Cycle of Middle East protests likely to continue into 2020

Cycle of Middle East protests likely to continue into 2020

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The last year has seen major protests — some leading to the resignation of top officials — in many Middle Eastern and North African states. This has raised speculation about whether these protests constitute an “Arab Spring 2.0.” While the 2019 protest movements are, in many ways, a new wave of demonstrations in the wake of the 2011 revolutions, there are also important differences that will play a role in shaping the region in the next year. 

The recent increase in significant protest movements in the region is part of a global trend, as the last year has seen an increase in the number of protests worldwide. From Hong Kong to Chile, people are increasingly making their voices heard on the street, highlighting growing disillusionment with the failure of governments to meet people’s needs and the lack of opportunities to pursue change within the regular political system.

From Iran to Morocco, most countries saw significant protests in 2019, some of them historic in scale and impact. 

Protests in Sudan began in December 2018 in response to economic austerity measures and soon expanded to call for the removal of Omar Al-Bashir, the country’s president of 30 years. Sudan’s military removed Bashir from power in April, but protesters had learned lessons from other countries’ experiences and refused to go home. They continued to demand a transition to democracy. The military cracked down in June, leading to more than 100 deaths. However, the protest movement continued, leading to an August agreement between the military and the protesters for a three-year transition period. 

In Algeria, protests began in February in opposition to plans for Abdelaziz Bouteflika to seek a fifth term as president. Bouteflika resigned in April, but the protests have not led to fundamental change in the Algerian regime. 

In September, Egypt experienced significant protests in response to subsidy cuts and perceptions that the government is spending money on vanity projects. The government responded with the largest wave of arrests since Abdel Fattah El-Sisi came to power in 2014. The protests had ended by early October, but the economic and political grievances remain unaddressed and further protests are likely in the future. 

Several other countries — including Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen — experienced significant protests in 2019, though not on the same scale as some of their neighbors. In Gaza, Palestinians demonstrated against Hamas in the March 14 movement, which ended following a Hamas crackdown. The Great March of Return protests along Gaza’s border with Israel, which began in March 2018, also continue.

While North Africa experienced historic protest movements early in 2019, the final quarter of the year saw the most impactful ones in the Middle East. 

Each country had specific issues that led to the protests, but there are striking commonalities.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Demonstrations in Iraq began in early October and originally protested against corruption, unemployment, poverty and the lack of basic services. When Iran participated in a crackdown on the protesters, their focus expanded to also oppose Iranian involvement in Iraq. Protesters are now demanding an end to the country’s political system, which was created after the 2003 US-led invasion. The crackdown has been harsh, with more than 400 deaths reported. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in November, but the demonstrations continue. 

In Lebanon, protests in multiple parts of the country began in mid-October after the government attempted to impose a tax on WhatsApp. As in other countries, the tax represented a small spark that ignited far more significant underlying grievances about corruption, unemployment, an economic crisis, and a lack of government services. These quickly expanded to include opposition to the country’s confessional political system. Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepped down in October, but protests continue, with demonstrators chanting “all of them means all of them” and calling for a sweeping away of the political elite. 

In mid-November, Iranians launched one of the largest protest movements seen in the country since the 1979 revolution. A poorly implemented hike in gas prices was the spark, but the protests highlighted deep anger over an economic crisis, corruption, the government’s inability to provide sufficient services, and a lack of social and political freedom. US sanctions on Iran are a major source of the economic pain, but much of the anger was directed at the government’s inability to more effectively manage the impact. The government crackdown was historic in scale, with a near-total internet blackout lasting several days, more than 200 deaths, and mass arrests. The harsh response has ended the protests for now, but the underlying causes are unlikely to change. 

Each country had specific issues that led to the protests, but there are striking commonalities. In all the countries, economic grievances were a major factor, as young populations struggle to find jobs and meet basic needs. Anger over corruption and a lack of faith in government were also major factors. Inequality and a sense that only people with close connections to the ruling class have a shot at employment or business opportunities added to the mix. In several cases, long-time rulers or long-standing regimes appeared stagnant and disconnected from normal people. 

Protesters’ grievances also included political concerns; in some cases, they were calling for a fundamental change to the country’s ruling system. This is particularly notable in Lebanon and Iraq, where the systems reflect long-standing sectarian divides. In Iraq, the majority of protests came from Shiite communities in opposition to Shiite leaders — demonstrating that, even in Iraq, sectarian identities have limited power. In Lebanon, the protest movement has explicitly tried to transcend sectarian identities.

The latest wave of protests has also highlighted objections to Iran’s regional influence. Iraqi demonstrators strongly expressed opposition to Iranian involvement in their country. Lebanese protesters included Hezbollah among the governing actors they opposed. Iranian protesters then chanted against their government’s involvement in other parts of the region, saying “only Iran is worth dying for.”

Most protest movements remain unorganized and leaderless. With the exception of Sudan, their lack of organization has so far undermined their ability to drive long-term political change. They are often vague on what they want to replace the current system. 

With the exception of Sudan, the protests’ lack of organization has so far undermined their ability to drive long-term political change.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

There are many similarities with the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Economic grievances and demands for basic rights are core drivers. The region’s population is still very young and young people are demanding fundamental political and economic changes. Social media still plays a role in organizing protests, but governments have also learned how to exploit social media. Most, though not all, protests have been peaceful, even when they face violent government responses.

However, protesters have learned some lessons from the past. One is that removal of a single political leader will not lead to the changes they want — in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq, protesters have continued to maintain pressure on governments to implement deeper change. Other lessons include the value in transcending sectarian divisions and the importance of relying on their own abilities and not international support.

In the region and around the world, protesters and governments are adapting. Protest movements in different countries are learning lessons from each other, as they try out tactics and strategies. Many governments are updating old repressive strategies with new technology and increased resources. 

These factors — as protesters get better at organizing protests and governments get better at undermining opposition — are likely to lock much of the Middle East and North Africa in a frustrating cycle in 2020. Most governments, especially in quasi-democracies like Iraq and Lebanon, will fail to both meet protesters’ demands and to fully suppress dissent. Ongoing grievances will continue to drive people into the streets. 

However, most protest movements in 2020 will fail to fully overthrow the systems they oppose or to make major strides toward creating more effective political and economic systems. This is particularly true for protest movements that rely on social media and fail to build the internal organization, leadership, policy goals, and strategies that could help them translate street power into real change. 

There also is a risk of radicalization. When governments fail to meet people’s basic economic and personal security needs, and fail to allow them space to pursue higher-level human needs and interests, then people will look for a way to change things outside of the government. Protests are the primary, peaceful way for people to do that. If repression closes that outlet, or if protests constantly fail, then some individuals might turn to more violent means. 

The next year is likely to see ongoing cycles of protest, including the potential for increased violence by governments and by opposition. There is a way out of this cycle. Protesters could organize, develop practicable demands, and articulate a clear vision for the future. Governments could then take quick and decisive action to address these demands, including tackling corruption and reforming political systems.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Lebanese protesters defy capital controls in sit-in

A Lebanese anti-government demonstrator yells slogans as she takes part in a rally in front of the central bank building in the capital Beirut on December 30, 2019.(AFP)
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Updated 31 December 2019

Lebanese protesters defy capital controls in sit-in

  • Lebanese banks have imposed informal withdrawal limits of a maximum $300 a week and totally halted transfers abroad
  • “We want the money,” the protesters chanted, a number of them clients of the bank

BEIRUT: Lebanese protesters staged a sit-in inside a commercial bank in the capital Beirut on Monday, forcing tellers to give them more than the weekly limit for withdrawal amid a wave of protests against recent capital controls.
Amid a spiraling financial crisis, Lebanese banks have imposed informal withdrawal limits of a maximum $300 a week and totally halted transfers abroad. Anti-government protesters, who largely blame the country’s dire economy on corrupt politicians, say the limits are illegal and have turned their ire against bank officials and the financial sector.
The Association of Banks in Lebanon advised the capital controls to manage depleting foreign currency. Lebanon’s economy depends heavily on US dollars.
At least two dozen protesters sat on the floor of a branch of the Audi Bank in Beirut’s Achrafieh district on Monday, chanting against Lebanese banking policies. They eventually forced the teller to cash a $5,000 check for one protester while two others withdrew $1,000 and $2,000 from their accounts. The protesters waved the money at the cameras in celebration.
“We want the money,” the protesters chanted, a number of them clients of the bank. They urged some of the customers in the bank to demand more of their money with the protesters’ support. At least one tried, but didn’t insist, said Roy Deeb, one of the protesters who cashed the $5,000 check.
“We stayed and insisted and under pressure, they gave the money,” Deeb said.


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Deeb said it is not legal for Lebanon’s bank association to enforce withdrawal limits without parliamentary or government approval.
Over recent weeks, the local currency has taken a nose dive, losing more than 30% of its value after over 20 years of being pegged to the dollar. Meanwhile, layoffs and salary cuts are becoming the norm while politicians have continued to bicker since late October over forming a new government.
An Audi bank spokesperson was unable to confirm that the money was withdrawn and said bank staff called for security back-up because of the protesters’ “aggressive” action. The bank is the largest private bank in Lebanon.
“They are not clients. They are communists,” the spokesperson told The Associated Press, declining to be identified in line with regulations. “They are calling for the fall of the banking system.”
The doors to the bank were briefly closed while protesters and clients were locked inside, Deeb said. He denied protesters used violence. Security at one point formed a line between the tellers and the protesters. The standoff ended peacefully by the branch’s regular closing time.
After nationwide protests erupted on Oct. 17 over Lebanon’s plummeting economy, banks closed down for two weeks fearing anger and panic from depositors. When they re-opened, at least one armed security guard was added to each branch, in addition to the regular private security.
A spokesman for the Lebanese banks association said the capital controls are only a temporary measure to deal with the country’s severe liquidity crunch. Georges Abi Saleh, director of communication for the association, said that there were strict orders to avoid clashing with depositors.
“The people are in a state of worry. We have to be understanding,” he said, adding that it is unlikely such scenarios would be repeated in over 1,100 bank branches around Lebanon.

Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’

Updated 25 min 26 sec ago

Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’

  • He is in danger of becoming the latest victim in the Turkish leader’s years-long battle with what he dismissively calls “so-called artists.”

ISTANBUL: Mujdat Gezen’s half-century career as an acclaimed Turkish writer and actor has included awards, a stint as a UN goodwill ambassador and a taste of prison after a 1980 putsch.
Now aged 77, the wry-witted comedian and poet with an easy smile and a bad back risks returning to jail on charges of insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He is in danger of becoming the latest victim in the Turkish leader’s years-long battle with what he dismissively calls “so-called artists.”
“I am even banned from appearing in crossword puzzles,” Gezen quipped.
Gezen landed in court with fellow comedian Metin Akpinar, 79, over comments the pair made during a television show they starred in on opposition Halk TV in 2018.
In the broadcast, Gezen told Erdogan to “know your place.”
“Look Recep Tayyip Erdogan, you cannot test our patriotism. Know your place,” Gezen said on air.
His parter Akpinar went one step further, saying that “if we don’t become a (democracy)... the leader might end up getting strung up by his legs or poisoned in the cellar.”
These are risky comments to make in a country still reeling from a sweeping crackdown Erdogan unleashed after surviving a failed coup in 2016.
Their trial is coming with Erdogan rattled by a burst of student protests that hint at Turks’ impatience with his commanding rule as prime minister and president since 2003.
Prosecutors want to put the two veteran celebrities behind bars for up to four years and eight months. The verdict is expected on Monday.

Jailed over book
Thousands of Turks, from a former Miss Turkey to school children, have been prosecuted for insulting Erdogan on social media and television.
Bristling at the jokes and comments, Erdogan warned in 2018 that his critics “will pay the price.”
“The next day,” Gezen told AFP in an interview by telephone, “police turned up and I was summoned to give a statement to prosecutors.”
The knock on the door reminded Gezen of how he ended up being dragged before the courts after spending 20 days in jail when a military junta overthrew Turkey’s civilian government at the height of the Cold War in 1980.
Gezen’s book about Nazim Hikmet — perhaps Turkey’s most famous 20th century poet, who happened to be a communist who died in exile in Moscow in 1963 — was taken off the shelves after that coup.
“I was chained up while being taken from prison to court with a gang of 50 criminals, including murderers and smugglers,” he recalled.
He was freed by the court in 1980, and may yet be acquitted on Monday.
Still, Gezen is uncomfortable with the similarities, and with Turkey’s trajectory under Erdogan.
“There is a record number of journalists in jail — we have never seen this in the history of the republic. That’s what upsets me,” he said.

Irritable dictator
An author of more than 50 books and founder of his own art center in Istanbul, Gezen says he has “either criticized or parodied politicians to their faces” for decades without going to jail.
His popularity and resolve earned him a role in 2007 as a goodwill ambassador for the UNICEF children’s relief fund.
But he fears that Turkey’s tradition of outspoken artists — “art is by its nature oppositional,” he remarked — is wilting under Erdogan.
“We now have self-censorship. But what is even more painful to me is that (some artists) prefer to be apolitical,” he said.
“The president has said how he expects artists to behave. But it cannot be the president of a country who decides these things. It’s the artists who must decide.”
To be on the safe side, Gezen’s lawyers now read his books before publication to avoid legal problems.
“It is risky in Turkey,” he observed.
Many of the opposition media outlets that once flourished have been either closed or taken over by government allies, leaving independent voices with even fewer options.
But he remains doggedly optimistic, calling democracy in Turkey something tangible but just out of reach, like the shore for a stranded boat.
“And then someone up on the mast will cry: Land ahoy!“

Houthis take 500 families hostage in Marib battle

Updated 28 February 2021

Houthis take 500 families hostage in Marib battle

  • Iran-backed terror militia using trapped families ‘as human shield’
  • Militants recently stormed several displacement camps in Serwah, west of Marib, blocking people’s escape to safer areas

AL-MUKALLA: Hundreds of Yemeni families trapped inside their camps in Marib province by Iran-backed Houthis are being used as a human shield against government forces, a Yemen government unit has claimed.

In a report seen by Arab News on Saturday, the internationally recognized government’s Executive Unit for IDP Camps said that militia fighters had besieged camps and planted land mines on main roads to stop families escaping and hinder advancing troops.

“Houthis have prevented 470 families from fleeing, using them as human shields. Until today, many families in the camps are still trapped by the Houthis,” the report said.

Militants recently stormed several displacement camps in Serwah, west of Marib, blocking people’s escape to safer areas. 

The government unit has appealed to the rebels to stop using displaced families as hostages and allow them to leave the camps.

“The Executive Unit for IDP Camps calls on the Houthis to respect international humanitarian law and stop targeting civilians and displaced persons, and to open safe corridors in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.”

The Houthis earlier this month renewed a bloody offensive on Marib, an oil-rich city and the government’s last bastion in the northern half of the country. For four weeks, the Houthis have faced stiff resistance from government forces backed by massive air and logistics support from the Arab coalition. 

Army commanders say that hundreds of Houthis have been killed, wounded or captured and their advance on Marib halted. 

Maj. Gen. Nasser Al-Thaybani, commander of the army’s Military Operation Authority, said that more than half the Houthi fighters sent to seize Marib have died or been wounded in the fighting, while army troops and allied tribesmen have pushed back all of the Houthi attacks on government-controlled areas. 

Yemeni government forces also suffered heavy casualties during fierce clashes.

Local officers and media said on Saturday that Brig. Gen. Abdul Ghani Sha’alan, commander of the Special Security Forces in Marib, was one of several government soldiers who died in fighting with the rebels near Balouq mountain in Serwah district, west of Marib city, on Friday. 

A local military officer, who declined to be named, told Arab News that Sha’alan was leading government troops pushing back a Houthi attack on the peak, which was claimed by government forces last week.

Several army commanders and tribal leaders have been killed since the beginning of the rebel offensive on Marib.

Yemen’s Foreign Ministry on Saturday criticized international rights groups over their failure to “name and shame” the Houthis for attacking residential areas after the densely populated city was targeted by 10 ballistic missiles in the previous 24 hours.

“Since the beginning of February, the province has come under the largest and fiercest Houthi attack in which the militia used all kinds of heavy weapons, including artillery, explosive-laden drones and ballistic missiles,” the ministry said in a statement. 

On Friday, Yemen’s Prime Minister, Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed, hailed military support from the Arab coalition to help tilt the war in the army’s favor, vowing to continue backing army troops and tribesmen until they push the Houthi out of areas under their control.

Syria strikes: Biden warns of ‘consequences’ for Iran’s militia support

Updated 27 February 2021

Syria strikes: Biden warns of ‘consequences’ for Iran’s militia support

  • Psaki told reporters Friday that Biden used his constitutional authority to defend US personnel
  • Comments follow Friday’s attack on Syria-Iraq border compound by US jets

LONDON: US airstrikes in Syria demonstrate that Iran should expect retaliation for supporting militia groups that threaten American interests, President Joe Biden has warned.
“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” he said when asked about Friday morning’s strikes on Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.
The Pentagon said the attack was carried out by two US Air Force F-15E aircraft that fired seven missiles.

The pair destroyed nine buildings used by Iran-backed militias and heavily damaged two others in eastern Syria.
Officials said the strikes were not intended to destroy the groups, but to demonstrate that the US “will act firmly” to avoid greater regional escalations.
The airstrikes were “legal and appropriate” as they “took out facilities housing valuable capabilities used by the militia groups to attack US and allied forces in Iraq,” officials said.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, the leading Republican on the Senate Committee on Armed Services, said the decision was “the correct, proportionate response to protect American lives.”
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Biden “used his constitutional authority to defend US personnel.”
She said the strikes were designed to deter future actions by Iran-backed militias following a rocket attack on Feb. 15 in Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member.
Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said the strikes resulted in “casualties,” but declined to comment on the details.
An Iraqi militia official with close links to Iran said one fighter was killed in the strike and several others wounded.
The group housed in the compound is known as Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades — an Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group sponsored by Iran.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said the strikes targeted a shipment of weapons. It reported that 22 fighters from an Iraqi umbrella group of militias were killed.
Kataeb Hezbollah confirmed that one of its fighters was killed and warned that it had the right to retaliate.


Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows

Updated 27 February 2021

Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows

  • In one of the biggest demonstrations since Tunisia’s revolution, thousands of Ennahda supporters marched in Tunis
  • The dispute has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety and disillusionment with democracy

TUNIS: Tunisia’s biggest political party assembled an immense crowd of supporters in the capital on Saturday in a show of strength that could fuel a dispute between the president and the prime minister.
In one of the biggest demonstrations since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, tens of thousands of Ennahda supporters marched through central Tunis chanting “The people want to protect institutions!” and “The people want national unity!.”
The dispute has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety, disillusionment with democracy and competing reform demands from foreign lenders and the UGTT, the powerful main labor union, as debt repayments loom.
Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party led by Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, has backed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in a standoff with President Kais Saied over a cabinet reshuffle.
Banned before the revolution, it has been a member of most governing coalitions since then and, although its share of the vote has fallen in recent years, it still holds the most seats in parliament.
“Nationalists, Islamists, democrats and communists,” Ghannouchi told the crowd, “we were gathered together during the dictatorship ... and we must unite again.”
The most recent election, in 2019, delivered a fragmented parliament while propelling Saied, an independent, to the presidency.
When the government collapsed after only five months in office, Saied nominated Mechichi as prime minister.
But they soon fell out, and Mechichi turned for support to the two biggest parties — Ennahda and jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia.
Last month, Mechichi changed 11 ministers in a reshuffle seen as replacing Saied’s allies with those of Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia. The president has refused to swear four of them in, however.
Meanwhile, demonstrators protesting last month against inequality and police abuses focused most of their anger on Mechichi and Ennahda.
Ennahda billed Saturday’s march as “in support of democracy,” but it was widely seen as an effort to mobilize popular opposition to Saied — raising the spectre of competing protest movements.
“This is a strong message that all the people want dialogue and national unity,” Fethi Ayadi, a senior Ennahda official, told Reuters.
To add to the tensions, demands by foreign lenders for spending cuts, which could lead to unpopular reductions in state programs, are opposed by the UGTT.
Tunisia’s 2021 budget forecasts borrowing needs of 19.5 billion Tunisian dinars ($7.2 billion), including about $5 billion in foreign loans.
But Tunisia’s credit rating has fallen since the coronavirus pandemic began, and market concerns about its ability to raise funds are reflected in sharp price rises for Tunisian credit default swaps — insurance against default on its debt. ($1 = 2.7 Tunisian dinars)

Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote

Updated 27 February 2021

Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote

  • It was unclear whether the vote itself would take place on March 8 or whether the meeting would be limited to talks
  • Interim PM Abdul Hamid Dbeibah on Thursday said he faced a Friday deadline to form his government according to a UN road map

TRIPOLI: The Libyan parliament will discuss holding a vote of confidence on a new unified government for the divided country on March 8, its powerful speaker Aguila Saleh said.
Oil-rich Libya has been mired in chaos since dictator Muammar Qaddafi was ousted and killed in a popular uprising backed by a NATO air campaign a decade ago.
Its Government of National Accord (GNA) is based in Tripoli, while eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar supports a parallel administration based in the east.
“Parliament will convene to discuss a vote of confidence on the government on Monday, March 8, at 11 am in Sirte if the 5+5 Joint Military Commission guarantees the security of the meeting,” Saleh said in a statement late Friday, referring to a city halfway between east and west.
The military commission is a forum bringing together five representatives from each side.
“If that proves impossible, the session will be held in the temporary seat of parliament in Tobruk at the same date and time,” he said, adding that the military committee would need to advise the parliament in advance.
It was unclear whether the vote itself would take place on March 8 or whether the meeting would be limited to talks.
Interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah on Thursday said he faced a Friday deadline to form his government according to a UN road map.
He said he had submitted to Saleh a “vision” for a cabinet line-up that would help steer Libya to elections in December, and that the names of proposed ministers would be disclosed in parliament during the confidence vote.
Parliament has 21 days to vote on the line-up, according to the road map.
Dbeibah was selected early this month in a UN-sponsored inter-Libyan dialogue, the latest internationally backed bid to salvage the country from a decade of conflict and fragmented political fiefdoms.
Saleh said Friday that Dbeibah should choose “competent people with integrity, from across the country, in order to achieve (national) consensus” for his government.
“Everyone should be represented so that (Libya) can emerge from the tunnel,” Saleh said.
If approved, a new cabinet would replace the Tripoli-based GNA, headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, and the parallel administration in the east.
The premier will then face the giant task of unifying Libya’s proliferating institutions and leading the transition up to December 24 polls.