin.
The discontent was dramatically building up as uncertainty about the future deepened among younger generations who lost trust in political elites to improve things and fell prey to dim prospects and doubts.
In recent years many parts of the Arab world have been beset with disturbing images of conflicts, civil wars, religious extremism, terrorism, sectarian strife, ethnic and social violence, immigration and forced displacement.
The United Nations Development Programme-sponsored Arab Human Development Report issued this year noted that despite “significant strides in terms of human development” made in the Arab countries since their independence, progress has been significantly hampered by “the devastating effects of conflict in the region in recent years”.
“If the ongoing conflicts are not resolved and demographic projections of faster population growth in crisis countries are realised, 40 percent of the people in Arab countries will live in crisis and conflict in 2030,” said the report.
This new wave of protests comes against the backdrop of fatigued socio-economic development models adopted by Arab countries since the establishment of their modern states, and which left the majority of Arab citizens behind via various forces of exclusion.
Low incomes, stagnating growth, concentrated wealth, mismanagement, rentierism and rampant corruption all combined to create deformed economies in the post-colonial Arab state.
With a lingering democratic deadlock, chronic deficiencies in good governance and high concentration of power in the hands of entrenched political elites, the Arab world reached its limits.
On the whole, the host of problems that triggered the Arab Spring nine years ago have never been fixed and sparked the uprisings that have flared across Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and smaller protests in several other Arab countries.
Today, the Arab world seems to be heading towards a maze of political and economic uncertainty which could redefine its political landscape and the future of its nation states.
Many hope the protests end constructively and breathe fresh air into the policies, priorities and direction of the Arab world, bringing it back into the fold of modernity and progress.
How to give hope to the protester generation? The answer will determine nothing less than a new socio-economic model— one that serves the public’s best interests, taking on the challenges of the future, especially the worries and concerns of young people.
Looking to the future, a new social contract is direly needed, one which could address the political underpinnings of recent unrest, especially inequality, the ineffectiveness of public policies, and the sense of exclusion and marginalisation seen anchored in Arab systems.
A new social contract should also address challenging identity issues, such as sectarianism, nationalism and protection of the nation state against foreign intervention.
In Iraq and Lebanon, protests are transcending sectarian splits to oppose political systems that are rooted in division. Protesters in both countries shared grievances over Iranian interference in their domestic affairs through their proxies.
In a broader regional context, this type of discourse has set a precedent in the region and raised awareness on national consciousness and a shared sense of national identity.
A deeper look into the outcome of the protest movements will also show that the sense of what it means to be a Muslim has been reshaped by the uprisings, presenting new and more pressing questions regarding the trajectory of political Islam and extremism.
The Arab Spring in 2011 has left a positive outcome by slowing down that trajectory, while the current uprisings have demonstrated how political Islam has been left diminished or marginalised, though not completely defeated.
For these and other reasons, the uprisings’ agendas for challenging the status quo should include a relentless fight against religious extremism and cultural and social intolerance that breed terrorism.
Perhaps more significantly, the post-Arab Spring uprisings era should see more commitments to Islah, or reformation; the modernisation of religious discourse in an age of free thinking, tolerance and diversity.
Overall, what the fresh wave of protests in some Arab countries shows is that while the outcome is still meagre and challenges remain immense, the uprisings open a window of opportunity for Arab societies to join the 21st century.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Arab rendezvous with the future