Beirut, 30 Nov 2020 (AFP) – Ten years later, many of the hopes born of the Arab Spring seem to have vanished. But the second wave of revolts that broke out in 2019 demonstrates that the revolutionary flame has not been fully extinguished.
Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq: four countries in the region little affected in 2011 by the explosion of the Arab Spring. But four nations that were, last year, stages of powerful movements, sometimes resulting in the fall of old autocrats. Like a taste of déjà vu, with slogans that echo those of the first generation.
This new “wave (…) showed that the Arab Spring did not die,” Asef Bayat, a specialist in revolutions in the Arab world, comments to AFP.
This spring “conquered other countries in the region, with relatively similar collective action repertoires”, adds the political scientist.
“Thawra” (“Revolution”), “The people want the regime to fall” … After Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya or Yemen, the squares of Algiers, Khartoum, Beirut and Baghdad heard the same war cries, criticizing an unequal distribution of wealth and the corruption of authoritarian powers.
Same causes, same effects: fall of destitute governments and presidents under popular pressure.
“2011 gave birth to 2019 and 2019 will bring another wave of protests,” predicts Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
The demonstrations broke out in January 2011 against the high cost of living. But the trauma of a bloody civil war (1992-2002) was still present, and the fear of another descent into hell was a powerful inhibitor.
“We enthusiastically followed the demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, but we were afraid,” explains Zaki Hannache, a 33-year-old activist.
At the time, the government also had a financial weapon, oil, and eased social tensions by reducing taxes on food products.
In February 2019, the situation was different. Discontent reached its peak and, with the drop in oil prices, the coffers were emptied.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, aged 80 and in power for two decades, has been aphasic since a stroke in 2013.
His desire to be a candidate for a fifth term was seen as a great humiliation by a population that believed it was resigned.
February 22 marked the first massive demonstrations, which spread from Algiers, where all protests have been banned since 2001, to the rest of the country.
The “Hirak” (movement) was born. The autocrat was not slow to fall: the army withdrew its support for Bouteflika, who resigned on April 2.
The departure of the “Bouteflika clan” caused euphoria. But the activists knew the long way to go: it is the entire system in power since independence in 1962 that they want to destroy.
The weekly protests continued tirelessly for months. The regime, previously represented by the army chief of staff, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, did not give in: a presidential election was organized, despite popular rejection. A pure product of the state apparatus, Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected.
Only the covid-19 pandemic contained the mobilization of the streets – in March 2020, it was suspended.
But despite legal repression, the spirit of Hirak still floats on the streets of Algiers and Kabylia. And its profoundly peaceful character is praised by observers.
In an Algeria already ravaged by civil war, militants have not forgotten Syria, where the 2011 pro-democracy protests gave way, under the pressure of repression, to a bloody conflict.
“We learned lessons from the Arab Spring”, summarizes Hannache. “We learned that the only option was to preserve the peaceful character of the movement.”
When the Arab Spring broke out, Iraq had long been free of its own strongman, as the American invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. His fall was followed by a bloody sectarian conflict.
“We saw in the Arab Spring uprisings an opportunity to save democracy in Iraq,” observes Ali Abdulkhaleq, a 34-year-old activist and journalist.
In February 2011, he participated in the creation of the “February Youth” movement, which organized weekly demonstrations in Baghdad, denouncing the Nouri al-Maliki government.
“The people demand reform of the regime,” shouted the crowd, echoing the slogans of Cairo and Tunis – without, however, demanding the fall of power.
The movement lost strength in a few months, but “people realized that protest was a possibility,” says Abdulkhaleq, according to which “Iraqi anger has been released”.
Protests sporadically rocked the country, until the outbreak of revolt in October 2019.
The uprising spread across the country, this time demanding a regime change and forcing Adel Abdel Mahdi’s government to resign.
After months of massive mobilization, the movement has lost momentum, with relentless repression – almost 600 protesters killed – and the new coronavirus pandemic.
But “the parameters that could trigger a new revolution are still alive,” warns Abdulkhaleq.
From 2011, young activists organized to launch small demonstrations, here and there, despite the arrests.
Because Omar al-Bashir has controlled since 1989 with an iron fist a country in extreme poverty, torn by repeated civil wars, diplomatically isolated and without political opposition.
In 2013, when Khartoum removed oil subsidies, protests broke out, which ended in bloody repression.
“The street has resigned, despite the beginning of the economic collapse,” says activist Mohamed al-Omar. But “the circle of opposition to the regime has started to widen,” continues Omar, who knew the prison for his activism.
Five years later, in December 2018, the triple price of bread sparked further protests. This mobilization went ahead.
On April 11, 2019, Omar al-Bashir, a former military man who came to power through a coup, was placed under house arrest by the army.
As in Algeria, the struggle continued to obtain the dismantling of the state apparatus. Illustrating a stormy transition, a multi-month sit-in in Khartoum with the aim of putting pressure on the ruling military was brutally dispersed on June 3.
Dozens of people were killed, raising fears that a counter-revolution will return, similar to that experienced in Egypt after the Arab Spring of 2011.
But the opposite effect occurred: under pressure, the army ended up making a commitment to the protest movement in August. The country established a Joint Sovereign Council to oversee a three-year transition to civilian government.
Citing in particular the key role of the unions, Omar thinks that “the movement in Sudan was much more organized” than most of the Arab Spring uprisings.
In Lebanon, with a political regime that should guarantee the division of power between different religious communities, the same families have taken control of the public sphere for decades.
The political class was still dominated by the lords of the 1975-1990 civil war. “When I saw that there was a change in Tunisia and Egypt, I asked myself, ‘Why wouldn’t that happen in Lebanon?'”, Recalls Imad Bazzi, whose political engagement dates back to the late 1990s.
In February 2011, unemployed, he participated in the organization of demonstrations, but without real changes.
But the revolt was only dormant in a Lebanon undergoing political crises, undermined by growing disparities in wealth.
In 2015, the accumulation of garbage on the streets of Beirut, due to poor management, generated demonstrations denouncing the entire political class.
In October 2019, the spark of “revolution” finally caught on.
The trigger? The adoption by the authorities of a new tax on the use of WhatsApp, in a country that showed the first signs of economic collapse.
“Thawra!”: For weeks, protesters took to the streets to demand the departure of a political class considered corrupt and incompetent. Sometimes hundreds of thousands, of all religions, were a source of pride in this fragmented country.
Under pressure, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned. But, a year later, the same politicians are still clinging to power.
Worse, the evils – corruption, incompetence – vilified by the demonstrators find a dramatic realization in the August 4 explosion in the port of Beirut, where an enormous amount of ammonium nitrate had been stored for years, regardless of the risks.
In October, none other than Hariri was again appointed to lead a new government.
For the militants, despite the shortness of breath, the uprising has not yet been defeated.
“It is an ongoing process,” says Bazzi. “The waves come, one after the other, they are all connected”.
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