international analysis and commentary

The crescent of uprisings


The past few months have seen a dramatic surge of unrest across the Middle East and Africa, from Sudan to Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. In some of these countries the uprising, with the help of the army, dislodged long-time dictators, as was the case in Sudan with the end of the autocratic rule by Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, after thirty years in power.

The army has played and continues to play a key role also in post-Bouteflika Algeria. There, the protest movement,called Hirak, was sparked by the aging and ill President’s announcement of a fifth mandate. After two months of mass mobilization, which cut across all strata of society and all social classes, he resigned in April 2019. The transition has been bumpy and is still characterized by unrest against a political process led by the army and le pouvoir (the Algerian deep state), two pillars that have managed not only to survive but to politically steer the country.

Protester holds a placard during the 2019 Algerian protests (Wikipedia)


Despite the re-organization of the protest movement last summer -the so-called Hirak 2.0– which succeeded in annulling scheduled elections in April and July, polls took place on December 12, 2019. This notwithstanding various calls from social forces to postpone them to grant opposition forces the time to organize. The new President, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, has appointed a fifteen-expert committee in charge of drafting a new Constitution by early March 2020, with little to no consultation with large sectors of society. The lack of inclusiveness of the constitutional process will hardly be compensated by holding a referendum for approving the text, as the regime aims to do.

The process in Algeria has been swinging between concessions and repression of the protest movement, showing limited opening and will to engage ordinary Algerians in rethinking the political system. The tight time schedule – imposed from above – has stirred fears that the regime will change figureheads but its power structure will remain the same, which has led to a continuing cycle of mobilization across the country with regular and widely attended Friday protests.

Sudan and Algeria were not the only two countries where protests led to a change in the regime, if not (yet) of the regime: Iraq has been experiencing an intense wave of unrest since October 1st, both in Baghdad and in southern cities such as Kerbala and Najaf, which have led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi on December 1, 2019. Abdul-Mahdi is still acting prime minister in a caretaker government as the two largest coalitions in parliament, one led by Moqtada al-Sadr and the other by Hadi al-Amiri, have so far failed to get an agreement on a new prime minister and a new government.

The uprising in Iraq has been a non-violent civil disobedience movement whose cross-sectarian, peaceful and leaderless nature has legitimized its wide-ranging demand of overhauling the post-2003 muhasasa system (the sectarian-based political system). Uprisings do not just spring from nowhere and last autumn mobilization was the culmination of different strands of mobilization: protests in Kurdistan since 2009 and in the Al-Anbar region in 2012-2013, then weekly Friday protests initiated in July 2015 against corruption and the shortcomings of welfare policies and led by the middle class, and finally the latest wave in Basra in 2018 gathering the most vulnerable and disenfranchised sectors of the population, who rejected all political parties and asked for full social justice.

The 2019 Iraq protests followed in the footsteps of these different strands, coalescing different sectors of the society and asking for a completely different political system based on madaniyya (civic mindedness) rather than sectarian affiliations and on social justice as a key principle of citizenship, rejecting the pervasiveness of corruption and patronage systems of wealth distribution. Civil society seems to be adhering to a different normative paradigm as compared to the still reluctant political class whose scarce legitimacy has been built around sectarian loyalties and corruption as a central mechanism for elite cohesion, as aptly described by Toby Dodge, a renown Iraq expert, and with their demise, increasingly on coercion, whereas citizens are moving from a recognition paradigm premised on ethno-sectarian identity politics to a redistribution one based on issue politics, paraphrasing the political philosopher Nancy Fraser.

A similar move is pushed for by Lebanese society, in a country which first constitutionalized a sectarian-power sharing political system as a peace keeping mechanism at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. The trigger for the spark of the protests on October 17, 2019 was the unequal treatment by banks when the crisis hit the country’s banking and financial sectors. In particular, big depositors were granted back door leave options, while small and medium ones bore the brunt of the banks’ closures and lack of access to their assets.

The nail in the coffin, stirring anger across wide sectors of society, was last November’s attempt by the parliament to approve an amnesty law for public officials accused of corruption. Protestors have been targeting banks and the Lebanese Central Bank, corrupt politicians, of all sides, including Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, but more broadly criticizing the Lebanese mix between harsh neoliberalism and elite-profiting sectarian system. Again, this was the latest manifestation of a simmering discontent that was visible in 2011, and then in 2015 with the “garbage crisis”, which seemingly revolved around a smaller public policy disfunction, but actually pointed to the same shortcomings of governance across the country. Protests have led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the appointment of Hassan Diab (former Education Minister, and hardly a break with past practices) as new prime minister.

Looking with apprehension at Lebanese turmoil, but even more so at its own unrest, is the Islamic Republic of Iran. There, since mid-November 2019, following the doubling of gas prices -meant to offset the budget deficit-, protests have been taking place in defiance of violent repression. This has occurred mostly in developed areas, in the north and south-east, in 29 out of 31 provinces, through road blocks, attacks at military bases, banks and government buildings.

The iron fist response was mostly carried out by the Revolutionary Guards and led to the killing of hundreds of Iranian citizens (estimates vary between 200 and 500). The economic situation has significantly worsened since the Trump administration has unilaterally withdrawn from the nuclear deal and has re-imposed harsh sanctions. These have led to the increase of the public deficit and have worsened the indebtedness of the country, causing the national currency to lose 70% of its value. This has impacted mostly the low-income and working class families, historically pro-regime sectors of the society, alienating them.

The killing of General Qasem Soleimani by US airstrikes on January 3, 2019, and the subsequent – regime staged but widely attended- mass demonstrations of mourning were hardly a game-change. Namely, less than a week later, counter-demonstrations against the regime and the Revolutionary Guards rocked the country once the regime disclosed its responsibility in firing a missile by mistake against a Ukrainian flight departing from Tehran.

The 2019 new wave of protests seem poised to continue testing waters across the region, both where political change is not apparent yet (Iran) and where change is underway but not of the desired kind (Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq). Societies are showing not just instances of rapid and effective mobilization, but a will to exert what the famous French political thinker Pierre Rosanvallon called a society’s watchdog powers.