Date
14 October 2019
Demonstrators in Baghdad gather during a curfew, after nationwide anti-government protests turned violent. Photo: Reuters
Demonstrators in Baghdad gather during a curfew, after nationwide anti-government protests turned violent. Photo: Reuters

Learning lessons from the protests

There’s a déjà vu feeling to this year’s wave of protests across the Arab world.

It’s not that this year saw the toppling of the leaders of Algeria and Sudan as a result of popular revolts, a harking back to the 2011 protests that overthrew the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

It’s that it’s the protesters in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco rather than illiberal or autocratic regimes that have learnt the lessons of 2011.

Had illiberal and autocratic leaders learnt the lessons, they would not have been taken again by surprise by mass protests, often sparked by a black swan.

Lessons learnt would have meant putting their ear to the ground, hearing the groundswell of anger and frustration boiling at the surface over lack of economic opportunity and basic services, widespread corruption that benefits the few and complicates life for the many, and a clamoring for the ability to vent those grievances.

Lesson learnt would have meant addressing those concerns before it’s too late and spills into the streets in massive votes of no-confidence in the political and economic system and its leaders.

For their part, demonstrators in Algeria and Sudan concluded from the 2011 protests that toppling a leader was the beginning, not the end, of the process.

The Sudanese and Algerian experiences, like the lessons to be learnt from the 2011 revolts, suggest that the playing field in the wake of the fall of an autocrat is striking a balance between protesters’ demands for fundamental change and the determination of elites and the military to preserve their economic interests, some degree of control of security and safeguards against being held accountable for past abuse.

What demonstrators have going for them, beyond the power of the street, is the fact that popular discontent is not the only thing that mitigates against the maintenance of the pre-protest status quo.

Countries across the Middle East and North Africa, characterized by youth bulges, can no longer evade economic reform that addresses widespread youth unemployment, the need to create large numbers of jobs, and inevitable diversification and streamlining of bloated government bureaucracies.

Algeria is a case in point. Foreign exchange reserves have dropped from US$193.6 billion in 2014 to US$72 billion in 2019. Reserves cover 13 months of imports at best in a country that imports 70 percent of what it consumes,

“If the state can no longer deliver goods and services, socio-economic discontent will rise further…. In order to avoid such a situation… the state and its citizens will have to renegotiate their relationship. In the past the state provided, and Algerians abided. This is no longer economically feasible today, nor is it what Algerians appear to want as they seek more transparency, less corruption, and better governance of Algeria’s resources,” said Algeria scholar Dalia Ghanem.

Attention in the past years since the 2011 popular Arab revolts has focussed on the consequences of the Saudi-UAE led counterrevolution that brutally rolled back protesters’ achievements in Egypt and contributed to the Iranian-backed military campaign of Houthi rebels in Yemen and the devastating subsequent military intervention in that country as well as civil wars in Syria and Libya.

Iraq, Algeria and Sudan rather than Egypt contain lessons for the future.

Mr. Al-Sisi may have ended the protests for now, but continued refusal to address grievances makes Egypt an accident waiting to happen.

The demography of protesters in Iraq proves the point. The protests could have been avoided had the Iraqi government focused on tackling corruption, ensuring the delivery of basic services, and creating jobs for university graduates and opportunities for those who returned from defeating the Islamic State to find that they were deprived of opportunities.

In Hong Kong, rather than try and mitigate the ongoing civil unrest, authorities may have made the situation worse as they invoked emergncy powers and announced a face-mask ban last Friday. 

It’s worth bearing in mind the words of a pro-democracy lawmaker, Fernando Cheung, who warned: “This is adding fuel to the fire. This will mark the beginning of riots in Hong Kong.”

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BN/RC

Senior fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer syndicated column and blog.