Ten years later, it is easy to see the Arab uprisings only as a failure. Democracy remains elusive in the Middle East, dictators are even more entrenched and wars have devastated entire countries. But amidst desperation and fear, a new cohort of protesters and activists has taken to the streets since 2019, in places like Iraq, Sudan and Lebanon. This new generation has learned a key lesson from its predecessors: a revolution can help topple a regime, but it cannot build a state. They organize themselves, learn electoral politics and laws, and plan the state they want to build, a state that serves citizens, not leaders. More importantly, they learned from the setbacks of 2011 that what awaits them is hard work, not a quick race to victory in one election.
Yet, in addition to all the usual challenges that activists and dissidents face around the world, one appears to be a major obstacle for those in the Arab world: they are chased one after another, shot in the streets or in their homes. , forcibly disappeared or thrown into prison, men and women alike. Some make international headlines, while others only cover local news. Across the Arab world and all the way to Afghanistan, a rising generation of promising new leaders and their mentors, all of whom have a role to play in shaping their country’s future, is being wiped out – and no one knows how to stop that big methodical silence.
Much of this is due to the region’s long-standing culture of impunity, encouraged in part by Western support for dictators for decades. The stability these dictators ostensibly provided, however, was an illusion, based on repression and torture, that fueled rage, extremism and migration. The leaders of the United States and Europe would respond by asking what the alternative was to the dictators, autocrats and militias in power in the Arab world. But too often, potential alternative leaders had already been killed or languished in prison. And there cannot be a ready-made, organized, progressive or liberal alternative capable of instantly emerging from the shadows of dictatorship.
As the Biden administration shapes its Middle East policy, it should pay close attention to these emerging protesters and political movements, not just as part of a human rights agenda that successive US administrations have championed. and not in an effort to promote regime change or even more revolutions, but because these protests are more like a civil rights movement: they do not simply call for revolution like the protesters did in 2011; they demand reforms, the end of corruption and sectarianism. In other words, governance, the rule of law and justice. In Iraq, the song that resonated across the country from October 2019 until the pandemic struck was “We want a nation.”
In March 2011, just after the fall of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, I traveled to Cairo with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After a morning spent visiting Tahrir Square, she sat down with the young revolutionaries who had achieved the impossible: to end the 30-year reign of an American-backed dictator. The meeting was closed to the media, but his team relayed part of the conversation to us later. Clinton asked these young Egyptians how they were preparing for the next legislative elections and was stunned by their response. They were revolutionaries, they had told him; they weren’t in politics. On the strength of their success, they were convinced that the momentum of the revolution would lead them to victory at the ballot box. Of course, they lost, first against the much better organized Muslim Brotherhood, then against the entrenched Deep State, with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi taking over in a 2013 coup.
Yet I was not surprised by their response. In the Arab world, Politics has long been a dirty word, or a death sentence. In Algeria and Iraq, Egypt and Syria, being in politics usually requires being in cahoots with the dictator; establish links with the powerful; genuflection and acquiescence to their abuse, corruption and patronage; and run on empty slogans about geopolitical battles that leave voters hungry. Anyone with integrity stays away. Those who valiantly try to change the system alone are on a chimerical mission. No one in my extended circle of friends in Lebanon is in politics, and certainly no one would have considered running for office, until recently.
In March, a workshop organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace brought together activists from the Class of 2011 and Class of 2019, from Egypt, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia and Algeria. . (I am a non-resident Principal Investigator in Carnegie but was not involved in organizing the workshop.) In a fascinating virtual discussion, group members shared their common challenges and lessons from the last decade. The new facility around panels and virtual workshops due to the pandemic has fostered increased connectivity across borders, enabled meaningful exchanges beyond what Facebook or Twitter was offering – Clubhouse, for example, is massive around the world Arabic – and allowed those facing travel bans or safety concerns to participate. The striking aspect of the conversation was the pragmatism they shared on the way forward and the fact that they all seemed to have accepted that trying to change the system from the outside, just as revolutionaries, would not work. . They have to switch, it seems, from activists to, essentially, get their hands dirty, and get into politics in the hope that if they join in enough numbers, their impact will increase and the impact will increase. stain of “dirty politics” will be erased.
They will undoubtedly work in a rigged system, everywhere. Election laws, gerrymandering and preselection of candidates favor those who are part of the system. Elections are canceled or postponed on a whim. Independent candidates are harassed. There will be other assassinations.
No party is to blame for the murders, imprisonments and repression of this new militant class in the Middle East. In Iraq and Lebanon, killings are the work of militias linked to Iran and outside of state control. During the protests in Iraq, which began in October 2019, at least 500 protesters were shot dead, some by Iraqi security forces but many by snipers and men in black masked civilian clothes. Last year at least 30 prominent activists and civil society representatives were killed in targeted assassinations blamed on Shiite militias loyal to Iran. The wave of assassinations in Lebanon dates further back, starting in 2005 with a systematic effort to target progressive thinkers, politicians and journalists, effectively beheading an emerging political leadership that could present a viable alternative after years of Syrian occupation. and questioning the role of Iran and its local allies, Hezbollah. The assassinations continue to this day. Even if it wanted to, the United States couldn’t protect every militant from potential assassins in a country like Iraq or Lebanon.
Elsewhere, under more dictatorial regimes like those in Syria and Egypt, violence and enforced disappearances are primarily the work of the state, although in areas beyond Bashar al-Assad’s control in Syria, whoever represents a challenge for the Islamist militias who control territory was also killed or kidnapped. Egypt has become a republic of fear under Sisi, with 60,000 political prisoners languishing in prison, including secular activists and Islamist thinkers, as well as journalists, former lawmakers, men and women, young and old. .
The search for responsibility requires a different path in each case. In Iraq and Lebanon, attacking militias is almost impossible unless the state finds a way to assert its authority. Pursuing justice in countries with corrupt justice systems is an exercise in frustration, so that people resort to courts outside the Arab world, either under the principle of universal jurisdiction or linked to citizenship or residence. of the accused.
And yet, all of these efforts to build governance and the contours of future post-autocratic states will be in vain unless Washington reframes its vision of the region and its understanding of what can bring lasting stability, by prioritizing responsibility with governments. partners and enemies while defending the non-individual protesters but the movement for civil rights and governance concepts. The Biden administration will understandably be wary of a repeat of the 2011 upheaval, but so are people in the Middle East.
But there are reasons to be hopeful. Changes to electoral laws in Iraq, for example, could lead to small victories for young reformist candidates in the October parliamentary elections. During the Carnegie workshop, Mohammad Ilwiya, a dentist in Najaf who is active in the protests, described the formation of new national and non-sectarian political parties, bringing together Iraqis from across the country and a sectarian divide, potentially generating a new enthusiasm and greater voter turnout.
In Lebanon, at least a dozen new opposition groups from years of protests are actively preparing for parliamentary elections scheduled for next year. While they still struggle to present a united front against a corrupt and entrenched political establishment made up in part of former warlords and Hezbollah, their effervescence is promising and includes the very first effort of some sort of committee of political action in the Middle East, Towards One Nation, which hopes to help bring together opposition groups, support candidates and mobilize voters, while raising funds in Lebanon and across the Diaspora to support the campaigns.
Sudan, the most successful example of the class’s achievements of 2019, will hold elections next summer. Although progress is still imperfect and tenuous, the transitional civil-military government introduced rapid and remarkable changes, including the repeal of 30 years of Islamic law, thus separating religion and state, and appointing the first woman chief justice of the country. Although Sudan did not organize protests in 2011, the Sudanese protesters who took to the streets in 2018 and overthrew Omar al-Bashir were part of the larger process of change in the region, drawing lessons from previous revolutions . In a recent online forum, activists in Lebanon spoke with Sudanese revolutionaries to learn from their experience.
During the Carnegie discussion, Zine Labidine Ghebouli, a young Algerian scholar currently at the University of Glasgow, oscillated between disappointment that the 2019 protests have yet to come to fruition and hope that this is the start of a process.
“Street pressure could force the state to make concessions, but that won’t change the system,” he said. “We have too often waited for the solution to come from outside in Algeria and perhaps also in other Arab countries. But it won’t and we don’t need it. If we are able to demand freedom, we are able to build our nations. But in order to do that, they will first have to stay alive.