Aïcha El Alaoui is a second-year International Relations Student from Morocco. Her article examines the debate on the return of the Arab Spring in the light of the 2019 protests which took over the MENA region. Aïcha follows current affairs on a regular basis but has a special interest in the MENA region.
Iraqi Protesters have been demonstrating since October 1st, leaving 319 people dead and more than 8000 people severely injured. In Lebanon, waves of discontent are invading the streets to protest against the incompetent and corrupt government, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The initial trigger of the protests was the announcement of new taxes on cigarettes, fuel and Whatsapp calls. However, the taxes proved to be only a catalyst for a deeper frustration with sectarian rule and a persisting economic crisis. Sudan and Algeria have undergone regime changes after months of protests, culminating in the Sudanese revolution and the “Revolution of Smiles” (Hirak Movement). Dr Renad Mansour, a Middle East and North Africa Research Fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House describes the protests as “one of the largest grassroots political mobilization”.
All the uprisings in the MENA region are reminiscent of the contestation movements of 2011.
Is 2019 a new Arab Spring?
Although the protesters are located at a distance geographically, they share common demands with millions of people, especially the youth. With 60% of the region’s population under 30, political, economic and social institutions are struggling to meet the needs of the population. The new wave of uprisings is often perceived to mirror the 2011 revolutions: this claim relies on the similarity of the protesters’ demands, the rise of social movements and the usage of the slogan “Al-Shab yurid isqat al-nizam!” (The people want the fall of the regime!) which echoed in the streets during the Arab Spring.
However, differences seem to outweigh the multiple common characteristics debated: lessons have been learned and ultimately protesters are changing their strategy. The most important takeaway which seems to have come from the 2011 uprisings is the mistaken belief that the fall of dictators would solve all the deeper, underlying issues. According to the director of the Middle East Program at CSIS, protesters manifest lower confidence in the possibility of change through their lower expectations. Given the importance of social media during the Arab Spring, the encouraging enthusiasm invading the internet seems to be less present in 2019. Moreover, the long awaited fall of leaders in Sudan and Algeria did not result in the same euphoria of 2011: protestors know that their fall only signifies the beginning of the work ahead of them.
An important claim to consider lies in the very fact that the Arab Spring has actually never ended. A number of analysts believe that these uprisings shouldn’t be considered as a new Arab Spring but as “unfinished business”. The revolution of 2011 did not bring the changes longed for, partly explaining the continuing instability of the region. Protesters are still struggling to have a say in running their countries and their political landscape is leaving behind long-awaited hopes for democratization. In spite of the smaller scale and less publicized aspect of the uprisings, the Arab Spring’s lingering roots are still being felt in no shortage of places.
All in all, 2019 has not reignited an Arab Spring because the grievances of protesters were never fully addressed. While it might seem that the uprisings are mirroring 2011, the common reformatory demands do not disbar a reality of change in the very nature of the protesters’ strategy.