Editor's Note: This post was originally posted on the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) blog.
Recent images of hundreds of thousands of citizens marching peacefullythrough Algerian streets demanding the resignation of their autocratic ruler offer an unmistakable and powerful analog to the 2011 Arab uprisings. The ailing and out-of-touch 82-year-old Algerian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika seeking a fifth presidential term in a country where 70 percent of the population is under age 30 brings to mind an oblivious Hosni Mubarak tragically misreading the seriousness of the first gatherings against him in Tahrir Square. Like Mubarak, who first tried to placate young Egyptians by promising to step down “later,” Bouteflika’s advisors beggar belief by claiming that their man—rarely seen in public over the past five years—will step down after he is “reelected” yet again.
But Algeria is only the latest country in the Arab world to manifest the symptoms of deep political malaise and corresponding public discontent. Across the region, anger over the arrogance and impunity of political, military, and economic elites and over persistent governance failures, exacerbated by audacious corruption and extravagant state spending, are reminiscent of the restive mood in 2010 and early 2011.
In Sudan, an unprecedented eleven straight weeks of street protestagainst Omar al-Bashir’s authoritarian rule have seen the long-time leader step down from his ruling party post, but not from the presidency. Sudanese opposition leaders are demanding talks on a full transition of power even as al-Bashir’s government has declared a state of emergency and is aggressively stifling speech and assembly.
In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime is squandering a reported $45 billion on building a new capital city that few believe should be a priority—especially while public infrastructure crumbles, endangering the lives of ordinary Egyptians. Just one example is the deteriorating railway system, which experiences an average of 1,100 crashes a year; the latest accident, on February 27 in Cairo, caused at least 25 deaths and 50 injuries. Simultaneously, al-Sisi is trying to impose constitutional amendments that would let him rule through 2034 and otherwise enhance his autocratic powers. There is scant evidence of even a modicum of public support for his brazen move.
In Jordan, hundreds of young people in late February walked 120 milesfrom the southern city of Ma’an to the capital Amman to demand jobs and an end to corruption, braving record cold temperatures and pounding rain to express their frustration with the status quo. Meanwhile, more than 200 government officials and business representatives traveled to London to attend a conference on Jordan’s worsening economic strains and debt crisis. While Jordanians might back such efforts to drum up economic support, the symbolism of the large elite delegation temporarily escaping Jordan’s harsh weather—and political reality—was probably not lost on the protestors.
In Morocco, thousands of teachers and their supporters converged on the capital Rabat on February 20—the anniversary of the start of the kingdom’s 2011 protest movement—demanding better pay and benefits but also chanting for the “end of dictatorship.” Demonstrations in the Rif region also continue apace, demanding fairness for the traditionally marginalized northern reaches of the country.
In Saudi Arabia, the government announced on March 2 that the country’s leading women’s rights activists will be put on trial for undermining “the security and stability of the kingdom.” This move came as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman continues to tout himself as a reformer and modernizer. It seems unlikely that Saudi Arabia will experience large protests. But the majority Shi’a Eastern Province continues to simmer. And Saudi citizens are the Arab world’s most voracious users of social media, a fact that will make it more difficult for the increasingly authoritarian crown prince to control public opinion.
There are many other signs of popular discontent. Widespread and violent unrest in southern Iraq subsided during the winter, but the country is bracing for a new wave of protests when the scorching summer heat will likely put a spotlight on lack of electricity, dwindling water supplies, and pervasive corruption 16 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Many fear a repeat of last year’s protests in Basra in which the provincial government buildings and several party headquarters were set ablaze.
In Tunisia, the lack of jobs for college graduates and the continuing underdevelopment of the interior region threatens to derail that country’s significant democratic progress. In Lebanon, an acute garbage disposal crisis that started in 2015 continues unabated as officials haggle over resources and who is responsible for the mess. And the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to impose a new social security tax last November prompted violent protests that culminated in the resignation of the government in late January. With both reconciliation between the West Bank and Gaza and viable peace talks with Israel looking increasingly remote, public disapproval of Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership has been growing.
As a long-time practitioner of democracy assistance across the Arab world, I am wary of making predictions or broad generalizations about a part of the world that is so complicated. The peoples of the region are long-suffering and resilient and long ago gave up hope that their leaders would voluntarily pursue genuine political renewal or accountability. But as earlier uprisings demonstrated, and as the latest protests show us once again, many citizens are very sensitive to rulers’ flagrant violations of human dignity and expressions of contempt for the common person.
While not wishing to be alarmist, I can attest to the parallels between 2010 and 2019. In trips over the past few months to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, and Tunisia, the deep dissatisfaction with the status quo expressed by political activists echoes what I heard in the years right before the 2011 uprisings, when most foreign diplomats and experts dismissed the region as immune to change. In a National Democratic Institute (NDI) poll conducted in late 2018, the number of Iraqis describing their country as heading in “the wrong direction” was the highest since the apex of the Islamic State crisis in 2016. Recent NDI focus groups and polls in Tunisia and Lebanon show that citizens want reform, but are deeply skeptical about their leaders’ ability to deliver and worried that economic prosperity is out of reach.
But all is not bleak. There are rays of hope for better governance in the region. Halting reform efforts are underway in some places. Some political figures in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia are trying to liberalize their politics and economies, and civil society groups and youth form a vanguard pushing from the bottom up for more and faster progress. Each of these countries has room for debate, some freedom of speech, and political institutions that—while far from perfect—can absorb and react to some of the demands for change. Unlike the most rigid authoritarian regimes, such as Egypt’s, which may appear stable but ultimately will prove brittle and unsustainable, these slowly liberalizing countries may have enough political flexibility to manage this latest wave of regional discontent—should their leaders grasp the import of the moment.
But I worry whether these leaders—and the international community—even comprehend the desire of many of the region’s citizens for change. Western democracies, particularly the United States, no longer even pay lip service to the need for democratic progress. Western policies today revolve entirely around short-sighted notions of “security,” based on the false hope that authoritarianism, repression, and military campaigns will lead to stability. The need for citizens’ meaningful involvement in public life, or even the idea that the people of the region should have a say in decisions that affect them, is barely considered in the Western policy equation, if at all.
As part of this narrow vision, U.S. “allies” Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are entrusted with carrying out Western security priorities. International actors no longer offer any incentives for them to make progress on democratic governance. Instead, gross violations of democratic norms and human rights continue apace. Even as hundreds of thousands take to the streets in frustration, the reaction from the international community is basically silence.
It is hard to know exactly what the future holds, but citizens of the Arab world are proving once again that they are more than pawns, more than subjects awaiting orders from their masters. They want respect, a fair share of their countries’ resources, and a say in policies that influence their lives. It may be out of fashion to call for democracy in the region, but popular demands in Khartoum and Algiers and so many other cities sound an awful lot like a yearning for real participation, expanded political rights, and more transparent and less corrupt government. Surely we can get behind that, as we acknowledge that the demands of 2011—and from well before then—remain unanswered.