Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Many observers were quick to announce the failure of the 2011 uprisings known as the Arab Spring when seemingly resilient authoritarians returned to business as usual and once-inspiring revolutions descended into vicious civil wars. Off-stage, however, people across the region refused to accept defeat and insisted on imagining alternative futures by organizing and joining protests both large and small. In December 2018, the Sudanese people took to the streets in a grassroots uprising—persisting for months until the Armed Forces turned against President Omar al-Bashir and removed him from office in April 2019—making visible this simmering regional discontent and sparking a new round of mass uprisings that some have referred to as Arab Spring 2.0.

The 2019 uprisings in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, in addition to resurgent protests in Morocco and Jordan—all countries that did not experience revolutionary uprisings in 2011—extend the previous wave of revolts to the rest of the region.  But protestors are no longer content with merely toppling their unelected dictators as we saw in 2011: They are demanding a fundamental change of the entire political and economic system.  In Iraq and Lebanon, they are also rejecting the entire political class and their use of sectarianism to maintain their wealth and rule chanting “All of them means all of them!”

MERIP devotes this double issue Return to Revolution to assessing the nature and challenges confronting this new wave of uprisings through the interrelated themes of continuity, entanglement and counterrevolution.

We should see the 2019 uprisings as a continuation of 2011 because they highlight how the unresolved structural problems of authoritarianism and economic injustice at the heart of 2011 continue to produce mass resistance.  This resistance has also taken the form of diverse and resurgent protest movements that have sprouted up across Jordan since 2011, and in the small, localized protests that have mobilized tens of thousands of Algerians in the past decade. Even 2011’s lone success story, Tunisia, has seen mounting protests and anti-establishment politicians demanding to finish what they started in 2011.

The 2019 uprisings also reveal the entanglement of local contexts with regional and global structures, resistances and insidious repressive apparatuses. Not only are revolutionaries and regimes alike learning from experiences in other countries, but external states have increasingly intervened directly in the domestic politics of other regional states. While the Saudi-Iranian rivalry proved critical in shaping events in the Bahraini, Yemeni and Syrian uprisings in 2011, a variety of actors, led by Saudi Arabia, are seeking to mold outcomes in Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq. Tunisia’s functioning representative democracy has not been immune from the global populist moment, where an upstart former professor was elected president on the promise of nothing less than a social revolution. In Turkey, President Erdoğan’s assault on Rojava cannot be separated from dramatic fluctuations in the global economy.

And as with 2011, authoritarian regimes, regional elites and their sponsors will go to great lengths to prevent popular victories in 2019: They mobilize sectarianism and dire warnings about terrorism, war and economic collapse as counterrevolutionary tools for quashing dissent. The counterrevolutionary military regime in Egypt deploys trauma as a tool for social and political control. Counterrevolution is also sponsored globally, and the Trump administration has emboldened regional autocrats to crack down on dissent where it serves its interests. Russia’s reach into regional politics is only increasing, and not only in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. And the wealthy and ambitious Gulf states are flexing their muscle not only in obvious cases like Yemen, but in Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and, indeed, anywhere they feel it may have an impact.

Mass mobilizations of revolutionary ambition and proportion have returned to a region that never saw protests disappear, even in the face of repressive regimes and counterrevolutionary reaction. Protest, mobilization and the desire for change have proved enduring and will continue to shape the politics in the region for the near future.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "Return to Revolution," Middle East Report 292/3 (Fall/Winter 2019).
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