A decade of demonstrations: the shifting goals and tactics of the Arab world’s protest movements

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The slogans have been almost identical, but the goals and the tactics are decidedly different.

The chants screamed by millions in waves of popular Arab uprisings that have swept the region at either end of the current decade have mostly been about freedom, justice and economic opportunities. The similarities, perhaps, end there.

The two waves, in fact, are oceans apart when it comes to the perception of the change they have sought and how they have gone about realising it, with the activists behind the latest wave speaking of how they have learned from the mistakes of the initial revolts.

For example, instead of just going after autocratic rulers as they did in 2011 in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, the latest uprisings in Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon equally seek their removal as well as the deep state that props up their political systems.

Moreover, the latest protests have mostly remained peaceful to deny authorities a cover for the use of deadly force. It is a strategy that did not work in Sudan and Iraq, where protests have not been devoid of violence. Sudanese doctors put the death toll at more than 200, while the government issued a lower figure. In Iraq, almost 500 protesters have been killed since October, according to a semi-official human rights commission.

Protesters lighting up their phones and carry national flags during ongoing anti-government protests at Al Nour Square in Tripoli, north of Lebanon, 09 November 2019. EPA
Protesters lighting up their phones and carry national flags during ongoing anti-government protests at Al Nour Square in Tripoli, north of Lebanon, 09 November 2019. EPA

That commitment to peaceful protests stands in sharp contrast to what transpired in Syria, Libya and Yemen where uprisings against authoritarian regimes there in 2011 degenerated into conflicts that continue to this day.

Driving the latest wave of revolts, moreover, is the lack of economic opportunities and seeking an end to sectarian politics, not the call for free elections that topped the demands of protesters during the first wave of uprisings.

While learning from the mistakes made by the first wave of uprisings, the 2019 revolts can hardly be labeled as unconditional successes. With the absence to date of any clear pathway to genuine political reform, they remain very much in a romantic frame, met with intransigence by a deeply entrenched political elite and receiving little help from the West beside words of encouragement or support.

“With no trusted institution in the region that could carry out people’s rightful demands for more effective management of their countries, the endgame is unclear,” Middle East expert Marwan Muasher of Carnegie wrote in a recent essay about the latest wave of uprisings. “It could yet result in civil war and bloodshed … But more mature protests may yield better outcomes, even if the road to effective state building is long and difficult,” he wrote.

Significantly, the protesters of 2019, unlike their Egyptian peers in 2011, did not go home after the fall of the head of the regime. In Sudan, for example, they continued their sit-in protest outside the army’s headquarters well after dictator Omar Al Bashir was removed from power by the military in April.

Egyptians celebrate the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square in February 2011 / AP
Egyptians celebrate the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square in February 2011 / AP

The protesters wanted to pressure the military to hand over power to civilians, but authorities violently broke up their protest on June 3. Less than four weeks later, the protest movement’s resounding response arrived: millions took to the streets across the vast Afro-Arab nation to demand civilian rule. Protracted negotiations between the protest movement and the military reached a power-sharing agreement in August, in theory placing Sudan on the path to democratic rule after a three-year transitional period.

It’s too soon to label Sudan as a success story, but its protesters have fared better than their peers in Algeria, Lebanon or Iraq, where protests have yielded little beside a change of faces but no real change in the political system they seek to dismantle.

In Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri stepped down in the face of the protests that began in October and continue to this day. His resignation did not satisfy the protesters who are demanding the overthrow of an institutionally corrupt and sectarian system. Moreover, he was not the intended target of the protests.

In Algeria, months-long protests forced longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down and there have been several anti-corruption arrests of figures close to the longtime leader. But protesters say the old political elite and the powerful military still wield too much power in the country.

In Iraq, at least 400 protesters have been killed from among the hundreds of thousands who have been taking to the streets across the oil-rich country to demand an end to the country’s sectarian political system, a byproduct of the 2003 US-led invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power. They also want an end to neighbouring Iran’s outsized influence in their country.

That uprising began in October, but apart from the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, a politician widely thought to be beholden to Iran and its proxy militias in Iraq, very little has been done to meet the demands of the protesters. Abdel Mahdi remains in office until a replacement is found.

“The degree to which Iraq’s political class is not responding to any of their demands is surprising,” said Michael W Hanna, a senior research fellow at New York’s Century Foundation.

“With the partial exception of Sudan, the old regimes are for now ‘winning,’ holding on and buying time,” Alberto M Fernandez, president of the US-funded Middle East Broadcasting Networks, wrote in an op-ed on December 24. “The people resist as much as they can against what on paper seem hopeless odds.”

But Mr Hanna, an Egyptian-American who closely monitors the region, believes that even with the lack of progress toward genuine change, the protests that swept through the region are not without benefit.

“That tens of thousands of people are participating in protest movements demanding political and economic reform will eventually bring societal if not political change. They are asking for reasonable demands and people cannot stop supporting them,” warned Mr Hanna.

Updated: December 29, 2019 04:05 PM

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