Across North Africa and the Middle East, protesters in their millions are taking to the streets to fight dictatorship, repression, corruption and imperialist-endorsed austerity
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the street protests currently sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. From Algeria and Morocco in the west to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and even Sisi-ruled Egypt in the east, the past few weeks have seen millions of people on the streets, pushing for radical change. The readiness of so many to do so, even when facing extreme forms of repression (as in Egypt and Iraq), underlines the energy and creative force of this region-wide uprising.
There is a wildfire quality about the movement’s ability to leap across frontiers, take hold in varying political and economic terrain, and adapt to a range of combustible circumstances. The promise held out by the mass upheavals in Algeria and Sudan earlier this year seems to be being vindicated before our eyes.
Eight years on from the Arab Spring of 2011, the current resurgence of revolt is once again exposing the wobbly foundations of Arab despotisms while destabilising the strategy of their Western enablers. Back in 2011, protesters toppled a skittle line of dictators, from Tunisia to Yemen. In April of this year, two more regional tyrants were added to this tally: Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria and Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. In both countries, however, mass protests have continued, with thousands mobilised against the persistence of deeply rooted structures of oppression, kleptocracy and institutionalised army control.
In Algeria, protesters battling for an end to decades of military rule are still on the streets seven months after Bouteflika’s unceremonious exit. Currently controlled by General Ahmed Gaid Salah, a canny and brutal manipulator, the regime has been dangling the carrot of fresh (army-run) elections in an effort to divide its opponents and win recruits to the cause of ‘dialogue’. Against this, protesters have been holding fast to their demand for a robust, externally monitored transition period, in line with the one protestors in Sudan succeeded in dragging out of their own military rulers back in July.
Drawing lessons from 2011, in particular, the crushing of revolts in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia and Libya, the movement in Sudan has achieved remarkable, inspirational steps forward in its struggle for civilian rule and constitutional government. These gains have been achieved in the face of brutal repression, exemplified by the bludgeoning, rape, and shooting, on June 3, of protestors participating in a peaceful sit-in outside military headquarters in Khartoum. More than 100 people, 19 of them children, were slaughtered by the homicidal paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF); many bodies were dumped in the Nile.
The Sudanese regime enjoyed only short-lived jubilation. On June 30, the 30th anniversary of the coup that had brought the army to power, hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into Khartoum and other big cities, singing and chanting as they fused to form a million-strong force. They held firm in the face of tear-gas and live bullets (there were 11 deaths and hundreds of injuries).
Just a few days later, on July 5, came the announcement of a power-sharing agreement between Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) and a coalition of opposition forces. Under this the military retains a dangerous degree of clout; in addition to its five seats on the proposed 11-member sovereign council (there will be five civilian representatives plus one civilian agreed on by both sides), it will lead the council for the first 21 months. But the level of popular mobilisation built in Sudan over recent months suggests that army actions will be scrutinised every step of the way by a vigilant, politically savvy population, ever ready to return to the streets.
The heroic action taking place in Sudan, across Egypt’s southern border, seems to have contributed to the extraordinary events of September 20-21, when thousands took to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Damietta and five other Egyptian cities to demand the removal from power of the country’s military dictator, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Security forces responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition, and there were mass arrests on a scale not seen since Sisi’s seizure of power in 2013: among the 3,000+ incarcerated were journalists, human rights lawyers, and senior academics. Telecommunications were disrupted, websites censored, and the airwaves set ablaze by fire-breathing fury against the protesters emitted by private and state-owned media.
The sheer scale of the repression, together with the spontaneous, non-organised nature of the uprising and the fact that most participants were teenagers and youth with little political experience, made it all but impossible for the protests to continue.
“Spontaneity,” notes the Egyptian journalist Hassam el-Hamalawy, “does not last long and is not enough to overthrow a regime. In effect, since the military coup in July 2013 Sisi has managed to destroy all organisational structures that could play that role: political parties, independent unions, youth organisations, and so on. And it was no coincidence that following the mass arrests…the security services immediately shifted their attention to veteran activists and leading members of political parties who were still at large, even when they had played no role in the mobilisations.”
Despite this, the significance of this brief flare-up of resistance – in the most testing and brutal of circumstances -- should not be minimised. The courage on display in Egypt has played its part in stimulating the powerful waves of protest now engulfing two more regional players: Lebanon and Iraq.
The mass protests currently rocking Lebanon represent the largest popular movement the country has seen for decades. Since mid-October, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets, not just in Beirut, the national capital, but also in Tripoli, Tyr, Baalbeck and other urban centres. Triggered by the government’s announcement of new taxes, including on instant messaging applications, the protests are targeting government corruption, mismanagement, and sectarianism, along with the Lebanese elite’s close Western ties.
Under intense pressure, on October 29 the government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri was forced to step down. Despite this, the following Sunday (November 3) saw an estimated 2 million people on the streets: this in a nation of 6 million.
As they denounce the country’s neoliberal policies and stratospheric corruption (much of it attributable to unsustainable levels of debt), those on the streets are also taking aim at Lebanon’s profoundly sectarian political structure. Enshrined in the 1943 National Pact and reaffirmed in the Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war, this, in theory, provides political representation for all Lebanese religious groups, each of which is allotted seats in parliament according to size. In practice, the system works to the advantage of powerful elites, whose economic clout and command of patronage networks has enabled them to dominate politics at both the national and the local level.
Reports from the streets suggest that cracks may be developing in this once well-oiled machine. The strong presence of workers in recent mass mobilisations appears to be driving a growing sense of class solidarity. Signs and messages of solidarity across religious and communal lines have been reported in a number of cities, including Tripoli and Tyr.
Meanwhile, mass protests are continuing to shake war-ravaged Iraq and its tottering apology for a government. In early October, video footage circulated showing riot police opening fire – with rubber bullets, stun grenades and, eventually live rounds – on a small group of demonstrators protesting against official corruption, high unemployment, and abysmally poor basic services. In the blink of a smartphone, the riot police detonated the explosive resentment felt by almost all Iraqis towards the government of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahd and his kleptocratic regime: since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Iraqi state is estimated to have stolen as much $450 billion.
That those taking to the streets in Iraq do so at enormous physical risk is underlined by the hideous toll of death and injuries thus far: since the start of the movement at least 301 demonstrators have been killed and more than 15,000 injured, according to figures published by the Independent Commission for Human Rights of Iraq (ICHRI). The slaughter is fuelling demands for the government to step down; in a televised address on October 31, the Iraqi President Barham Salih announced that PM Abdel-Mahdi was ready to resign – but only after a replacement had been agreed.
In taking to the streets en masse, Iraqi protesters have propelled their country – brutalised by years of imperialist war and every conceivable variant of political-economic trauma – into the 2019 pantheon of rebellion and revolt. Irrespective of the evolution of the diverse movements which make up this roll of honour – movements which must contend, on a daily basis, with extraordinarily difficult and dangerous realities – their actions will continue to have global consequences, inspiring millions to gather courage and get out onto the streets.
Hossam el-Hamalawy, ‘Egypt’s protests are a beacon of hope.’ Jacobin, October 19, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/10/cairo-egypt-protests-abdel-fattah-el-sisi
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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